Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Into the dark in Potosi

After our 4x4 trip, 11 members of the group decided to travel together to the mining town of Potosi.  It took us almost 2 hours to decide which tour company to go with.  In the end, 1 person decided not to go, 1 decided to go with a more established company and 9 of us went with a new miner owned, miner run company (The Real Deal).

First we suited and booted up.

Then we went to the miners' market to buy gifts for the miners.  This included coca leaves, dynamite and fuses and soft drinks.  We were also introduced to one of the miners' favourite drink, Ceibo (96% alcohol!)

At a refinery, we learned that 90% of the rock that is mined now is waste and the remaining 10% is silver, lead and zinc.  At the 500 year old mine, we met miners as young as 15 who work 10 hours a day.  Some of the mines are so deep that the miners don't see daylight for their entire shift.  So why work there? Miners can make up to 3 times more than other workers; however, their life expectancy is 50 to 60 years old.

Dark, cold, dusty, hot, suffocating, maze of tunnels...we were probably in the mine for less than an hour, but it was more than enough.  It was an experience we were glad we had as we can now empathise with the miners, but it's something we are happy never to do again.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Licancabur Part 2

We woke up at 2:15am and tried to eat the driest cheese sandwich ever with little success.  By 3:30am, we were walking in a line in the dark practicing our breathing.  We've never concentrated so hard on our breathing and our foot placement.  There was absolutely no room to think about anything else.

After an hour, the guide checked on how we were doing and we felt pretty confident because so far it was fairly easy.  At sunrise, we took a break to admire the amazing views. It was also good to get some light as Mauricio could not find the "path".

The climb became harder and Renato soon decided to stop.  The 2nd guide went back down the mountain with him.

Mauricio and Penguino picked up the pace, but we continued slow and steady.

After 9 hours of climbing, we decided not to continue ascending. We had made it to 5800m and only had 100m to go, but we were exhausted and we still had to get back down the mountain. The last part was really snowy and knowing that the last person who died on the Licancabur slid on the snow was not reassuring.  Mauricio and Penguino were nowhere to be seen so we decided to sit and wait for them to return.

Then the real challenge began.  It soon became obvious that Mauricio wanted to get down the mountain as fast as he could regardless of everyone else's pace or well being.  Penguino was showing a wide collection of altitude sickness symptoms: he was terribly ill, could hardly walk straight and wanted to sleep (a bad idea at 5500m).  Thankfully, youth, fitness and sheer determination were on his side.  Mauricio took off so we did our best to encourage Penguino to keep going.

The decent was difficult.

We walked blindly through snow patches that sometimes were knee deep.  We also slid down sections of sand and small rocks.  Even with poles, we often found ourselves on our butts.  We had forced down some nuts and granola bars along the way, but we had not had lunch and our minds and bodies were shattered.

We found Mauricio waiting for us near the bottom of the mountain.  After a 5 minute rest, he was ready to go.  Somehow Penguino found the strength to keep up with Mauricio's pace.  We could not and soon found ourselves by ourselves again.  The van was parked behind a hill and we soon lost sight of them.

At 4:45pm, Yumi hit a wall.  After a good 2 minute cry, we continued making our way down a steep, rocky hill.  We finally reached the van just after 5pm, over 13 hours after we began hiking.

Thomas confronted Mauricio about leaving us and his reply was that it is an "adventure tour" and that his job was to "guide" us up the mountain.  We needed to make our own way down.  Yumi was too tired to complain so in protest she kept the roll of toilet paper that the 2nd guide had given her earlier.  We were going to get something out of this fiasco!

There are very few photos of the day because we were too tired to get out our cameras.  Thomas was too out of it to realise that he should have been wearing sunglasses so ended up burning his eyes and the skin around it.  Yumi had been blowing her nose the entire time so ended up removing the sunscreen from her nose and ended up burning it.

We are disappointed that we didn't summit, but looking back on it, it would not have been worth it because we may not have had enough energy to make it back to the van.

Not bad for our first real mountain climb.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Licancabur Part 1

The morning of our departure to Licancabur is a hectic one.  We wanted to book our 3 day 4x4 tour to Uyuni, but found out that Yumi may have an issue with her Bolivian visa.  The issue: because we go to Bolivia to climb the mountain and then return to Chile and return to Bolivia with the tour, Yumi may have to pay an additional $50 on top of the $135 she will already have to pay.  As Mauricio says, "Thanks, George Bush."

In order to try and avoid the additional charge, we decide to stay in Bolivia.  It is then a mad rush to pack up our stuff, buy food and exchange money.  We leave our bags with the tour agency and take only our day packs with us.

With us on the climb is Mauricio, the 2nd guide Marcelo, "Penguino" born and raised in Ushuaia, Argentina and Renato from Brasil.  It is the first real mountain climb for all 4 of us.

At the Bolivian border, the border guard wants to keep Yumi's passport.  Thankfully, he likes Yumi's smile and her middle name ("Tina, like Tina Turner") and he lets her keep it.  

During dinner, Mauricio gives us a briefing on warning signs of altitude sickness.  Yumi is more worried getting altitude sickness than actually climbing the mountain.  As we drink coca tea, Mauricio explains that the whole coca thing is a myth.  We go to bed at 8pm for a 2am start.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Microsoft wallpaper, but for real

Today is a laguna and animal day.  We visit Laguna Chaxa and see flamingos up close and in flight.  At Lagunas Miscanti and Miniques we see more flamingos, black duck and vicunas.

Jorge has us walk dynamically for 45 minutes at 4300m to start our preparation for Licancabur.  We both find the walk very easy.  The scenery is stunning.  It reminds us f the Microsoft wallpaper with gold fields and blue sky, but it's better of course because it is real.

The next morning we get up at 4:30am to catch El Tatio geysers at sunrise.  To be honest, we weren't wowed by the geysers, but we were in left a bit stunned by the number of people who ignored warnings and would get very close to the 85 degree celsius water.

Day 2 of prep for Licancabur.  We are to climb Cerro Copacoya (5000m) for 45 minutes.  The climb is not hard on the legs, but we can hear our hearts pounding faster and harder than usual.  After climbing for almost an hour, we slide down the mountain.  Both Jorge and us are happy with how we coped with the altitude.

Later, we meet with Maurcio, the guide who will take us up Licancabur the following day.  No meat, chocolate or sugary alcohol tonight.  What were we planning to have for dinner?  Steak and pisco sour.  Oh well.  Pasta, it is then.  How is Thomas going to cope?

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Day 2 in San Pedro

We start the morning with a guided tour of the Gustavo Le Paige's Archeology museum where we learn about plantlife in the area, the first peoples and the tools, pottery and weapons they made and the influence of the Tiwanakus, Incans and finally the Spanish.

Then we walk to Pukara de Quitor, a fortified village and then to a monument for the Indian chiefs who were beheaded.  The views of the oasis are breathtaking.  We also see Licancabur, the mountain we will attempt to climb in 4 days.

After lunch, we go for a refreshing and salty dip in Laguna de Cejar.  You can sit, stand straight up and swim on your belly with your feet out of the water with absolutely no effort.  Just don't get salt in your eyes like Thomas did.  Ouch!  Unfortunately, it is a injury day for Thomas.  While floating backwards, he ran into the side of the laguna and cut up his back.  Then while taking a jump photo, he jammed his finger while trying to strike a pose.

The great thing about having your own guide is that you are on your own time schedule.  We were able to take another dip in the laguna after all the tours had left.  We also had time to walk around the 2 other lagunas and see different types of salt formations.

In the evening, we pick up some empanadas and desserts and have once comida with Jorge and his family.  Once comida is tea time, a British tradition that has stuck in Chile.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

San Pedro de Atacama, here we come!

We are on the move again.  This time we decide to splurge and pay £15 more to have the luxury seats for the 20 hour bus ride.  The seats recline to a completely horizontal position.  Don't be fooled by the "cama" seat option.  Cama means bed in Spanish.  It is comfortable and you get a leg rest, but it is nowhere near being a bed.

Although we are heading to the driest desert in the world, we arrive 2 hours late because heavy rains have damaged the roads.

We are looked after for the next 5 days by Jorge, a former guide to the rich and famous in Swiss and a self proclaimed "wild cat".

The first stop on our tour is Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley).  Earlier, we had seen places that offer sandboarding trips for 15,000 pesos.  We ask Jorge about it and he gets us a board for 3000 pesos!  What a deal, except neither one of us has ever been on a snowboard before.  Oh well, who needs lessons when the sand is soft.  The most difficult part is climbing up the hill.  At this altitude (2600m), it doesn't take long for us to be huffing and puffing, but the ride is definitely worth it.

We then rush over to Valle de Luna (Moon Valley) to try and catch the sunset..  All the tours are heading back to the car park by the time we arrive.  Although it was a bit dark by the time we get to the mirador, the views are still fantastic and it is so nice to have the place to ourselves.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Adios Argentina, Hola Chile!

We leave Argentina exactly one month after we arrived.  We really enjoyed our time there and are a bit sad to go, but it's time to carry on with our adventure.  After a 5 hour and an 11 hour bus ride, we reach the capital city of Santiago.  It reminds us a bit of LA; it is a modern city that is  spread out and full of smog.  Highlights include: a great view of the city from Cerro Santa Lucia; our first completos (hot dog with tomatoes, mayo and guacomole), a favourite Chilean snack;  a historic walking tour of the city; and a fantastic 1 month celebratory meal of chorrillana (a fried egg over steak and french fries) and caiprinhas.

The next day we head to Valparaiso, considered the cultural capital of Chile.  The first thing we do when we arrive...go to a thrift store and buy ourselves "new" shirts for £1.30 each.  What's for lunch?  Another completo, but this time Thomas gets The Grande. 

It looks like a rainbow exploded over Valparaiso because the houses, buildings, buses and shipping containers are all brightly coloured.  We take a funicular up to Cerro Artilleria -one of the 46 "mounts" in the city- to get a better view of the multi coloured landscape.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

El Calafate and Perito Moreno

We had been told 2 days in Calafate were enough. That's good because that was all we had.
on our way to the bus station in El Chalten, we met Agni, Ariel and Leila, who also took the "doomed bus" on the Ruta 40. The 5 of us decided to rent a car together and about 1h after our arrival in El Calafate, we had found a hostel and booked a car!

We went for a ride around El Calafate and took a few pictures of the turquoise blue lake Argentino near the town. It is a great feeling to know we can go where we want when we want and pay less than if we had taken the bus :)

On the 6th, we all woke up early to beat the crowd at Perito Moreno and enjoy the views alone without 2,000 tourists next to us. Perito Moreno is the main attraction near El Calafate: It is a huge glacier (30km in length) located about 80km west of the town. It is hard to describe the views and even the photo cannot do it justice.

Our plan came together as we saw many buses full of the oldest tourists we've seen in weeks making their way to the glacier as we left. Well done team!

Being as free as condors, we decided to head to Lago Roca, south of Perito Moreno to enjoy the Patagonian wind and wilderness. It took a while to get there and we kept thinking of "not flipping the car" as the first thing the car rental agent said to me was "Hola, if you flip the car, it's 10,000 pesos, if you damage anything else, it's 5,000 pesos." I had never ever thought about flipping a car before. Until this day.

El Calafate is a nice place but it is very touristy and there is not much to do, so we had booked our tickets back to Bariloche for the 7th. What we didn't know was that the bus company was ... MARGA! AAAAAaaagghhhh!

Friday, February 4, 2011

3 days in El Chalten

After our "adventurous"  bus ride, we decided to go for a nice walk near Ayken Aike, the hostel where we stayed. The weather was cloudy and there was no point in going too far as you wouldn't see much of the valley or the Fitz Roy range.

15 minutes into the walk, it starts raining. We don't mind that much as we were happy to be walking around. El Chalten is a small town of trekkers and climbers. Most of the people we see in the streets are in their 20s or 30s. Apparently, El Chalten was" built" by the Argentinians to show the Chileans that there is a town down South and therefore the Chilean government "cannot take it". There is still a border issue over here. 

The most important is still to come though: we've been eating shitty food for some time now, so we voted unanimously to go and try a Asado at a nearby restaurant. That was a winner! 

The following day (02/02), Yumi wasn't feeling well and decided to stay in bed and rest before our big walk on the 3rd of Feb: "Laguna de los Tres Hike" and Thomas decided to join Timo and Louelle, a young Dutch couple on a 6 month South America tour to go for another walk and take a closer look at the Fitz Roy. We can barely see it today. 

Despite its average height (3500m), the Fitz Roy is extremely difficult and is the preserve of very experienced climbers. Today, when a hundred people may summit Mount Everest in a single day, Monte Fitz Roy may only be successfully ascended once a year. We met Josh from Colorado at the hostel; He's been waiting for an opening for 4 weeks. He only has 3 left and we hope he'll be successful in climbing it.

On the 3rd of Feb, we weather was nice so we decided to go for a 14km hike, starting North of El Chalten and making our way back to the village. The views were wonderful and although the sun was shinning the proximity of the glacier and the wind made sure we'd keep our layers on. As you get closer to the Fitz Roy you are in disbelief when you know people want to climb this! How do they do it? It's a sheer face that seems to stretch forever. Even though we are not climbers, it is easily understandable that this is one of the toughest mountains in the world to summit.

On the second part of our trek, we need to cross the "piedras blancas" river to go to the "laguna de los 3", a lagoon located at the foot of the Fitz Roy and Poincenot. The walk was rather steep in the end but was well worth it. 

It was a great call as the weather got really cloudy in the evening and this walk wouldn't have been possible the following day, so we decided to leave El Chalten and make our way to El Calafate. It shouldn't be too long. Or should it?

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Ruta 44 hours

We started our 28 hour bus journey to El Chalten at 8pm.  We knew we would face a bumpy ride on Route 40.  We had no idea...

5:45am. The bus shudders to a stop.  It never starts up again.  We are 10 hours into the journey and stuck in the middle of nowhere with no mobile signal.  No announcement is made as the two drivers start walking off in different directions...

Plan B: a bus will pick us up in 3 hours to take us to a near by town where we will wait for a replacement bus that will take 14 hours to get to us.  It's early so most of the people stay asleep.  One guy gets off the bus and decides to hitch hike.

11am.  No sign of a bus.  We decide to  check out the scenery.  Alejandro, a Columbian student, is cold so does 10 press ups, barely.  It's Yumi's turn.  30 press ups in the a row!  Alejandro goes crazy shaking his head in disbelief while the bus driver and Thomas make fun of his weakness.  Yumi tries to console Alejandro by explaining that we had just finished a month long 1,000 press up challenge.

1:30pm.  A mini bus arrives.

Plan C: our half of the group will be taken to a petrol station 30 minutes away.  The driver will then return to the bus and take the other half to Perito Moreno station 3 hours away.  A bus will take them to El Calafate at 4am.  He will then come back to the petrol station around 9pm and drive us to El Chalten.

So we hang out at the petrol station for 6 hours.  Thomas checks Google Maps.  We still have 700km to go...

8:45pm.   The chain smoking driver returns and we are off.  His wife unfolds her lawn chair and sits next to him.  3 hours later, we arrive at a tiny bus station and are reunited with the other half of our group.  There is no rep from our bus company.  Just a note on their booth advising us to that a bus will take us to El Chalten.  No contact number in sight.   A woman from another bus company wants to go home, but everyone is refusing to leave the station as it is really cold outside.  Our driver and his wife leave to get the police.  Our bags are still in the mini bus.  Please come back...

They return with a police officer.  No one is being kicked out.  He's just there to make sure everything is okay.  We find out that the driver has been driving non-stop since 7am and now he is going to drive us another 6 hours (or so he says, we later find out find it's actually 12).  Half the group refuse to get back on the mini bus.  The driver calls his boss.  The mini van cannot leave unless it's full.

Plan D: We all make ourselves comfortable in the bus station and wait for the replacement bus.

3:30am.  The replacement bus arrives with our 2 original drivers plus 2 more.  At first they say they are not going to El Chalten as we should have gone with the other driver.  One look at our faces and they back down.  At least we are on a nicer bus.  And then the bus stalls.  Someone yells out, "Come on!"    We all think the same thing.  Thankfully, the engine restarts.

4pm.  We finally arrive in El Chalten, 44 hours after leaving Bariloche.  We are all tired and weary, but in good spirits.  It was that way the entire time.  No one complained or turned on each other.  On the contrary, a bond had been formed.  Over the next few days, we all kept running into each other and laughing at our adventure.

p.s. 4 days later, we found out that the bus after us had flipped and 4 people were sent to hospital.  Then the wheel of their replacement bus came off while they were driving.  Thankfully, they finally made it to El Calafate on their 3rd bus.

Warning: Avoid Marga bus company!  Unfortunately, they have a monopoly on travel between Bariloche and El Chalten and El Calafate.