A Travellerspoint blog

Down and Out in Paris (and London)

snow -5 °C
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I'd finally reached the end of my trip and climbed onto the plane, looking forward to a relatively quick overnight hope via Paris to home, back in the UK in time for lunch on Saturday. Unfortunately the weather gods had other ideas, and we landed in Paris just as the snow descended on Heathrow. I'd got talking to Sarah, the girl sitting next to me on the flight, as we left the plane in Paris and it turned out we were both on the same flight to London, so we headed over to the gate together. We arrived to find our flight was delayed, and checking online (the advantage of being with someone with a laptop!), the news seemed to suggest that Heathrow had been closed due to the extreme snowfall.

Of course, nobody could tell us anything, so all we could do was wander round the airport, heading back to the gate every hour or so to see if there was any change. By lunchtime, it was clear Heathrow was closed, and our only chance of getting home that day was if the snow magically cleared by 5pm. All we could do was wait, as the snow arrived in France and turned the world outside white. Eventually, the flight was formally cancelled about 5.30pm, and we had to then queue for a couple of hours to get vouchers for food and allocated a hotel for the night. I was really glad to have some company - both for someone to talk to, but also because it made life so much easier if one person could queue whilst the other tried to find out what was going on. Whilst feeling sorry for ourselves, some of the others in the queue made us seem pretty well off. Worst was a young couple with a 3 year old and 6 month old sons. The husband was South African, and they were returning from visiting his family out there. At one point, they were being told that his wife and children could leave the airport and stay in a hotel, but he would have to stay, as he didn't have a French visa! This was all too much for her, and the tears started flowing. Fortunately they seemed to managed to sort it out, but still the thought of enduring this with small children made me feel a lot better off.

Sarah enjoying our first queue

Sarah enjoying our first queue

Eventually we got to the front of the queue and were given vouchers for food and allocated a hotel for the night. After grabbing a bite to eat, we finally left the departures lounge for the first time that day, exiting into the freezing cold. At this point I started to really regret not planning better - all I had packed in my carry-on was one fleece, so I was wearing lightweight shoes, lightweight trekking trousers, a shirt and one fleece whilst standing in the freezing cold snow, which was still falling heavily. Quite a rude introduction to Europe! Eventually they found a bus to take us all to the hotel , where we finally arrived about 9.30pm. We'd got chatting to a couple of others on the bus, and after dropping our stuff in our (surprisingly nice) hotel rooms, we headed out in the snow to find somewhere for a beer. Several hours later, we were rolling around in a random bar, being plied with free beer by the friendly, but slightly strange barman.

Our hotel

Our hotel

Eventually, we got to bed, waking up the next morning with stonking hangovers, which plenty of hot coffee and croissants could only partially alleviate. Our bus taking us back to the airport was delayed by the snow, and at least a couple of people had already missed their flights by the time it arrived at 10.00am. We slipped and slid our way back to the airport through a winter wonderland, thankfully making it without getting stuck. Sarah's parents actually lived in France, so she had decided to do the sensible thing and abandon her attempts to get back to London and go straight to them. I said goodbye, then spent the rest of the day in an interminable set of queues running round the airport. My flight had already been cancelled, and there was virtually no information about what was happening or where to go. As I didn't even have a mobile, I had no way of getting info either, which was incredibly frustrating. Eventually, after almost 10 hours of queuing, I made it to the front desk, where they managed to put me on a flight early the next morning.

The next morning

The next morning

Chaos in the terminal

Chaos in the terminal

I had been looking forward to a nice night in another hotel, so was somewhat dismayed to be told that they only provided one night, so I was on my own. By this time it was past 10.00pm, and as I had to be back at 6.30 the next morning, there seemed no point even trying to to leave. So, like countless others, I settled down to an uncomfortable night on the terminus floor. Dinner was half an abandoned ham and cheese baguette and I managed to get hold of a couple of cardboard boxes, which became my mattress, and a single blanket, which kept me from freezing. Still, I've had better night's sleep.

The next morning I was up early, cautiously optimistic that surely Heathrow would have opened by now, even though the snow was still falling in Paris. Unfortunately, my hopes were dashed and by 8.00am my flight had been first delayed, then cancelled. By this time I'd given up hope of getting a flight for a couple more days, and couldn't face another soul-destroying day of queueing. I'd managed to briefly speak to my parents the night before, and they'd suggested that getting the ferry from Calais was a possible alternative. So I abandoned my luggage and set off with nothing but the clothes on my back for one final epic adventure.

A snowy airport

A snowy airport

The first leg involved catching a TGV to Lille - amazingly it even departed on time, although by the time it arrived at Lille it was an hour late and I'd missed my connection to Calais. By now,, I'd bumped into quite a few other Brits trying to do the same thing, so we milled around Lille station trying to figure out what our options were, as almost all the trains were now delayed or cancelled. Eventually, after an hour or so of standing there shivering (still regretting my lack of clothing), we were told to cross Lille to another station, where after another hour of standing around, a train left that was supposed to get us halfway to Calais. This train dropped us off at a tiny little place in the middle of nowhere, and we were all seriously worried about whether we'd ever make it to Calais. Fortunately another train did come along and we all jumped on, feeling pretty relieved to have at least made it as far as Calais.

It was 7.30pm by the time we arrived, and a train full of Brits poured off into the street, trying to figure out how to get to the ferry terminal. It seemed that buses were somewhere between rare and non-existent, so the majority of us decided to walk the mile and a half through the snow to the terminal. If nothing else, at least it kept me warm! Nobody knew how many ferries there would be, or if they would be fully booked, so there was a bit of a mad dash just in case there were only a few places left. Fortunately, there turned out to be loads of room, and after buying our tickets we all stumbled into the waiting room, flooded with relief that finally I was going to make it back into the country.

The crossing passed quickly; I just collapsed in a chair and dozed, feeling slightly bemused at being back in a fully English-speaking environment for the first time in 6 months. We docked in Dover at 9.30, and I stepped off the boat to set foot in England on day 195 of my travels, not quite how I'd expected, but still a good feeling. Amazingly, a heroic bus driver had opted to keep on working late past the normal time the buses stop running to take us to the station just in time to jump on the last train to London.

I'd already got much further in one day than I'd dared hope, but I knew there was no chance of getting back to my parents that night, so hopped on the last tube to my friend George's flat, hoping I'd be able to get hold of him. The frustration of travelling without a mobile was really kicking in - I had no way of contacting anyone or even have any numbers to use with a pay phone, and had to rely on being able to wake George up at 12.30am. Unfortunately, he was fast asleep, and my frantic buzzing on his intercom was put down to a dream/drunken students, leaving me stuck in the street. My last hope was my other friends Rowan and Ali, who I was living with before I went away. So after a taxi ride across London, I was ringing on their doorbell, praying for an answer. Fortunately, they have a ground floor flat, and a combination of doorbell and banging on their window managed to get their attention, and they sleepily and somewhat confused let me in and gave me a bed for the first time in 52 hours (thanks guys, I still owe you!).

The next morning I awoke feeling slightly less exhausted and, after finally making contact with my parents, completed the last leg of my fairly epic journey, travelling down to Surrey and a final reunion with the family. The whole trip took about 90 hours, compared to the 20 or so it should have and certainly made for a slightly more exciting ending to the whole journey than I had anticipated!

Posted by Davelanky 13.02.2011 02:20 Archived in France Comments (1)

The last few days

sunny 30 °C
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I arrived in Buenos Aires to a slightly strange feeling of deja vue, stepping out onto the main street just as I had 180 days earlier, although the temperature was at least 15 degrees hotter this time! I met back up with Boaz, Jeroen and Bear from Patagonia, and was looking forward to a few days of partying before I had to come home. My first night lived up to expectations, first a nice steak dinner with almost all of the guys from the Navimag ferry/Patagonia, which was enlivened by a crash right outside the restaurant. Fortunately we had a doctor amongst us, so Sandra got to race outside and help out until the ambulance arrived, whilst we sat inside and stuffed ourselves with meat. Then we headed back to the hostel for a couple of hours of partying there, before eventually (at 2.00am!) heading off to a crazy club called club 69, where we danced the night away. I eventually made it back to the hostel at 7.00am, just in time to fall into bed for a couple of hours kip.

Friday dawned to heavy rain and cold temperatures, not what I was expecting from BA in the middle of summer. Boaz and Jeroen had spent the previous day trying to persuade me to come to an Armin van Buueren gig that night (a huge Dutch DJ for those of you wondering). After spending the whole morning umming and erring, I finally decided to go for it, and rushed out to get my ticket. The rest of the day was spent pottering around, hoping the rain would clear and recovering from the previous night. After pizza at the hostel we headed out to the venue, a vast semi-outdoor arena, fortunately with a roof. Things had already started when we got there, but the atmosphere soon reached fever pitch as the arena filled up and the music volume played. The gig started with Armin playing from behind a screen for the first hour, with a succession of guest singers and dancers keeping us entertained. Soon it was time for Armin to appear - the huge screen disappeared and here he was behind a vast mixing desk. The next few hours flew by as we bounced along to a series of amazing tunes and all too soon we were making our weary way back to the hostel for an early night (well 3.00am so better than last night!).

The warm-up

The warm-up

Armin unveils himself to an ecstatic crowd

Armin unveils himself to an ecstatic crowd

enjoying the gig

enjoying the gig

The next day we were up in decent time ready to head to Uruguay for a couple of days. We caught the ferry across to Colonia, then straight onto a bus to the capital, Montevideo. The sun was shining when we set off, but by the time we'd reached the hostel it had clouded over and started pouring with rain again, with a forecast of at least a couple more days of rain. This completely ruined my plans for a few days on the beaches of Uruguay topping up my tan, so we replanned and decided to stay another day in Montevideo. The rest of the day was spent hiding from the rain before heading our for another night of partying. We managed to befriend a group of local girls and spent the night dancing away, staggering home yet again at 6.00am.

Getting in the Christmas spirit

Getting in the Christmas spirit

The next day dawned grey and cold (just 10 degrees!), but at least the rain cleared up by mid-morning. Our first destination was the Estadio Centenario, host of the very first football World Cup in 1930 and now home to a really interesting museum. I hadn't even known the world cup was hosted here, let alone that Uruguay were the best team in the world in the 1920's and 30's, winning two olympic golds as well as the first world cup. It was fascinating to walk round the stadium and the museum.

Estadio Centenario

Estadio Centenario

The Uruguayan team from the 30's

The Uruguayan team from the 30's

Afterwards we went for a wander round the city, which I can't say particularly caught my imagination -a mostly grey and fairly uninspiring place (though the weather didn't help).

A fountain in Montevideo- Legend has it if couples leave a lock attached their love will remain strong forever

A fountain in Montevideo- Legend has it if couples leave a lock attached their love will remain strong forever

Main square in Montevideo

Main square in Montevideo

The guys think about forming a boy band

The guys think about forming a boy band

The next morning, we were up early to catch a bus back to Colonia del Sacramento, a beautiful little town on the waterfront opposite Buenos Aires. The town was founded by the Portugese in about 1680; either to keep an eye on the Spanish in Argentina, or to aid smuggling, depending on who you believe. The town changed hands between the Portugese and Spanish numerous times over the next 140 years before becoming formally part of Brazil in 1816. Fortunately it has retained most of its colonial architecture and is a beautiful place filled with tree lined roads and gorgeous houses.

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Views of Colonia

Views of Colonia

The sun had returned and we had a lovely day exploring the city, culminating in a delicious dinner on the waterfront with a spectacular sunset as a backdrop. This was slightly tinged with sadness as I knew it was probably the last sunset of the trip, but at least I went out with a good one.

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last sunset of the trip

last sunset of the trip

The next day we headed back to BA, for my last four days of the trip. We had one final day together, culminating in one last steak dinner and then a slightly random night at a club mostly occupied by breakdancers having a dance-off. The others all headed off in different directions the next morning, so we said our final goodbyes and I was left on my own for the first time in quite a while.

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Docklands in BA

Docklands in BA

I took advantage of this to get on a street art tour of BA. This was brilliant- there is a long history of street art as a form of protest in Argentina, starting during the rule of the military junta in the 1970's, but resurgent following the financial crisis of 2003. There is now a group of artists who decorate blank walls all over the city, aiming to amuse and entertain more than protest these days. A lot of them are professional graphic artists or have done fine art degrees, and the quality of the work is amazing. The three hour tour flew by, ending at a bar/gallery run by some of the artists. They were hosting an end of year show and I managed to pick up a really cool little piece as a memento. That night involved yet another night of partying, though I was tucked up in bed by 3.00am, an early bed compared to what I was getting used to.

Dog walkring in BA

Dog walkring in BA

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Amazing street art in Buenos Aires

Amazing street art in Buenos Aires

The next day, my final full day in BA, was spent trying to soak up as much sun as possible, whilst wandering around enjoying the views for the last time. I had met up with Lexie and Kat, a couple of girls from the hostel and we had a nice afternoon walking round some of the parks and the Japanese gardens. That evening we went to what was supposed to be a tango show at a restaurant, which was one of the few things left on my list of things to do. Unfortunately it turned out to be just a singer, although she was very good, singing some traditional and very evocative songs. Afterwards, I headed back to the hostel, for a couple of hours of taking the piss out of any Australians I could find over the cricket (we were winning at that point), before heading out for a final night at club 69.

Beautiful trees in Palermo

Beautiful trees in Palermo

Lexie and Kat enjoying the Japanese Gardens

Lexie and Kat enjoying the Japanese Gardens

Noelia Moncada

Noelia Moncada

Crazy live show at club 69

Crazy live show at club 69

The next day I didn't have time for much other than a bit of shopping and a last wander round Palermo, one of the nicest neighbourhoods in BA. One final delicious meal, then it was time to head for the airport and what should have been a brief flight home.......

Posted by Davelanky 30.01.2011 11:43 Archived in Argentina Comments (0)

The Final Stretch part 1

The steaks are high, but why wine?

sunny 30 °C
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My flight landed in Santiago and I left the airport in temperatures of 25 degrees plus and the feeling of the sun on my face, a great sensation after nearly four weeks of mostly being cold and windswept down in Patagonia. I only had 24 hours in Santiago, which I spent revisiting a few areas I'd been to before and just enjoying the warmth. I also encountered my first reminder it was almost Christmas, with a huge tree under construction in the main square. It was a weird feeling to be there in the warmth thinking about Christmas, but at least I didn't have to listen to annoying songs for the next few weeks in every shop and restaurant, unlike in London!

Comedy sculpture at the airport

Comedy sculpture at the airport

First signs of Christmas

First signs of Christmas

Views from the centre of town

Views from the centre of town

The next day I caught the bus to Mendoza; a 7hr trip that took most of the day. We passed through the vineyards of Chile, before heading into the mountains and crossing over some spectacular mountain passes. I had a particular feeling of deja vue at one point when I was conftonted by exactly the same view I had admired on my friends Ali and Rowan's blog, back when I was first planning my trip (although their picture was better than mine!). We caught just a brief glimpse of Aconcagua as we crossed the border and soon started descending towards Mendoza, passing through yet more vineyards as we did so.

deja view (pun intended)

deja view (pun intended)

Aconcagua from afar

Aconcagua from afar

I'd chosen to stay in a popular place called the Damajuana Hostel in the party area of town, and was welcomed in by the offer of a BBQ at the hostel, my first for ages. This turned out to be huge, with a ridiculous amount of meat chucked on the grill, definitely a good way to be welcomed back to Argentina.

BBQ!

BBQ!

After another night out and a few hours sleep, I was up bright and early for my biking wine tour. This was something I had been looking forward to for ages, and was one of the main reasons I had chosen to head back to Buenos Aires via Mendoza. I'd joined up with a few others from the hostel for the day, so we had a nice mix of people. We were picked up and taken out to the main wine growing region, where we were dropped off at Bikes and Wine, our tour organiser. Here we were plied with water (not a bad thing afer the night before and seeing that the temperature was in the mid 30's) and briefed on the wineries we could visit. Once settled on a route we pedalled off, cycling to the end of the valley before working our way more slowly back to the shop. Once out of the town, the route was a beautiful quiet road, shaded by huge, old trees, and with views over the green vineyards to the mountains beyond. It was all very lovely, and a great way to start the day.

The sign says it all!

The sign says it all!

Off we go!

Off we go!

Our first stop was a small boutique winery called Carinae, where we were given a quick tour and a tasting of some not bad Malbecs. Then it was straight across the road to an olive oil producer, where we had another tour and then got to line our stomachs with oil and bread in preparation for the rest of the day's drinking. Another ten minutes on the bike and we were at our third stop . This was one of the oldest and most traditional wineries, and we wrere shown the original brick vats from over 100 years ago. These are now a historic listed structure, partly due to their innovative double tank system, where the wine was first fermented in the top of the tank, then decanted using gravity into a separate lower compartment. We were also shown some of their more prestigious wines, including one which is only made in particularly good years in limited quantities (around 3000 bottles), with each bottle individually signed and numbered. Amazingly it ony cost £20, and I was seriously tempted to get a couple if it hadn't been for the challenge of trying to transport them. Unfortuntaely we weren't allowed to taste these, but still got to enjoy some nice glasses.

The select vintage

The select vintage

The historic vats

The historic vats

By now it was almost 3 o'clock, so we moved on to the next winery where we stopped for lunch. This was a much more hi-tech affair, with a brand new bodega filled with gleaming stainless steel and with a beautiful rooftop terrace restaurant overlooking the vineyards. We had a very nice meal (with a bottle of wine of course), enjoying the views and the sun. Suddenly we realised that it was past 4.30 already though, and our next and final winery shut at 5.00. We raced down to the bikes and pedalled off frantically, but after a couple of wrong turns arrived to a pair of locked gates at 5.05. Frustrating ly that meant the end of the wine tasting, so after a quick stop at a chocolate shop (for the girls), we pedalled back to Bikes and Wine, where we were treated to another couple of glasses. The journey home almost became a farce when it turned out the buses would only let us on with the correct change but nobody had any and there was nowhere to get any (change is notoriously scarce in Argentina for some reason and often people refuse to sell you things if you don't have exact change!). Fortunately after several buses rejected us and a big argument with the driver of the next bus, a friendly local let us use her swipe card and pay her back en masse.

Hooray for wine!

Hooray for wine!

Our lunch stop

Our lunch stop

The next day turned out to be a bank holiday, somewhat unfortunately as I had a replacement bank card sent out from England to the HSBC branch here, and I was planning to collect it on that day, doh. I spent the day wandering roudn the centre of town, which was incredibly quiet, with wide boulevards lined with trees providing welcome shade frrm the heat. I stopped for what was probably my best steak on the trip, sitting outside with a half bottle of red and enjoying the atmosphere- definitely a lifestyle I could get used to! After a couple of hours chilling back at the hostel and enjoying the pool, I headed of to catch the overnight bus to Buenos Aires.

mmm, steak and wine!

mmm, steak and wine!

As it was my last long bus ride of the trip, I had treated myself to an Executive class seat, so got to enjoy a fully reclining leather seat, three course meal with champagne and wine and last but by no means least, Andesmar bingo! I got a fairly decent night's sleep and pulled into Buenos Aires feeling fairly refreshed and ready for a last few days of partying....

Posted by Davelanky 26.01.2011 11:37 Archived in Chile Tagged chile argentina wine drinking winery cycle Comments (0)

Still in Patagonia

Ice cubes and penguins

overcast 5 °C
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We were all knackered after our exertions in Torres del Paine, and treated ourselves to a nice relaxed day of R&R in Puerto Natales, with an extra treat of dinner at Afrigonia, a delicious fusion of traditional Patagonian and African flavours and generally rated as the best restaurant in town.

The next day we headed Northeast into Argentina to El Calafate, a small town overflowing with tacky gift shops and not much else. We were here for one thing only though; the Perito Moreno glacier, one of the most spectacular natural wonders in the world. Unfortunately our good weather karma had apparently been completely used up in Torres del Paine, and we were bused out to the glacier in complete white-out, which meant I spent the journey worrying about whether I would get any photos at all. We arrived at our first stop, the main lookout point, in a snow storm, but despite this we could at least see the glacier.

Our first view of the glacier

Our first view of the glacier

Some of the ice floating around

Some of the ice floating around

The Perito Moreno glacier is one of only three in Patagonia that is actually growing, for reasons that aren't fully understood but clearly are related to the huge amounts of snow dumped at the head of the glacier. It is also unique in that the face of the glacier is in contact with a spur of land in the middle of Lago Argentino. This not only provides an amazing viewpoint incredibly close to the face of the glacier, but also means that every so often the glacier forms a dam between the two sides of the lake as it grows. This gradually causes the water level to rise on one side of the lake, until there can be a height difference of as much as 30m! This eventually results in the increased water pressure causing a spectacular collapse of the ice forming the dam, which can happen every few years, the last time in 2008 (click here for a video of one collapse).

Panoramic from the viewpoint

Panoramic from the viewpoint

We didn't get to see that, but still were pretty awestruck by the views. Sadly we couldn't hang around, so after a quick coffee to warm up, we were herded down to the water's edge for a quick ferry ride across the lake. We had signed up for the "Big Ice" tour, which involved trek right onto the glacier. After a brief introduction we were all led up the side of the glacier, just as the sun came out for the one and only time that day and giving me the opportunity to fire off a few shots (annoyingly I later realised most of them were trashed by raindrops on my lens, doh).

View from the shore

View from the shore

It took almost an hour to hike up the side of the glacier, through the forest with views of the ice peeking out through the trees. Finally we reached forward base camp, where we were issued harnesses and crampons, then led onto the ice proper. Amazingly, although we could still see the sun shining on the end of the glacier, we were standing in a blizzard, which came and went over the next few hours. Frustratingly this meant that the ice was covered in snow, which prevented us experiencing the ethereal blue light I'd seen in other's photos. We trekked towards the centre of the glacier, stopping at various sink holes where water plunged down incredibly blue holes deep into the ice below - not somewhere you'd like to slip!

Glimpse of the glacier through the trees

Glimpse of the glacier through the trees

Water pouring down a sinkhole

Water pouring down a sinkhole

We stopped for lunch by a stunning blue pool, before eventually retracing our steps back to the edge of the glacier and then down to the lake. Ultimately we all felt frustrated by the experience, which whilst incredible, was somewhat spoilt by the weather and seemed extremely expensive - the $200 was as much as I paid for 5 days trekking in Colombia! A complimentary glass of whisky served with 1000 year old ice form the glacier helped to put a shine on things though, and I still managed to grab a few OK photos.

Our lunch stop

Our lunch stop

Amazing light in the ice

Amazing light in the ice

White-out!

White-out!

Nice bit of whisky to finish

Nice bit of whisky to finish

The next morning I said farewell to the few of us remaining from the Torres trip and headed back to Puerto Natales, stopping there for a day to relax and take a few photos of the town. There are lots of really beautiful, colourful old buildings, some a bit ramshackle but mostly in a pretty good state of repair.

Building in Puerto Natales

Building in Puerto Natales

The next day I moved on to Punta Arenas, the southern-most point of my trip as sadly I didn't have the time to make it all the way to Ushuaia. Punta Arenas is a modern, medium sized town, with most of it's income coming from oil reserves, although it has now become an important link to the Falklands whilst Argentina is being difficult. Bizarrely, the night I arrived I went out to the local casino for drinks with a few people I met, and ended up having a beer with the British ambassador to Chile, who was down in Punta Arenas for a few days on business relating to the Falklands apparently. The next day I enjoyed two of the areas main attractions - the main cemetery, which is similar (although a little less impressive) to Recoletta in Buenos Aires.

The seafront in Punta Arenas

The seafront in Punta Arenas

Budget tombs in the cemetery

Budget tombs in the cemetery

In the afternoon I was looking forward to the main event - heading out to Isla Magdalena - an island a few hours sail away which is famous for its penguin colonies. Unfortunately at the very last minute the ferry was cancelled due to bad weather, so I had to make do with a trip to Seno Otway, a slightly smaller pinguinera on the mainland.

It was still a great experience - we walked along a series of wooden walkways through the dunes, until we spotted our first little black and white head peeking out through the grass. Soon we were spotting loads, often waddling around in comedy lines of four or five. They were incredibly cute and really funny to watch - it may be a cliche but they really do look like tiny little waiters the way they toddle about on their back legs!

First sighting!

First sighting!

Up close and personal

Up close and personal

Rush hour

Rush hour

Who's watching whom?

Who's watching whom?

Chilling on the beach

Chilling on the beach

Soon it was time to leave, and after a quiet night back in town, watching the cricket updates in an internet cafe until the early hours, I was up early for my flight back to Santiago, and some well-deserved warm weather, which can wait for the next episode.

Posted by Davelanky 24.01.2011 11:37 Archived in Chile Comments (0)

In Patagonia

Epic adventures in the deep South

all seasons in one day 5 °C
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I arrived in Puerto Natales, fortunate enough to have found a great group of people on the Navimag who were all keen to do the W trek in Torres del Paine. A 24 hour stop over in town gave us enough time to make plans, hire kit, buy food and generally psyche ourselves up for 5 days of pretty hard walking. We went to a fantastic briefing session at Erratic Rock (a fantastic hostel), which gave us loads of useful information on the hike, together with the occasional slightly worrying nugget ("the first time I did the hike I got blown over loads of times" and "don't bother wearing waterproofs as you'll get soaked but then dry out in minutes as it's so windy").

Map showing the "W" route

Map showing the "W" route

By the next evening, we were just about ready - the ten of us off the boat had split into 2 groups, five crazy people choosing to try and do most of the route in 3 days, whilst the rest of us decided on the more normal five days. Our five had also grown with the addition of several new faces; Brian- an American we had met in Puerto Natales, Ben and Murray- friends of Boaz and Jeroen (the Dutch pilots) from earlier on their trip and, last but by no means least, Fredericka- a French girl who'd met Ben and Murray on the bus. Fortunately I was the only one with a space in my tent, so had to accommodate Freddy, which was obviously a great disappointment! Dinner that evening was the first opportunity to actually sit down together and get to know everyone - fortunately it soon became clear that everyone was going to get on and it looked like being a great trip.

We were up early the next morning to catch the bus for the 3 hour trip into the park, a journey that most of spent grabbing a last few winks of sleep. We arrived in the park to some stunning views of the mountains rising vertically out of the plains, with cotton wool clouds floating in the blue sky.

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Our first views of Torres del Paine

Our first views of Torres del Paine

It all looked incredibly peaceful, until we got off the bus and were hit by ferocious gusts of wind which knocked us sideways. It was so windy the water was being blown into a mist which covered the lake surface and sprayed us with water, something I've never seen before. Our first task was to cross the lake by catamaran, a journey which was an experience in itself, with the boat being buffeted by the waves. We made it safely to the other side and, pulling on our large and heavy (about 17kg) packs, set off. The first couple of hours were spent walking up a pretty valley, mostly sheltered from the worst of the wind, enabling us to enjoy the stunning views of the azure blue lake we'd just crossed and the mountains beyond.

Looking back to the lake

Looking back to the lake

A wind-swept tree

A wind-swept tree

Soon we reached exposed ground beyond and were hit by the strongest wind I've ever experienced - we were all being blown over, and I was very thankful for the walking pole I'd picked up in town. Our route led us along the edge of Lago Grey towards the glacier, and as we gradually approached the end of the lake amazing coloured icebergs began to appear in the lake below. After 3 hours of walking we reached the highest point of the day and got our first views of the stunning Glacier Grey in the distance. The glacier was an amazing blue and white expanse, spanning between the mountains and disappearing into the distance until it merged with the sky. The next couple of hours were spent descending towards the glacier, until we reached our campsite on the shore of the lake.

Glacier Grey

Glacier Grey

Our campsite

Our campsite

After pitching camp, we settled down to cook our dinners before enjoying a cheeky beer with some games of cards in the adjoining refugio - amazing what you can find in the middle of nowhere! Everyone was feeling good after a pretty easy day and we all headed to bed feeling pretty good. We awoke the next morning to more good weather, with a lot less wind and a glimpse of sun in the sky. After a quick breakfast we set off again, retracing our route from the day before. There seemed to mysteriously be a lot more uphill sections than there were downhill the previous day, but we still made good progress and covered the 12km in time to stop for lunch at our start point the day before.

A quick break en-route

A quick break en-route

Then it was time to move on, and continue to our next campsite. The scenery gradually changed as we walked, with one set of mountains retreating behind us as another, even more imposing, appeared in front. I enjoyed a relaxed afternoon, ambling along with plenty of breaks for photos as we passed lakes and plenty of other photo opportunities.

More mountains!

More mountains!

Relaxing en-route (l-r me, Damu, Freddy and Jeroen)

Relaxing en-route (l-r me, Damu, Freddy and Jeroen)

We arrived at our next campsite in time to enjoy some spectacular views up the mouth of the Vallee Francaise, our objective for the following day, before setting up camp and cooking up more pasta-based delicacies. We hooked up with the group doing the route in 3 days, who were coming in the opposite direction and spent the evening catching up, in between listening to the huge rumbles echoing down the glacier as small avalaches cascaded down the valley sides above.

View up Vallee Francaise

View up Vallee Francaise

Shooting the breeze at camp 2

Shooting the breeze at camp 2

Day three dawned with slightly confusing weather comprising bright sun, blue skies and snowstorms as we set off up the valley, enjoying the feeling of carrying day sacks instead of the heavy packs we'd lugged around for the previous two days. We ascended for a couple of hours, working our way through beautiful woodland, with the mountains unfolding in front of us. The scenery was even better than the previous few days and we were all thoroughly enjoying ourselves.

A walk in the woods

A walk in the woods

Mountains tower over us

Mountains tower over us

The only slight hitch came when a few of us somehow managed to lose the main path and disappear in the woods. The rest of us waited for almost an hour, sending out search parties retracing our steps until eventually they turned up and we could carry on. Pretty soon we reached a large clearing, where the mountains properly surround us on all sides. We posed for group photos then said goodbye to the crazy group, who had to rush off in order to get to the end in time for the last boat. The rest of us carried on, as the weather closed in until by the time we reached the "viewpoint" we were in white-out with snow being blown horizontally in our faces. We didn't hang about long, and descended out of the cloud back into sunshine.

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A rather windswept tree

A rather windswept tree

More beautiful colours

More beautiful colours

A quick race back down the valley saw us back at the campsite by 2.30pm, ready for a quick pack and go. We were planning to eat at the next refugio that night, but had to reserve our meals by 5.00pm and the next leg was supposed to take 3 hours! Without any time to lose we moved on, working our way along overgrown paths next to one of the stunning azure-blue lakes. Fortunately the route didn't take as long as we'd expected and we arrived in plenty of time to pitch camp and order our food. The campsite was in a beautiful location next to the lake, and we had a great sunset over the lake, even if it was freezing cold.

Camp 3

Camp 3

Great views over the lake

Great views over the lake

Our dinner in the refugio was probably the in the 5 most expensive meals I've had in South America at $20, but the opportunity to have something fresh not involving pasta was too tempting, so we enjoyed a tasty three course, with a nice bottle of red wine to wash it down with. I spent the meal rushing in and out in order to keep track of the sunset and make sure I got some nice photos.

And another sunset

And another sunset

Day 4 dawned to the best weather of all - absolutely no wind and a scorching sun. Our route took us along the side of the mountains, gradually rising above the lakes, which were like mirrors. All along the path, the flowers were in bloom, with bright red flowers making the views even better. It was absolutely stunning, and has to go down as one of the best day's walking I've ever had.

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The distance passed without really noticing, and we soon turned up the final valley and gained our first glimpse of the very tips of the towers themselves as we arrived at our campsite. We were there in plenty of time, so decided to climb the steep slope up to the towers themselves. The route takes you up a steep sandy slope, then traverses a boulder field, with the towers concealed by the slope above. This makes it even more impressive when you finally cross the ridge and see the huge towers beyond, with a small lake at their base.

Looking up Vallee Ascencio

Looking up Vallee Ascencio

First glimpse of the towers

First glimpse of the towers

A lone figure dwarfed by the mountains

A lone figure dwarfed by the mountains

We stayed up there for an hour or so, enjoying the view, before tiredness and a freezing cold wind sent us back down to camp. We had a quick dinner, then went straight to bed, knowing we had a ridiculously early start the next day... That involved a 3.45am alarm call, and somehow dragging ourselves out of our warm sleeping bags into the cold and dark. The climb up was dotted with head torches as everyone made their way back up to the Torres, and gradually the dawn grew lighter, and the silhouettes of the mountains grew visible. We were up the top and settled in to a vaguely sheltered location by 5.00am ready for dawn.

Climbing the final slope by moonlight

Climbing the final slope by moonlight

The Torres in the early dawn

The Torres in the early dawn

Gradually the sky grew lighter, until eventually the sun rose above the mountains behind us and illuminated the Torres with a soft, pink light. It was a fitting culmination to five days of trekking, and we celebrated with mini bottles of Jack Daniels, that Brian had secretly been carrying for the past few days. The only slight hitch came when I tried to relocate from my perch, carrying rucksack, camera and sleeping mat whilst balancing on the rocks. Unfortunately a gust of wind grabbed hold of may mat and sent it whirling away across the mountains before I could react! Fortunately it didn't land in the lake, thereby ruining everyone's photos of the Torres and the last we saw of it was a black dot disappearing over the distant peaks.

The Torres at their best

The Torres at their best

Eventually the sun rose fully and we returned to camp for breakfast before striking camp for the fourth and final time. By the time we set off back down the valley, the weather had changed completely and heavy rain had set in, blown horizontally by the strong wind. This continued for the rest of the morning and gave us a taste of what the trek could have been like - not very pleasant. The final few hours passed pretty quickly and we were soon celebrating reaching the end with a few beers and some decent food back in Puerto Natales, where I'll end this entry

Posted by Davelanky 16.01.2011 07:35 Archived in Chile Tagged torres_del_paine Comments (4)

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