Nepal: Kathmandu. Annapurna Trail and Pokhara: 21st March – 21st April

We had met a few people on our travels who had been to Nepal and they unanimously agreed –amazing country. We had even met one girl who had been there a month and declared it her second home. I knew what she meant the second I walked into the tiny airport in Kathmandu. The people are so lovely – just the right amount of friendliness while not being pushy and generally a fantastically high level of English which was completely unexpected. It is of course also a trekker’s heaven so as well as beautifully turned out Nepali men and women you are jostling most of the time with other (mainly) American and European North face clad trekkers which gives a great sense of camaraderie.

We picked up our bags and headed for our hostel in the tourist district of Thamel. I really liked it here – yes its touristy but for 2 days pre or post hike (we did post as we were worried about getting back to Kathmandu for our flight on the buses) it’s perfect. Great restaurants and really cool bars with great food, décor and service at Nepali prices, lots of places to get your last minute presents (jewellery and cashmere is beautiful here) and loads of spas offering to make your body feel normal again!

After one night here we caught a bus to Pokhara, another great trekking town built around a lake which has a more peaceful vibe than Thamel. It was here that we were preparing to leave from so we spent 2 and a half days getting all our stuff sorted. Paul and I didn’t want to walk with our main bags but yet our small day packs weren’t up for the job for three weeks of hiking the Annapurna trail. Pokhara has a plethora of shops selling everything you could possibly need from bags, jackets, sleeping bags, shoes, poles, medicine – EVERYTHING! So we both bought bags, down jackets and altitude sickness medication (just in case) and I also got a pair of poles. We also needed to sort out the administrative side of bus tickets to the start of the trail, maps and permits (2 different ones!) It’s really funny as pretty much everyone there is a trekker and you can tell by the colour of people’s faces whether they are pre or post trek🙂 It sure is a good reminder of the importance of a high spf!
We went out to dinner the night before to load up on carbs and realised that each of us was feeling quite nervous. Logically there was no need to because all the research we had done said the same: the trail is fantastically marked, one doesn’t walk much longer than 2-3 hours (frequently less) before passing through a village where you can buy anything from a full meal to a snack of tea and snickers or also stay the night if you’re tired (or its raining:)) However, without knowing exactly what was ahead of us we felt like we had done all we could do but yet was it enough?

The Annapurna trail is 200km long from Besi Sahar to the South East of the Annapurna mountain range to Birethanti in the South West. (You can do it the other way round but the gain in altitude is more punishing so it’s not generally done). Again generally speaking it takes 18-19 days to trek which would be to walk every day bar a couple of rest days. I say generally because one of the best things about the Annapurna trail and region is it is so flexible precisely because of the tea houses. You could trek up to a month or more if you wanted to do the side trails and overnight trips or a lot less if you were short on time and didn’t mind getting the bus where possible.

The route

The route

“The bus” was something Paul and I were unsure of when we were doing our research. For a long time the Annapurna trail was regularly voted the most beautiful hike in the world, but then as part of a national development programme a “road” was planned on large parts of the trail. Such was its impact on trekker’s enjoyment that in 2010 a couple of Annapurna specialists approached the Annapurna Conservation agency with the aim of introducing alternative trails away from the road where possible. From reviews on the trail pre 2010 I would say this has made a massive difference and is probably the best middle ground for the villagers for whom the road is generally a positive development and for the trekkers for whom it generally definitely isn’t. The NATT are really easy to follow on the ground and in any case there is a huge pdf document on the internet for free (written by the 2 specialists) which breaks down each segment from village to village in great detail (just google NATT). It was really only on the first day that we noticed the road at all as there is no other way and it is not pleasant to wind through the traffic jam of jeeps and building construction vehicles on a one way “road” but thanks to some of the more recent reviews we knew this was likely to end the next day and so it did!

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We were planning to walk between 10-15km a day depending on how we felt and not rush through. We had 3 full weeks so had the option to complete it or perhaps spend a few days in a few of the villages to gain a fuller perspective of life in the Himalayas and catch a bus some of the way, once the pass was completed. The pass is Thorung La – the biggest pass in the world and a breath taking 5,416 m high (17,770ft). We also didn’t know how the altitude was going to affect us. Paul has climbed Kilimanjaro which is higher but had terrible altitude sickness (a result he thinks of not acclimatising properly) and I had only been to 5000m where I had got a pretty bad headache but was otherwise fine. Altitude sickness is not something to take lightly. At the start of the trail where you get your permits stamped there were quite a few posters put up by families of climbers who have gone missing – most likely as a result of altitude sickness. As well as severe headaches and vomiting (never nice) it can give the afflicted a drunk feeling of everything’s fine. In it’s extreme form one can’t walk straight or speak properly yet will insist they’re fine and want to carry on – particularly dangerous if you climb on your own (not recommended for the pass). It was really sad to see and a bit of a wake up call that bad things can happen and the consequences can be fatal in such a harsh environment.

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Day One: Besi Sahar – Bhulbhule
However Paul and I were still massively excited as we got off the bus with the other trekkers got our permits stamped and set off. People had introduced themselves on the bus and there was a range of ages and experience. Seasoned trekkers off to explore the more remote reaches and newbies like us. We met another rookie couple (Australian living in London) who were lovely and we walked the first day with them. This was great as we found our way together – not in terms of the trail but once we wanted to stop, the do’s and don’ts of getting a room (what questions to ask) and what to expect. We were pleasantly surprised – the rooms of all the teahouses are pretty much the same. A basic room with 2 single beds and a table. Some have electricity in the rooms (most don’t) but there will probably be a plug in area in the common room where you can gather to drink tea after you’re day and chat to other trekkers. Most places we stayed had hot water and flushing toilets but there were exceptions and all had exactly the same menu that is meant to regulate prices and standards.

First morning...off we go!!

First morning…off we go!!

Day Two: Bhulbhule – Ghermu
The next day Paul and I decided we wanted to trek alone so we had breakfast and said goodbye to our new friends hoping to see them again that night. We had gotton as far as Bhulbhule after we got off the bus and so were hoping to trek as far Syange or Jagat on our first full day. It was a beautiful walk – especially as we rounded into Nadi Bazaar and the spring flowers were out in full bloom. We decided this was a great place to stop for half an hour and have tea. The owner’s 3 year old daughter decided to come and make friends with us and was fascinated with Paul’s SLR trying to figure out how the flowers got “into” the camera.

How?????

How?????

We waved goodbye and continued on our way walking for another couple of hours and stopping for lunch after an exhausting set of stairs set to the cliff. Something that we hadn’t been expecting was the humidity and warmth in these lower reaches of the walk. We were so worried about not being warm enough we packed thermals galore but I didn’t I would need multiple vest tops! That day we stopped a little earlier than we had planned as it was hot and heavy going and we weren’t yet used to our packs which were making our shoulders ache a little. We were feeling pretty frustrated at our lack of fitness when we heard two very familiar voices haggling for a room! The fact that our two aussies friends had also decided to stop was definitely a nice feeling and we compared notes over numerous cups of tea!

View as we walked into Nadi Bazaar

View as we walked into Nadi Bazaar

Day Three: Ghermu – Chamche
We kept to the same routine as the morning before and which was to become our routine for most of the days, get up, breakfast, collect water from the village tap and then treat it (chlorine tablets), pack bags, suncream and head off about 9 (this was late by other trekker standards but we don’t like rushing and it also meant that most other walkers were well on their way so it was rare that we saw another trekker except for at night). As mentioned the weather was pretty humid in these parts and on both the preceding days there were heavy downpours in the afternoon from about 4pm onwards (which was fine because we had stopped by then). On day three however we had only just stopped for lunch about 1pm when the dark clouds gathered and huge plops began to appear. Neither of us particularly wanted to walk in the rain as apart from being uncomfortable, we would also miss a large part of the scenery which was getting more spectacular by the day. We thus decided to stay put and have a chilled out afternoon reading while snugly under our sleeping bags watching and listening to the downpour. It meant that we only got “halfway” that day but it was a good decision – the place we stayed was lovely and when we woke up in the morning the skies were crystal clear and we could see the views perfectly!

What we could have missed in the rain...

What we could have missed in the rain…

Day Four: Chamche – Danakyu
This was a long day and it was made even longer by Paul’s bag breaking. Not in a “oh that’s annoying” kind of way but in a “oh I only have one arm strap” kind of way. It did however make me feel pretty smug about the items I had brought with us including scissors, duck tape and spare D-rings or to paraphrase Paul (pre bag break) “all that crap you’ve been lugging around for months”. I won’t go into details about how Paul reacted to the incident but it wasn’t pretty. Luckily enough we were 15 minutes away from where we had planned to have lunch and so we could do emergency repairs there. We managed to work out something that we hoped would hold for the rest of the day until we could spend some more time devising a more permanent solution. We were pretty bummed though as there was no way we could continue if we couldn’t get a more permanent fix. To have 12kilos of gear on your back on one shoulder would be impossible and to carry the strap load in your hand would be dangerous – especially on pass day. We were lucky and the bag held for that day and that night we came up with a stronger alternative which we hoped would last…..

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Day Five: Danakyu – Chame
This was a really beautiful day. We actually walked on the road as opposed to any trails but only two jeeps passed us all day. (To be clear when I say road it isn’t a tarmac western style road, it’s little more than where the mountain has been blasted and is roughly wide enough for jeeps that can take the bumps!) The view of the mountains really came into its own on this day and the road/trail passed through many gorgeous rivers and under waterfalls. With such clear weather we actually walked through a rainbow – so cool! The scenery changed from the humid dense forest of the beginning to alpine pine forest with mountain views and it was amazing as they felt so close and we knew we were getting further and further into them.
That night we met 4 retired Australian trekkers who were so nice and on the fourth trip to Nepal. Before dinner they had gone on a walkabout around town and seen a couple of tailor shops with sewing machines. I was really excited about this and thus had to explain about Paul’s bag – from what they had seen they were pretty sure we would be able to get the strap sewn up. We went to bed that night feeling relieved!

Tea stop...bliss

Tea stop…bliss

Stunning views wherever you look

Stunning views wherever you look

Day Six: Chame – Upper Pisang
This was an awesome day. First we found a tailor and he sewed up Paul’s bag nice and strong for roughly 20p. Secondly the view was quite simply outstanding and by the time we got to Upper Pisang you felt like you could reach out and touch the Annapurna’s that nestled around you. Thirdly the trail to get to Upper Pisang was hard but infinitely worth it (you can stay at Lower Pisang – it’s a 200m straight climb up at the end of the day) and we were rewarded by one of the most spectacular sunsets that we could watch because the lodge had just built a common room with panoramic windows: result! Lastly, the Buddhist culture really begins to stand out and the prayer flags and wheels are frequent sights. All that made this day a favourite for me even after we had completed the walk. It is also one of Paul’s favourite’s days but he has another reason…. At lunch we ate outside in an alpine style restaurant which was great and on the tables near us there were some Chinese girls we had seen a couple of times and who we had chatted to briefly. Paul was paying inside and talking to a couple of them and they told him he looked like a young Harrison Ford. This is still one of his highlights.

Giggling at the Harrison Ford comment....

Giggling at the Harrison Ford comment….

A typical village "clinging on" to the mountainside

A typical village “clinging on” to the mountainside

An elderly women carrying a standard load! Prayer wheels and flags are everywhere and are beautiful

An elderly women carrying a standard load! Prayer wheels and flags are everywhere and are beautiful

Day Seven: Upper Pisang – Nawal
Nwal is on the upper route to Manang (along with Chame one of the bigger towns and administrative centres for the region). Manang is also where it is advised you take your first rest day to acclimatise for the upcoming push for the pass. Some people hike from Upper Pisang to Manang in one day but that’s tough and if you don’t need to why punish yourself?? The upper trail is incredibly steep and there is one section in particular which is so hard but again it’s so worth it. On the way up Paul and I had stopped for a breather and something caught our eye on the mountain opposite – we turned and saw a huge avalanche picking up speed and then coming to its end. It was amazing and a surreal experience to watch from the mountain opposite, the air around us was incredibly still and peaceful. Another 30 minutes of climbing and we were at the top – at a Buddhist Gompa covered in prayer flags and with the most awe inspring view of the mountains going as far as the eye can see. It was so beautiful I got tears in my eyes. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so privileged to see anything like it in the world.

A tough climb but just so amazingly worth it!

A tough climb but just so amazingly worth it!

The valley so far....

The valley so far….

After tea and a well deserved snickers we continued on to Nwal. We had already decided to stay here but after 30 minutes we were so glad. We just managed to have lunch in the sunshine but shortly after that the clouds blew over and we had a complete white out. It was then that we knew what cold was. Fully clothed in our thermals, down jackets, hats and yak scarves we huddled in our sleeping bags under the blankets looking at the snow and feeling the draught counting down the minutes until dinner and we could get some hot food inside! It was even too cold to read as having hands exposed was a no no so we did what any sensible person would do and napped!

Day Eight: Nwal – Manang
We had bag issues again at the start of the day which delayed us a little bit but we soon got a good pace up and had another beautiful day as the alpine forests gave way to a starkly beautiful panorama of granite towers topped with snow. We reached Manang as the snow was beginning to fall again and we ate a great dinner watching other tired trekkers trudge through and try and find lodging.

Losing the green....

Losing the green….

Day Nine Manang rest day
We had hoped to do a day walk up to the Ice Lake but the weather had other ideas. This was the only day out of the entire period where we didn’t wake up to gorgeous blue skies. Instead we woke up to the white of the afternoon before where we actually couldn’t see anything. It was pretty depressing and a little scary as there was no demarcation between land and sky – everything was white and it was disorientating knowing there were huge mountains so close completely hidden. It was also extremely cold so we decided to venture out to the “cinema” where we knew there was a fire, a hot cup of tea and some popcorn. It was pretty cool – we watched Into the Wild which I found really sad especially with the weather like it was the feeling of being cut off was getting to me and the real life film just added to the sense of being very little in terms of the awesome power of nature. We ate well again that night as we knew we leaving the last “big” town before the pass so anything we wanted/needed in terms of charging batteries/getting some snacks/ buying some thick socks we had to get now.

Day Ten: Manang to Leder
The sense of anticipation built with every step on this day as we became more encased by the mountains and we could feel the lightness of the air. We had decided that the night before the pass we wanted to sleep at High Camp. There are two option when deciding – Thorung Pedi and Thorung High Camp. For acclimatising to high altitude it is advised to Climb High Sleep Low. For this reason many people choose to sleep at Thorung Pedi and have a longer day when climbing the pass. The difference between the hour is only 1km but it pretty much a vertical climb that will take approx an hour. To cross the pass you should really be leaving between 5-6am from Torung High Camp and so between 4-5am from Thorung Pedi. This was not appealing to either Paul or I and we decided for a little bit longer to sort ourselves in the morning and to make a shorter day of walking. As such we stayed at Leder the previous night which is a little bit further on than Yak Kharka. The lodge we stayed in was great and completely full but was missing one thing: a shower! We had walked pretty quickly that day so were the first to arrive asking for a room. Once settled in I took all my toiletries downstairs and asked directions for the shower. No shower they said but pointed me to the river – hot water from hose they smiled. Oh great – in Manang the water had been freezing (it’s solar powered and with the white out there was only really cold water) so I had only had baby wipe showers for a couple of days and really needed to wash my hair. OK I can do this I thought to myself as I made my way down and felt the water. It’s true the water continuously coming from the hose is river water that’s been siphoned off into a tank that has solar panels on it – an interesting contraption. I knelt on the egde of the bank and washed my hair while fully clothed feeling like a complete ninconpop as I’m sure I did’t look as graceful as the Nepalis I had been watching do this for the last few weeks. Of course it did’t help when other trekkers walked past or when Paul shouted out what was I doing….Errr what does it look like I’m doing! At least they had a sun room so within an hour my hair was dry despite it being freezing outside, all the girls who turned up after me were quite envious of my trip to the salon and so (and I do realise I sound very princessy) I was quite proud of myself!

Day Eleven: Leder – High Camp
The climb from Thorung Pedi to High Camp was GRUELLING! Paul skipped up like a mountain goat but unfortunately paid for it later as a searing headache came on about an hour after he got into the room which didn’t really dissipate until the following morning. We ate dinner (awful reviews but I thought the food was good!) and packed our stuff ready for the early morning start. We ordered breakfast for 5.30 hoping to be off by 6.

Outside our room at High Camp (pre headache!)

Outside our room at High Camp (pre headache!)

Day Twelve: High Camp – Muktinath
The dawn at High Camp was beautiful and we were stoked we had what looked like perfect conditions for our climb. I had heard people setting off what sounded like all through the night but was probably only from 3am onwards. Each to their own and if you’re a slow walker maybe you need to do this or if you’re in a group maybe the same applies but I AM VERY GLAD Paul and I did it slightly later as to be able to see the path is a definite advantage when its steep, slippery snow and there’s a massive vertical drop inches away from you! The only downside of leaving after most others is that if it’s a sunny day like we had the path after the pass can get a little slushy and slippery – this is fine if you have 2 poles. If you have one like me because Paul wanted one of mine that day this can be a bit tricky. Luckily there was a lovely French man behind me who lent me one of his poles to negotiate a bit I was genuinely scared on …merci🙂

HIgh camp at Dawn...

High camp at Dawn…

We pretty much had the path to ourselves the whole way which was wondrous. We kept stopping and looking at the beauty of the mountains in which we were folded. A Sherpa past us with his 2 horses going the other way and the sound of their bells is something I’ll never forget. Unfortunately we met a couple coming back who were too sick with altitude to continue and were returning to High Camp. I recognised them from the night before and they had certainly no problems then so it was a surprise and another reminder that you always have to be careful.

Slippery slopes!

Slippery slopes!

Yep...we pretty much had it to ourselves!!

Yep…we pretty much had it to ourselves!!

We got to the pass itself about 10.30am and celebrated with photos and a hot chocolate! Now it was time for the really hard part! I had read that the descent is harder on the body than the up as it is steep and slippery scree and uneven steps which can play havoc with the knees. You pretty much descend 2000 metres after the pass before you reach the next town. It was actually ok the knees didn’t protest too much and just when you thought you’d had enough the trail comes off the mountain and onto a more even road in the valley which helps a lot. It is long but then Paul and I didn’t stop. At the bottom of the mountain there are a few restaurants but for Paul and I to stop would have meant getting into Muktinath really late and we didn’t want any hassle in finding a room so we continued and arrived exhausted ready for a hot shower and dinner about 5pm. We found a great corner room that had 3 sides of windows so we had great views and an ensuite bathroom!! This was perfect as we knew we wanted to have a rest day the next day. As it turned out we really needed it because after showering and eating we both began to feel pretty bad and went to bed about 7pm. The next day Paul was no better although I felt a little livelier and did some shopping and exploring in the town which has been a Hindu pilgrimage site for centuries which was fascinating as the culture changed again. Paul really felt quite sick with a heavy head cold and cough so we decided to work out our next move in the morning.

THE PASS!!

THE PASS!!

5416 metres...breathtaking

5416 metres…breathtaking prayer flags

Depsite the sun it was COLD!

Depsite the sun it was COLD!

Day Fourteen: Muktinath to Kagbeni
Kagbeni is regularly voted momst walkers favourite village in the Annapurna area and the NATT authors voted the Muktinath to Kagbeni trail their favourite. Obviously this mad me very keen to do it but it was another 15km downhill and I wasn’t sure Paul would be up for it. But after breakfast he decided he was and so we set out. It was a beautiful trail however we should have left earlier. We had noticed that the weather regularly got windy about 1pm – this didn’t matter so much on the other side of the pass as the environment was more foresty and even when it got barren it didn’t seem to have any great effect. However for whatever reason the wind had a massive effect on the side we were now on and as we approached Kagbeni the wind really picked up the dust and made walking really unpleasant for the last 1.5-2 hours. By this time as well all of Paul’s energy had gone and it was a real relief to enter Kagbeni which is a beautiful village and find a great lodge. (I later read it was the NATT author’s favourite and although I didn’t know that at the time I can see why). The food was excellent and varied compared to what we had been having while the beds were really comfortable and again we had an ensuite! We met a lovely Australian man that night who was teaching English in the local monastery. He was staying there for about 2 months and showed us his lesson plans etc. He had done the trek before and so told us some good information about the upcoming parts as we beginning to feel like we would like to get a bus a bit of the way as by the time Paul had rested to get over his sickness we wouldn’t have enough time to complete the circuit anyway. He was a really useful source of information and we slept well that night knowing we would most likely remain in kagbeni the next day an night. Again it was the weather that made our decision for us as it was a dreadful day and howled with wind and rain most of the day. We spent it eating in a nice warm dining room, reading, napping and chatting.

Day Sixteen: Kagbeni – Ghasa (by bus)
I had read that due to the wind the most pleasant way to get the 9km from Kagbeni to Jomson (next town) is by jeep/bus and this had been confirmed by our Australian teacher friend so we got up early the next morning to get the jeep/bus/whatever we could to Jomson. All I can say is the wind must by horrific because any vehicular journey seemed to be a spine smashing, teeth jarring nightmare no matter how slow the usually very careful and good driver goes. By the time we had changed in Jomson and the bus had been filled to capacity (we got our tickets with 2 hours to spare, had lunch and went back 40 minutes before the bus was due to depart and only just got seats!) it was 4pm when we tumbled into Ghasa to find a room for the night. Surprisingly Paul did feel a bit better so we decided all being well in the morning we would walk to Tatopani where there are hot springs and where many people finish the trail and get a bus back to Beni.

Blossom in Kagbeni

Blossom in Kagbeni

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Day Seventeen: Ghasa – Tatopani
Our last day of walking and so we feel re-energised! We were again blessed with exceedingly good weather and it was a joy to be back on the trail with flora and fauna similar to the lower altitudes we had started out with nearly three weeks before! The river cuts through the valley and gorges tower above you – it is the scenery you associate with Tibet or long lost Chinese Kingdoms. Very atmospheric and stunning to walk through. We walked into Tatopani around 3pm and found a lovely cottage style lodging with beautiful gardens. By the time we had eaten and showered we were exhausted and fell into bed – no hot springs for us🙂

Their tinkling bells will be a sound forever associated with these mountains

Their tinkling bells will be a sound forever associated with these mountains

Day Eighteen: Tatopani – Beni – Pokhara (by public bus and private minivan)
We met a group of lovely Isrealis on the public bus to Beni who invited us to joining them in their private minivan to Pokhara – result!! It was approx 3 hours quicker with the best suspension we could hope for so arrived in more or less one piece! Thank you!!!

We spent the next few days at the Shrangri La village resort in Pokhara, splurging out for the last few days of this amazing, life changing trip. Relaxing by the pool gave us the chance to take in all that had happened over the previous 8 months going all the way back to these first 3 days In Johannesburg wondering what would come of this adventure. Despite this blog there really are no words to describe what this trip has meant to Paul and I. It has strengthened us in ways I never imagined and has truly been the most perfect way to start married life……now for real life!🙂

India: 11th March – 21st March

It was a bit of a nightmare getting to India and to be honest the hassle would be enough to put us off going back. (Luckily I think they are changing the visa system in October this year so that should help). We had got my visa while we were in Sydney which while not easy was at least now done. Paul travelling on his NZ passport was eligible for a visa on arrival. We thought this was great news as normally visas on arrival are much quicker and easier to get than the two week turn around it had taken them with my passport for example. It isn’t. First, at check in we were told that New Zealanders do need visas before travelling, there after a 10 minute discussion was necessary while the attendant looked up all the information and checked with her supervisor. Once it was clear Paul could travel we were told all visas on arrival are only for 30 days. This in itself wasn’t a problem but India is one of those countries where you need to prove onward travel before they let you in – which they don’t tell you on the visa website. We had our flight home to London booked from Delhi but we were planning on going to Nepal in between and so wasn’t until 6 weeks time. Thus before we could check in we needed to buy our onward tickets to Nepal. (If you read the earlier entries this will be sounding familiar!!!) The internet at the airport didn’t work, there was no wifi and so Travel Flight centre was our only option where of course they only book through expensive airlines. £700 later we again tried to check in, our previous lady was now closed so we had another 10 minute discussion with a new lady about the New Zealanders being able to travel with no visa. Eventually she checked us in and we had to run to the gate. Our flight to Mumbai was via Singapore where we had a couple of hours wait. No big deal but as we went to board the flight the gate attendants asked Paul for his passport photos. Turns out you need two passport photos even if you’re visa is issued on arrival. Of course he didn’t have any and so we weren’t allowed to get on our connecting flight. Thoroughly annoyed we raced around Singapore airport trying to find a photo machine and once we had, had to try and get on the next flight to Mumbai (which we were able to). Exhausted we arrived in Mumbai at 8pm but the visa ordeal had only just begun. For four hours Paul was kept in immigration with the 2 other people who needed visas while 10 guys stood around talking and not doing. When anyone approached to ask how the application was going they were told very nicely to sit down and relax. This did not make anyone relaxed. About an hour into Paul’s “application” the main guy came and sat next to him and filled in a form asking Paul all sorts of random questions about where his parents were born and all sorts. It was filled in by hand and then 5 other sheets exactly the same were also filled in. Not photocopied or filled in using carbon copies but filled out by hand 5 times – the same information. It was unbelievable and like pulling teeth. By midnight we had given up and I told Paul to text the friend we were supposed to be staying with telling him we stay at an airport hotel and see him tomorrow. It was five minutes later that he got waved through. We’re still not really sure what changed but from being told to sit and wait for a few hours he was suddenly through. We then had to find our bags which were obviously not on the carousel after 4 and a half hours but luckily that was easy. Only the taxi queue was left to negotiate and at 1.30am we were off! Thankfully Matt was still up and directed our driver to his door. It was really good to see him again and after all our travel hassles that day we gratefully accepted a couple of beers (G+T’s in my case) and had a couple of hours catching up. (Who needs sleep anyway?! )

The next day was our explore Mumbai day. We walked around for a couple of hours taking in the sights and sounds (and smells) and we thought we would give the trains a go so we jumped in a rickshaw to take us to the station. Matt had suggested a really cool place to go on the train so we bought return tickets and went to wait on the platform. There were two trains prior to ours and even though I was expecting them to be full with people hanging off it was still a shock. I had been quite excited about catching a train in India but pretty soon the excitement was dread! It didn’t help that I wasn’t feeling too good but the thought of hanging on off the side made my stomach turn and I just knew I wouldn’t have the strength. I didn’t have to ask Paul twice as he had never been excited by the prospect of getting so close and personal with a bunch of strangers. We also weren’t yet used to the staring that happens to all foreigners in India. (To be honest we never really did get used to it because they really stare – not just a furtive glance) so we took a rickshaw back to Matt’s neighbourhood, went for a late lunch and chilled out in his apartment in the afternoon, wondering if we could handle the intensity of India.

We left Matt and Mumbai the following morning and headed for Cochin. Compared to Mumbai Cochin was a cute little place with lots of tourist information kiosks, restaurants and shops. We knew the three things we wanted to do so booked for a 2 day tour of the tea plantations with various stop offs on the way. We had our own driver and he was great. Unfortunately I hadn’t been feeling well since our last night in Australia and throughout the day I felt progressively worse. One of the stops was a spice garden and herbal remedy place where there was also the option to get a fish pedicure. I’ve always wanted to do this and so we did but I began to feel really unwell about halfway through and needed to stop. After that I wasn’t interested in any more stops and we carried on until we reached where we staying overnight. It was beautiful. Our balcony overlooked the valleys and hills of the tea plantations.

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Paul read out on the balcony while I tried to sleep off whatever it was that was bothering me. The next day was similar but I was happy to look out of the car window and have no more stops. The scenery was lovely and extremely relaxing and I wish I had felt better to fully enjoy it but there was no time to think about it. If we got our connections right we would back in time to get a bus down to Alleppey from where we could sleep on a houseboat and explore the back waters of Kerala. We did indeed get a bus that same day, found a hostel that had its own houseboat and negotiated to stay on it for 2 nights starting the next day. Exhausted we fell into bed that evening without any dinner!

There are lots of houseboats ready to hire in Alleppey and there all pretty much in the same traditional style. Our one was for a couple only, hence we had it to ourselves – along with our driver and cook. The days are incredibly relaxing, floating along and seeing the life of the river. Kids, immaculate in their uniforms running to school, men farming the fields (or more often taking a break from…:), small clusters of women bathing and doing laundry (you can hear the slap of the cloth against the rocks before you can see them).

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It is so green and the weather so warm there is a dreamlike feel to the days and we both found it so wonderfully peaceful – unlike the other parts of India we were in. The nights were incredibly sticky and we were worried that we might start a fire by hooking up a very old fan in our bedroom but it was so hot there was no way we weren’t going to take the chance and hope for the best. Even with the fan the nights weren’t pleasant but they were more than made up for by the days.

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These two trips, along with the organising days had taken up the best part of a week so we headed for the bus station once again to go south to Varkala, supposedly quieter and a bit nicer than the more famous Kovalam. We had booked a “bamboo bunglow” right on the clifftop of Varkala which luckily was a perfect location. The beach itself is snugly fitted underneath the clifftop and can be accesses by stairs at either end of the beach but all restaurants, shops and bars are up on the cliff top which makes for amazing views. I really loved Varkala, it had a really nice hippie vibe and there were people of all nationalities and ages doing their own thing – sunbathing, meditation, yoga or just doing nothing like us! It gave the place a great feel and you didn’t feel quite as on show because of it.

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The five days we spent there were great but overall Paul and I weren’t blown away by India the way some people are. It is very intense – the people are lovely but don’t leave you alone and very often we felt like walking dollar signs, the beeping of car horns is non-stop, the sights and smells of pollution and rubbish is horrific – shockingly so and it has made a big impression on us and our habits at home. The natural landscape is very nice but it is hard to find a spot of it without rubbish/massive billboards/electricity pylons etc being part of the picture too. I guess I was also surprised about the efficiency of how things were done too. Maybe this is unfair but with all the talk of India being so developed and at the forefront of technology I didn’t expect such a gulf in between say London and Mumbai airports. I’m not talking about the people – they all have smartphones just like at home but I mean in the way businesses and government operate – the visa process being a good example. It isn’t a criticism – it just came as a surprise.
All that being said we would probably go back but we would do it very differently. Instead of travelling on a budget doing things independently, we would look into going as a holiday, where our budget could be bigger and so we could enjoy the more luxurious side of things that I believe they do so well. We would also probably go as part of a tour so a lot of the administrative hassle is done for you. All that can wait until we’re older!! For now it’s the last country on this amazing trip and we have a sneaky feeling we may have saved the best to last…Nepal and our trek into Himalayas!

Australia: 7th February – 11th March

We arrived at night, fell into bed and woke up to a beautiful cloudless day. We had decided to stay in Manley as it’s a part of Sydney Paul hadn’t explored much all the time he lived there. We hopped on the ferry and found the place we were staying with no problems. It was such a great feeling to know we were staying put for a couple of weeks and we could make a “home”. We got into a great routine of getting up early and going for a swim – Paul in the sea and me in the harbour swimming pools (swimming pools carved into rock in the sea). We met up with a lot of Paul’s friends –some of whom I had never met before and also with my family from Sydney which was lovely. I thought we were really lucky with the weather although Paul disagreed – we had some absolutely beautiful days but it did also rain on us a few days too although that didn’t stop Paul going to the beach! In Manley we spent a day on the Manley Scenic Coastal walkway which was breathtaking – both for its beauty and proximity to the City but also for how few people there were on it considering we were in the middle of a Capital City.

Secluded - in the middle of Sydney

Secluded – in the middle of Sydney

Idyllic secluded bays were deserted – amazing! We also spent two full days walking round the City and the Eastern suburbs where Paul used to live and it was really good to get a “mental map” of the places Paul talks about. At the end of our time in Sydney we went up to Narrabeen and the Northern beaches which was also really lovely. We then split our time and Paul went and spent 2 nights in Byron Bay with one of his best friends, while I stayed behind in Sydney and visited my Aunt, uncle and cousins which was great and it was awesome to catch up with them all after a very long time.

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After 2 nights I flew up to meet Paul and his friend Todd in Byron Bay where we spent another couple of nights before driving to the Gold Coast to stay with Paul’ parents for two weeks. Byron Bay was awesome – it was great to finally meet one of Paul’s very best friends and his beautiful family but it was also great because it’s where I caught my very first wave! Body surfing is something Paul is extremely good at it and I regularly spend hours on the beach sleeping and reading while keeping one eye on a very distant speck that every now and again morphs into Paul being brought into shore by the surf. Having watched him so many times I have to say it’s a lot harder than it looks! Timing is everything and even if you know when you want to catch the wave you can’t always push off when you want because the tide catches you so even when you have timing down you also need to “read” the waves. I was thus getting appropriately frustrated at how annoying it was when voila the wave crested at exactly the right moment and I was riding to shore! Thank goodness Paul had caught the one before so he saw the whole thing – excellent because it wasn’t to be repeated!!

 

It was sad to leave Byron as its one of those places where you never have enough time but we were also really happy to be going “home” to Jan and Gary and having two weeks of parent time. It was wonderful to see them again as it had been six months since the wedding and so there was lots to catch up on. It was my birthday while we were there and we went for a gorgeous meal to celebrate and they also spoiled me by giving me a spa facial. Oh! What heaven after 4 months of grimy south American air and plain soap and water to have actual proper products exfoliating, cleansing, toning and moisturising. Best present ever!!

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Entrance to Paul's favourite beach in the world!

Entrance to Paul’s favourite beach in the world!

Again the time went very quickly and it wasn’t long before we were packing up ready to fly to India. We had 10 days in India just enough to get a taster and we had decided to spend it in Kerala, a state in the South West of the country, famed for tea plantations, back water canal boats and beaches. In all honestly we could have spent much longer in Australia but we knew we had to move on if we were to give ourselves a month in Nepal at the very end of our trip. Australia had done exactly what we had hoped though, it had recharged our batteries and we left for India excited at the next stage in our journey.

 

Buenos Aires: Argentina 2nd -5th February

I was really excited about our four days in BA. We had met an Australian/Argentinian girl back in El Chalten who had given us excellent recommendations about what to see and do particularly at night and seeing as we had three nights I was excited about getting out my (one) nice dress that’s remained stubbornly at the bottom of my backpack for some for the famous Latino nightlife.

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We were staying in the San Telmo district, the oldest barrio and full of markets, antiques and cobblestone streets. Very atmospheric and we really liked it. We arrived late Sat night and I was excited about the San Telmo markets that completely take over the area every Sunday so despite the light rain when we woke up, I dragged Paul around them for a couple of hours and we had a great lunch (we were back in the land of steak and chips after all).

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I know it’s cheesy but I wanted to go and see a Tango show and had done a little bit of research on the best value for money and the one that seemed to be best was also the closest to San Telmo. We had planned to go and see a different show called La Fuerza Bruta that night which was the one thing this girl recommended above all but it was way over the other side of town and it made more sense for us to do the Tango show the first night when we were close and spend the day and night on the other side of town on the Tuesday (there was a Monday night drumming show I also wanted to see). This seemed like a perfect solution to save on very expensive taxis and so we bought tickets that afternoon for the Sunday evening Tango show.

It was a great show with beautiful live music, amazing dancers, and surprisingly good food. We had a group lesson beforehand which was hilarious as Paul had one or two (three or four??) tequilas before we left to get him in the mood.

Not strictly Tango but at least he was getting in the mood....

Not strictly Tango but at least he was getting in the mood….

Dinner at the the theatre

Dinner at the the theatre

There was also unlimited wine included in our ticket – mistake. Throughout the night we had been sitting next to the loveliest couple in their 70s who were Hungarian and we chatted through dinner about life during and after the cold war. Fascinating couple and by the end the man was Paul’s new best friend. Helped by the wine (of which they also had had quite a bit) Paul and this gentleman were arm in arm staggering through the backstreets of BA to our waiting bus.

The next morning Paul was a little worse for wear and it this unfortunate point that I realised I had completely screwed up and this made me mad. Not in oh that’s a shame kind of way but really, truly angry! I had previously looked up tickets for Fuerta Bruza and seen there were 8 shows a week. Like a complete idiot I assumed (yes I know what they say about assuming) it was on every night with a Sat matinee. Not so, there were only shows Thurs – Sun. I had spent 2 months looking forward to this and now we couldn’t go. I don’t think I have ever been so angry with myself – normally I can blame someone else!! I know boo hoo…first world problems and all that but I’m normally so organised and a good planner I just couldn’t believe something so basic had escaped my attention and I was extremely angry about it. Combined with Paul’s hangover Monday was a write off and we didn’t even make it to the drumming show as Paul’s head really hurt and he didn’t think drumming would make it any better and I wasn’t in the mood to persuade him. Instead he suggested going out for a curry as that’s the food we are missing massively. Should have known better – South Americans can just not do curry.

Tuesday was a new day however and so we spent all day walking around the city and getting a really good feel for all the different neighbourhoods. We also spent an hour or two walking around La Recoleta Cemetary, where the great and the good of Buenos Aires try to outdo each other with some quite astounding tombstones.

La Recoleta

La Recoleta

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Someone explained it to me as “pimp my tombstone” and that’s quite a good description. Apart from anything it’s an excellent place to practice your photography if you’re into it which Paul is so that was good fun. We were cream crackered when we got home that night but the bar opposite our hostel looked like a great place to head into and have dinner. It was pretty full with tables spilling onto the pavement but we managed to get a table inside and have steak and chips (again!) It was yummy and we were both firmly of the opinion Tuesday was a much better day!

The following day we were flying to Sydney but not until the evening so we left our bags in our hostel and took a taxi to La Boca neighbourhood. The poorest of all the neighbourhoods La Boca is famous for 2 things – La Boca football club (Maradona) and El Caminito. The latter is a strip of streets with multi coloured housing. The story goes that back in the day the only housing its inhabitants could afford where shipping containers from the docks where they worked so to make them a bit more appealing they were painted in bright and bold beautiful colours. Not sure if this is true but it is certainly a sight now.  

El Caminito...

El Caminito…

DSC07448Maradona, Evita and...I forget the other one!!

Hug?????

Hug?????

 

We had heard horror stories of going to La Boca as with the exception of the three tourist streets it’s a dangerous and rough neighbourhood. This means the only “safe” way of getting there and back is in a taxi but even here we get told of scams of taxis even in the official queue (operated by police) that would take a wrong turn just 4 or 5 streets away and suddenly the occupants were getting robbed at gun point. Did make us think a bit but we had no problems, in fact the only place we were robbed was at lunch but I guess that’s no different than eating in Trafalgar square or on the harbour at Sydney! After a couple of hours of wandering and eating we headed back to collect our bags and head to the airport. It was time for the biggest set of flight yet – 35 hours to Sydney, via San Paulo and Dubai. It’s fair to say we weren’t looking forward to it yet there’s always a bright side – I managed to watch the entire season 4 of Downton Abbey and Broadchurch. Result!

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Florianopolis, Brazil : 21st January – 1st February

We had opted for the cheapest flights to Florianopolis which meant changing at Buenos Aires and picking up our baggage there as we travelled on 2 different airlines. Flight one to BA was meant to be at 10.30am so we organised our taxi for 8 and were dropped at the airport at 8.30. Getting to the LAN counter there was no queue and we soon realised why – they had changed the flight to be with another airline and it was also “delayed” and would now leave at 9.50! Smiling, we left the counter and joined the queue at the counter next door – it was now about 8.45 and after about 15 minutes we could see the check in staff getting agitated and calling all passengers travelling to Buenos Aires forward. I couldn’t understand why until I saw out boarding pass. The flight wasn’t at 9.50 but at 9.15 – it was now 9.05 and we still had security and all the other stuff to get through! We got to our gate fine and guess what although not officially delayed we sat on the tarmac until 10.30 anyway! We just couldn’t believe that a domestic flight could be brought forward by an hour and 15 minutes and the passengers not be notified – we double checked and we hadn’t received any email or text message! Amazing South American efficiency once again!

Anyway we got into BA fine, picked up our baggage and realised that our next flight was properly delayed – by 2.5 hours. Not only did this mean a very boring 10 hours in transit, it also meant we wouldn’t get in until past midnight. Considering we were meant to be picking up a car and driving to our hostel about 20km away from the airport we spent 10 minutes stressing about what we would do if we couldn’t pick up the car before realising there was nothing we could do it about it. Fortunately, the car rental office was still open at 0.20 when we landed. Unfortunately, the lady spoke no English (I hadn’t fully understood how different Spanish and Portuguese sound) and she didn’t have a map. No problem there was still a very tired looking man on the tourist information desk and surely he would have a map. Ummm no he didn’t have a map either. Luckily Paul had downloaded from google maps 5 screen shots of the hostel and the airport – not ideal but would have to do. Now all we needed was money and there were 4 ATMs handily located just outside. Very handily located but unfortunately all rubbish! Not one worked with either Visa or Mastercard – we tried all sorts of combinations even trying to withdraw money on a credit card but nothing. We knew we would probably have to pay for our hostel in cash and with no reals (only Argentinian pesos) we were a bit stuck. It was now past 1am and we were tired but there was one last trick in the box – Paul had seen a bureau de change that was still open so went inside. 10 minutes later he was back outside and we still had no reals – seems that the bureau de change had their own exchange rate and basically would only buy pesos at double the going rate meaning we would have lost about £150.

By now we were so angry so we just decided to get to the hostel and hopefully see a cashpoint on the way. We didn’t and it was only because Paul is very good with directions that we found the hostel at all. It was actually more of a house and we felt like complete trespassers creeping through the front garden and in the unlocked front door. I had expected to maybe find a key left out with our name on but there was nothing – all rooms downstairs had their doors closed so up we went to the first floor feeling like creepy intruders. There was no one about and eventually we found a dorm room that wasn’t set up so we were confident no one else would come in late and discover us…it did however mean we slept in bunks with no sheets or bed covering at all. We obviously had our sleeping bags but it was 28degrees and out bags were bought for trekking at altitude! I don’t think either Paul or I had what you could call a restful sleep! In the morning we just wanted to leave and get to our next hostel on the beach so we packed up and apart from 2 kids playing on the lawn there was no one. We called out and hung around in the front garden for about 10-15 minutes and no one appeared. Eventually a lady came out and I had to try and explain in my rubbish Spanish that our flight had been delayed, we arrived very late and slept in the dorm room and that we had tried to get money out but nothing worked. There was a lot of nodding and smiling but I’m not sure how much she understood. In the end she agreed we could pay in pesos for the night’s stay and we were so grateful. Arriving in the wee hours in a new country with no money and no language skills, picking up a car and driving on unfamiliar roads with no map to effectively a stranger’s house is probably not an experience that either of us would look to repeat!

After our eventful start however Florianopolis proved to be the most relaxing of places. We had booked a different hostel for the next three nights and as soon as we arrived we knew we would like to stay for more and we did – ending up there for the whole 10 nights!

Home!

Home!

The view from our balcony

The view from our balcony

It was a wonderful private room with a massive balcony right on the beach. The beach itself was at the southern end of the island which is meant to be the quieter end and more traditional. It was beautiful, little fishing boats lined up along the shoreline in the evening ready to depart early morning and arrived back throughout the day hauling whatever they had caught up and straight into the restaurants. We were pretty much the only European tourists at this end of the island. Everyone we spoke to was either local or Argentinian tourists which was brilliant as it added to the sense of isolation but wasn’t great when it came to ordering food! Once we realised what calamari, prawns, salad and chips was in Portuguese we were laughing but it took some time!   

  

Locals relaxing around the fishermen

Locals relaxing around the fishermen

Typical lunch...typical view...heaven!

Typical lunch…typical view…heaven!

One of the reasons we found it so relaxing was the fact we got into a great routine while we were there. We’d wake up about 10, I’d spend an hour doing pilates while Paul went for a walk along the beach, then we’d have a late breakfast and drive 5 minutes to a deserted beach that had excellent surf for Paul.

Paul body surfing...far and away his favourite thing.

Paul body surfing…far and away his favourite thing.

We’d stay there until about 2.30-3pm and go for a buffet seafood lunch. We’d drive back to the room, and take a wander on our own beach which was beautifully flat a bit like a Thai beach and play ball in the crystal clear water. We would head back to the room about 6, shower and watch the sunset – maybe go and have dinner on the beach if we were hungry.

Sunset...

Sunset…

DSC07239Sounds boring but we did that every day and totally loved it. Paul was really pleased as he thought I would hate “only” beach for 10 days.

We were both sad to leave Florianopolis and out little sanctuary for the hustle and bustle of Buenos Aires. We would have easily spent another week there at least. Apart from the beauty of it all we were really pleased by the value we found. We had been warned Brazil was extremely expensive but actually we found Chile and Argentina to be more expensive and for not the same quality.

Our beach..

Our beach..

DSC07299DSC07288We pretty much went back to the same seafood restaurant every other day because it was fantastic value – fresh salads, vegetables and fish and you paid by the kilo. I loved this system because the food was great and you paid for what you ate. The value in that was unlike anywhere else we found in South America. It was the same for our beautiful room with balcony on the beach and the car hire too. Everything was cheaper than expected and for the money better than we had found in the other “developed” South American countries.

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Sad as we were our time came to an end and we were on our way to Buenos Aires for the last 4 days of what had been an excellent four months in Latin America.

Mendoza and the wine country: 17th – 21st January

As promised our bus pulled into Mendoza at 8.30am on Friday morning and we set to trying to find a taxi to take us to our hostel. The first thing that hit us was the heat – Mendoza was hot! Even at that time in the morning we were sweating petty badly and couldn’t wait to get inside and in the AC. Bariloche had been hot but this was another level. We got to our hostel, dumped our bags and had a shower and then worked out what we wanted to do for the day. We had pre-booked another hostel outside the city for three nights in the wine producing area of Maipu as we knew we wanted to explore the different vineyards by bike so we only had one day in Mendoza itself. We figured if it was great we would just add on another couple of days after Maipu before moving on to our next planned destination of Cordoba.

I had read some good things about the city and Lonely planet raved about it so I was quite looking forward to a nice wander around a beautiful, bustling city after the peace and quiet of the previous few weeks. I was sorely disappointed. It probably didn’t help that it was 40 degrees and I was tired, plus we had left our favourite place to go there but Mendoza didn’t live up to expectations at all. The city is not beautiful – yes it has wide tree lined streets, but they are full of traffic and the architecture is nothing special at all. It has a main plaza and four smaller “satellite” plazas that by all accounts you just “have to go and see”. One of the smaller ones is called the Spanish Square as it is adorned on its walls with original Spanish tiles. Neither of these impressed us at all. I don’t know if was because they didn’t live up to anything I have seen in actual Spain but they were dirty, had graffiti everywhere, a lot of the tiles were broken, the fountains didn’t work and the main murial was damaged with large parts of it missing. As for the main square I wouldn’t have even known I was in it if the map hadn’t of told me so and I was suddenly aware of people getting a little too close (Paul was touched by a stranger and wasn’t impressed) and remembering the warnings I had heard of pickpockets.

After the disaster of the squares we headed to the main park which is 420 hectares in size and has a lake although you can’t swim in it. It was all we could do to lay down on the grass and try and sleep. It was just too hot to do anything else (we didn’t even go out to eat that night as we couldn’t muster the energy – it was too nice to stay in our room with the fan!) and although we were still looking forward to Maipu we were definitely not going to spend any more time in Mendoza. We were also considering changing plans and not going to Cordoba as one look at the forecast showed similar weather and is also inland. However we decided to go to Maipu and make a final decision over the wine which always makes you see things better! J

The next morning we got a taxi and showed him on the map where our hostel was. It was pretty much central Maipu – just 2 streets away from the main square. Do you think this man could find it. I doubt he could find 2 of his body parts if you know what I mean. Before we even arrived in Maipu he was stopped at the petrol station yacking away with some man who has giving him directions, then he stopped again and listened to somebody else and then again until finally he gave up and just dumped us at the side of the road in what was definitely not Kensington. We were both angry as he wouldn’t tell us where we were or point to it on our map and crowds of men doing nothing but hanging around outside rundown shops were starting to take an interest in us with all our stuff. Paul looked at the meter and it was 115 peso – Paul gave him 100 but of course this did not make him happy and he started shouting so in the interest of getting the hell out of there as quickly as possible Paul paid him the extra 15 peso (about £1.50) along with a few choice words of advice about his career as a taxi driver. (As an aside I really miss black cab drivers!!) After about five minutes of walking as quickly as possible I remembered an intersection he had driven past and ignored and it looked similar from what I could now see on the map. With no other options we backtracked through residential streets for about 30 minutes until we got to the intersection and from there Paul could work out where we needed to go. Another 25 minutes and were through the door of our hostel – or rather the family’s house we were staying in. That was a very stressful hour and a half in 40 degree heat and with 25kgs of baggage but our family were lovely and although their English was limited they were always with a big smile and did everything they could to make life easier.

Not wanting to waste any more time we went out straight away to hire bikes and get at least a couple of visits in to the vineyards. Maipu has so many vineyards and olive oil farms it’s unbelievable. You could easily spend a week there and do 2 or 3 a day, if not more. Not all are open at weekends though and not all speak English. What’s great though is when you hire your bikes you get a map and the man takes you through each vineyard (large, small, modern, old, restaurant and tours etc) so you can plan where you want to go, when. I think there is a kind of “Camino de Vino” as most of the vineyards are off the main road and there are tourist police making sure you stay on it and get to your destination. (More on that later…)

Lunch at vinyard 1....

Lunch at vinyard 1….
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Anyway, on that Saturday afternoon the first vineyard we visited was an old, traditional one with wooden barrels everywhere and a beautiful outside garden with bar and restaurant in the middle of the vines. We decided to eat lunch there and it was excellent. We also did a tasting there with an English speaking guide which was free (as was the entry) which was great value. After that and the bottle of wine that accompanied the meal we wobbled along to the next vineyard to get there for about 5.15. This was completely different. Totally modern and with a big electronic gate barring entry until the security guard called up and checke dit was ok for us to enter. Luckily it was and we biked up the drive to be met by a charming Argentinan with perfect English who showed us in to the warehouse which was like a minimalist art gallery. White walls with sleek black leather furniture and not a wooden barrel in sight.

Vinyard 2...

Vinyard 2…

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The serious stuff.....

The serious stuff…..

Oldest barrels in Argentina!!

Oldest barrels in Argentina!!

Our second vineyard I had read had been opened by a French couple who bought the land and disused machinery and brought the vineyard back to life. If you paid for a tasting you got a 20 minute tour of the whole process from picking, to fermentation and eventually to bottling. This was fantastic as the girl that showed us around was an English girl living in Argentina for a year learning all about wine. She was very funny and informative and it was nice to have a chat with someone from home about the pros and cons of South America!

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It was on the way home from here that we realised the tourist police are there for good reason. It was quite a track back to the main road from this vineyard and we could see a country lane that would meet the main road which would cut out a good 20 minutes of cycling. We took it and were just saying how lovely it was to cycle off the main road when we passed a couple of dodgy looking characters. They didn’t say anything but we realised how isolated the lane was. About 2 minutes later we came upon a bunch of young lads lazing about in one of the irrigation ditches. One of them got up and lazily ran up to Paul and jogged alongside him for a few seconds. I was behind him and thought it was strange and then realised that yes he was looking to lighten him of his load. 2 thoughts ran through my head, first haha Paul doesn’t have anything valuable on hi, then oh crap that’s because I have everything on me. As if he read my thoughts he slowed his jog down and pulled up alongside me and started tugging at my backpack. All I was thinking was keep peddling – he can’t get anything if I stay on the bike.

At the same time Paul had leapt off his bike and looked ready to kill this lad who after about 8 attempts gave up in the face of Paul’s aggression (all the more impressive with 5 months of uncut hair and 3 months of beard!) and sloped off back to his friends who I seem to remember were laughing. With Paul back on his bike we peddled as quickly as we could to the main road where we felt it fine to stop, take a drink and do a quick check of everything. No damage done. We were livid but also felt a little stupid as we had been told to be careful and we made the classic decision – it won’t happen to us. Just goes to show you never know. That said I don’t particularly think there was any real malice in the attempt. If I was a rubbish cyclist and I had come off I’m pretty sure he would have helped himself to my bag but I am no Bradley Wiggins and if he had really wanted to pull me off he could have. It almost felt like it was a bit of a boys dare to see what happens rather than a bunch of hardened criminals intent on stealing what they could.

Back in the hostel we were happy to be packing up and spending our last night in Maipu. The wines were delicious and the vinyards interesting and for the most part pretty but the surrounding area was ugly and industrialised. It wasn’t the idealised rolling countryside that we had expected and hoped for. We also did wine tasting in South Africa which was perfect and no comparison in my opinion. In Mendoza’s defence we obviously came at the wrong time. Summer is not the time to do it – spring or autumn would be much more pleasant but that only accounts for part of our disappointment. It was a shame but it was only relief when the taxi came to pick us up and we headed off to the curveball in our plan….Brazil!   

 

Bariloche and Las Siete Lagos Ruta: 7th January – 16th January

We arrived in Bariloche about 7pm after two full days on the bus with an overnight stop in a hostel the bus company provided. Consequently we didn’t to do much other than find our hostel, have a shower and get a quick bite to eat. Luckily for us because it was such a mega bus journey the company puts a “tour” guide on the bus with you – thankfully they don’t talk constantly but rather have information on things to do, a brilliant map of both the town and the surrounding areas and just to answer any other questions. One’s brains tends to turn to mush after such a long bus ride so I found him very useful and as a result of him and his map we found our hostel very quickly.

Our hostel was great and we settled in really quickly. Our first couple of days were spent enjoying the warmth and sunshine and we found a great couple of restaurants on the shore of the lake with beautiful views which were very relaxing. We knew we wanted to rent a car for 4 days and explore Las Siete Lagos Ruta or “the Route of the Seven Lakes”. A stretch of road about 200kms up to another lakeside town called San Martin de los Andes and yep you guessed it – you pass 7 lakes on the way. Technically this can be done on a day tour but we were so tired of bus and extremely excited to get some independence back in the shape of our own car! Friday morning came and we were like 2 school kids getting into the car squeaking with excitement.

On the road!
On the road!

We hadn’t booked any accommodation for our little road trip as we wanted the freedom of stopping when we wanted and this meant we weren’t sure how far along the road we would get each day. We had our eye on a town about 80kms north of Bariloche called Villa de Angorara and this is where we ended up staying the first night. 

On the way we passed some of the most stunning scenery I think either of us have ever seen. Aquamarine rivers, deep glacial blue lakes, emerald forests and skies the colour of cornflowers all combined to make a really magical landscape. We stopped a few times on the first day at shady camping spots and look out points and then we arrived in the town about 4.30.

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Thus started the only (slightly) annoying part of each day – trying to find a bed. Probably wouldn’t have done anything different but would have been more prepared had we known Bariloche is the place for Argentinians to holiday. Families book out entire cabanas and camping sites, young couples and groups of friends take a month off over Christmas and head to the hostels and retired couples do the same – only in the more upmarket hotels. At first we weren’t that worried as there are tons of cabanas, hotels, B+Bs and hostels signposted everywhere. When our 4th attempt was fully booked however and we had progressively driven further out we were feeling a little frustrated. Then result – we got the last room in a hotel which was actually very nice. Room booked and the sun still high in the sky we continued on the road to get to a lake beach we had seen on the map. It was one of the most peaceful places and although not deserted it still had a feeling of space. We fell asleep on the beach and then watched the sun go down over the mountains a golden orb reflected on the rippling waves.

On that drive we had driven across a bridge and seen the most amazing coloured river below. This had obviously stuck with Paul as in the morning he announced that he wanted to go swimming in said river. The temperature was consistently between 28-32 degrees so a cool off would be welcome but these rivers and lakes are glacial and more than one of the locals had mentioned that they were too cold to swim in. Paul was undeterred though so we pulled in under the bridge and parked up. The river curved around under the bridge so we walked up a bit to a shady patch where some of the trunks had fallen in the water. At this point it was quite shallow and you could see the river rushing over the stones – it was clear the river was quite fast here and then slowed down and widened quite a lot around the curve. Paul decided he would “float” from the stones down to where I would meet him where we had parked. The water was, as expected, freezing but Paul loved it, describing it as the best natural water slide. Once around the corner it also got very deep but was clear to the bottom so he could dive and swim underwater and basically fool around. He had so much fun the first time that a fellow tourist just taking a picture turned around to his wife and said I’m doing that too. So the two of us sat on the bank with towels waiting for the men to come out (which Paul did eventually!)

Paul's river!

Paul’s river!

DSC06905DSC06917We continued on the road and found a beautiful forest leading through to a lake and stopped here to have lunch. Then in the afternoon we turned off the main road and wound our way down a gravel road to reach another beach which was again just stunning. We left about 6.30 as we still had to find a place to stay but even though it was Saturday night we weren’t too worried as we had driven to San Martin which is a big town. That was a stupid assumption on our part. The place was packed and even really expensive hotels were completely booked out. Everywhere you looked there were signs outside of the hundreds of B+Bs proclaiming No Hay lugar (No vacancy). We were beginning to think we would have to drive all the way back which was immensely depressing when out of the corner of my eye I saw it – Hay lugar!! Paul did his best Stig impression and virtually did a handbrake turn on the middle of oncoming traffic to get us back to the sign. A very nice man came to greet us and showed us to the last room. It was actually a little self contained apartment with single bed downstairs and double on a mezzanine floor upstairs. It was basic but acceptable except for one thing – it reeked of gas. As soon as we walked in we both went straight over to the stove assuming it had been left on but it hadn’t. On closer inspection we found a very old gas heater that didn’t work but was decaying in the corner and ponging greatly. Health and Safety hasn’t come to South America yet. We still took the room but decided that we would be sleeping with all windows open and our faces virtually hanging out of the top window. For his privilege we paid £45.00 – like I said this was an expensive area!

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We woke up in the morning happy to be alive and went and had breakfast on the lake front. We wanted to stay our last night in a tiny town called Villa Traful. The drive down there was on gravel so bumpy but beautiful. Villa Traful was lovely but this time luck was not with us and it was most definitely full. We had no choice but to continue on to Villa Antgora again which made Paul happy as it meant he could revisit for river from the first day. It also meant we drove back through the forests at sundown which made for beautiful sunbeams and diffused light. We had another stressful 90 minutes in VA trying to find accommodation as the place we stayed in night one was full, but in the end we found a nice alternative and in the process found some really beautiful hotels that we know we would like to stay in again as we will definitely return to Bariloche one day as a holiday destination.

Despite being so beautiful there was nobody here!!

Despite being so beautiful there was nobody here!!

DSC07030DSC06959The next morning we went once again to Paul’s river and spent an hour with Paul swimming and then we headed back to Bariloche. We had a new hostel for the next few nights and it was out of town and sort of tree houseish in style. While we still had the car we filled up with food for the next few nights cooking and went out for dinner. We both ordered the mini beef and chips and thank goodness we did – it was still 300g of steak and a huge bowl of chips. It was a lovely way to finish our car adventure.

The next day we hired kayaks. We had been wanting to do this for ages and it was so much fun. We made a packed lunch in the morning and set off on the bus. The hire place was still 3km from the nearest bus stop so by the time we got there it was about midday. We had hired them for the whole day and had to return them by 6. In this time we could probably have kayaked the whole circumference of the lake but this wasn’t our intention. We wanted to kayak for half an hour or so and then pull into all the little bays and coves that we had been seeing but couldn’t access by car! On the way out the wind was behind us and apart from steering we didn’t need to really kayak at all. The sun was out and it was wonderful floating along seeing the lake from a different perspective. We pulled in about 3 or 4 different times and before we knew it, it was approaching 4pm. I was aware that the wind had picked up so I was keen to turn around and start for home knowing that it was going to be a hard slog against the wind. It was SO hard! The wind was so strong that I swear sometimes I was going backwards! At one point I had to give myself a talking to and then really give it some to get going. We got back about 5.45 and we had consistently kayaked hard. At the end we were exhausted and completely soaked as the waves had gotten quite rough. That said it was totally exhilarating and I loved the two very different experiences. I loved less the 6km walk in wet clothes back to the hostel!

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The following day was our last in Bariloche and we hadn’t explored to the west of town. There is a 60km loop of road that winds between two lakes which you can bike around in a day. This is what I originally wanted to do – however after yesterdays escapades my shoulders ached, Paul’s legs ached and we had seen a little of how hilly the loop is from the bus. Biking aborted we caught the bus about a quarter of the way round the loop and found a nice restaurant overlooking the lake. From here it was about an hour’s walk to the start of a forest trail that lead us down to a beach where we chilled for a couple of hours before returning the same way. We slept well that night knowing that the following day we would be catching the overnight bus to Mendoza. Leaving Bariloche at 1pm it would arrive in Mendoza at 8.30am the following morning. We were so sad to leave Bariloche. Even though we had had the best part of ten days there which is the longest we have stayed put in one place so far we could have stayed for another ten. Still the wine country was calling us and we knew we had 4 days booked to enjoy all the wine we could:)

 

El Calafate / El Chalten: 28th December – 5th Jan 2014

 We were a bit tired on our first day in El Calafate after such a long bus journey so we decided not to rush to see the glacier and instead get all the information on the different ways of seeing it (bus,boat,tours, etc) and have a lovely lunch in the sun as unlike Ushuaia, El Calafate was always shining (unfortunately this was no indication of the weather at the glacier 80kms away – as we would find out). We decided to catch a bus to the glacier the following day at 9, get a 1 hour boat trip to the face of the glacier and then spend a couple of hours on the kms of balconies/walkways they have created to get an all round look at the glacier and then get the bus back. All good except for the fact that when the bus stops for everyone to pay the park entrance fee, this is the moment that you have to register for the boat trip. Our bus driver didn’t speak any English and no one on the 45 seater spoke good enough Spanish to translate what he said. End result we didn’t get a boat that day! I was on the look out for the dock/any sort of sign but there was nothing – it’s almost like they don’t want you to get that boat as in all likelihood you will (do what we did) and go and book the all- day boat tour for a lot more money!

The Perito Moreno Glacier

The Perito Moreno Glacier

Anyway, the bus dropped us off and we soon realised 80kms makes a lot of difference to the weather – it was freezing and grey and while still spectacular it wasn’t very pleasant to just sit and watch the ice. Sounds funny – “to watch the ice” but you really can feel its movement. The glacier moves 2 metres a day and very often you can hear the ice cracking which is a really awesome sound. Half the time this seems to be followed up by ice chunks falling off the face of the glacier. Obviously sometimes these can be very small or very large or really anything in between. Paul and I were lucky that in the first 5 minutes we saw a significant break and it was so cool to watch. Mini iceburgs are then created and float like jetsam in front of the face. We walked for a couple of hours seeing the glacier from different positions and heights and there were another couple of break offs we saw. Annoyingly when we were climbing the stairs we heard a massive crack and then a load of cheering – we rushed up the last 15 steps or so just to be met with the sight of everyone clapping and saying “Wow that was fantastic….did you see that??”. Ummm……no! We still felt pretty lucky though with our first break – it’s just that once you’ve seen one you want to see another one immediately!

That night we went out to dinner as El Calafate has a really nice high street full of lovely restaurants and shops. We decided to go to a traditional Parilla and have the “Patagonian Lamb” for two. It was so big!!! There were ribs, and slow roasted legs, sausages and (weirdly) chicken breast???! It was nice but it could have fed 6 or 7 and didn’t come with anything else – no salad/veg or potato or even sauce and ordering extras is expensive in Argentina – quite often £5.00 per extra! Thus it was a lot of meat and probably not something we will try again!

We had decided that due to our boat fail we would book for the following day  to go on an all-day boat tour that sailed all through the Glacier National Park and visited the faces of three different Glaciers. Again the weather wasn’t pleasant but I still loved the day. There’s something really nice about being on the water with the wind (a lot of it) in your face. It was also incredibly beautiful sailing through the channels with icebergs floating past and although 7 hours was a little bit long I still really enjoyed the day.

View from our boat

View from our boat

Some cool iceburg shapes

Some cool iceburg shapes

 

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The day ended at the Perito Moreno Glacier which we had seen the day before from the balconies but it was weird because as the ship got closer I noticed that a massive chunk of the glacier that we had seen yesterday wasn’t there but I put it down to the angle that I could see. As the glacier moves forward an arch builds up between the front of the glacier and the land mass. This is unstable though and once it’s too big it collapses – approx. one or twice a year. The commentary informed us that the previous night the arch had collapsed – gutted!! A few hours earlier and we could have seen it and that really would have been amazing!

 

 

The arch that collapsed in the night

The arch that collapsed in the night

The next day we had booked our bus to El Chalten. Still in the Los Glaciers National Park, El Chalten is the gateway to the northern section while El Calafate is the southern. El Chalten is also home to the Fitz Roy Mountain range and “the home of trekking” in Argentina. There are numerous day hikes with spectacular views as well as multi day hikes with camping facilities along the way.

The entrance to the village with Mount Fitz Roy in the distance

The entrance to the village with Mount Fitz Roy in the distance

It’s quite an interesting little town – only about 1,100 inhabitants and nestled into the base of the mountains it has no phone reception and internet is through dial up satellite phones. It was only claimed by Argentina in 1985 (disputed by Chile) but has flourished with really only 2 main streets but they are filled with nice restaurants, cafes, a really nice waffle house and even a microbrewery in a German style beerhouse! This was our first stop when we arrived about 4. It was a beautiful afternoon and we sat in the garden in the sun looking out the mountains all around us. After 3 weeks of grey and cold it was really heaven!

In the beer garden and in the sun!

In the beer garden and in the sun!

This was New Year’s Eve and our hostel had told us they were having a party and everyone was invited. We had dinner in the hostel and as the night continued the place really started to fill up. We had a lovely girl in our dorm called Stella who was really interesting and she had dinner with us too which was great. Paul started on the tequilas and…well the dancing started pretty quickly after that:) About 11 the place got packed out with locals and tourists alike – most of the locals being in fancy dress and everyone had an awesome time.    

We knew that the one excursion we wanted to do in El Chalten was the ice climb. More adventurous than glacier walking, you get given crampons and ice picks and get taken to “walls” on the glacier where you get roped up and see if you can make it to the top! We had booked this for the 2nd so on New Year’s Day we decided to do two different day hikes. The forecast was for amazing weather and it was so I decided to do a walk recommended for clear days which takes you away from the mountains but at the top gives you a panoramic view of the entire mountain range and glaciers. It was about 22km and the map said to give 8 hours. Paul wanted just to walk for a few hours so he took a different route. The route I took was called Lago de Pligue and it was stunning. The entire way I could see the peaks of the Cerro Torre and the Fitz Roy Mountain and all the mountains in between.

Views at the beginning of my trek

Views at the beginning of my trek

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FREEZING at the top....

FREEZING at the top….

As beautiful as it was it didn’t mean there wasn’t a wind and when I got up to the last couple of hours it was really exposed and bitingly cold. It was also so strong that I got blown off my feet at least 4 times and had to crouch down regularly to let the worst of it blew over me. Some people turned back but it was so clear that there was no issue at all with visibility. I can’t imagine doing that walk in anything else than clear skies as you would be so cold and wet with absolutely no view – pointless. I had walked quickly as for me it was good exercise after numerous days on buses and it was so cold I virtually ran home so I got back in 5.5 hours. I walked into our room about 4.15 expecting to see Paul having a nap but there was no sign of him either in our room or in the common area. Still freezing I jumped into the shower, washed my hair and had a good old chat with Stella when I was finished. Paul walked into the room about 5.45 – he had taken a wrong turn and ended up walking far more than he had intended to. Luckily it had been a beautiful walk for him but wasn’t the semi relaxing day he had been after! It was made ok though as that night we went out and had the best steak and chips ever!!

The next day was the ice climb! It was grey and miserable and we couldn’t work out whether it was better or worse to do it in bad weather. In the end we agreed better as if the days had been reversed we wouldn’t have been able to hike and get the views. The downside though was that it was cold and even though there was a small group you still have to wait for about 4 other people to do their climbs until you can exert some energy. The guides all spoke great English and they started us off with some “easy” climbs. Paul went first and he did great!

Paul getting into the swing of it...

Paul getting into the swing of it…

Success...all the way to the top!

Success…all the way to the top!

He got right up on top and then bounced back down abesil style. I went next and it’s a lot blooming harder than it looks!! The guide had shown us the 5 step technique but somehow I found it a lot easier with only 4 steps! Obviously Paul pointed this out in front of everyone when I was about two thirds of the way up “What’s happened to the fifth step, Marianne??” he shouted. Ermm…Thanks a lot!

Once everyone had tried out the three different climbs the guides set up some harder ones and we all had a go at these. There were instantly three in the broader group that were excellent at it. 2 girls and a guy – all Israeli. One of the girls in particular was so strong and also completely fearless. Annoyingly she was also tiny and watching her scamper up the walls you would think she was a pro. After lunch we moved to climbing on the side face of the glacier which was massively difficult -much steeper and longer with bits jutting out so you had to lean back to get over. So difficult. This girl volunteered to go first and as she was putting on her crampons I asked her if she had ever done this or rock climbing before. She smiled sweetly, “no I have never”. Dammit!!  There goes Paul and my theory. As she was persevering over the protrusion in the wall one of her friends turned around and said to me “don’t worry, she’s never done this but she’s a paratrooper in the military and a flight instructor at that. She’s done over 120 jumps and been in 5 years” Ahhhhh ok so she’s an Israeli military badass. Awesome now I don’t have to be so competitive! Thus on the next climb when I really couldn’t get over the stupid protrusion and my arms felt like they were going to drop off I had no hesitation in giving up and bouncing down to the bottom. In the end the three Israelis and one Australian man succeeded in getting to the top (no, not Paul) out of 15 so we didn’t feel that bad. The guides handed round plastic cups filled with glacial ice and poured baileys and amaretto out for us all. It was then that the most awesome thing happened. With no warning or cracking sounds a humungous chunk of the face of the glacier fell off and then more and more. Literally about 1/6th of the face fell away top to bottom. Given that the face of the glacier is 2 km wide that is a LOT of ice. As if that wasn’t awesome enough what no one realised was that when this happens with such a lot of ice a HUGE TIDAL wave is caused a massive hole opens up in the middle of the lake and from it emerges the bottom of the glacier that was previously submerged in the form of a massive iceberg. It was the craziest thing to view. For fans of Pirates of the Caribbean it looked like the ship coming to the surface after being raised from the seabed. It was super, super cool.

A lot of ice had already fallen in.....

A lot of ice had already fallen in…..

....but there was more to come....

….but there was more to come….

 

....and then this happened....

….and then this happened….

just so cool!

just so cool!

 

Cheers!

Cheers!

After the excitement of the day before we woke up again to beautiful blue skies and again decided to trek on our own. I did the walk Paul had done 2 days previously (and didn’t get lost) up close to view the glacier and Fitz Roy Mountain itself.

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Paul did a third option called Lago Torre to see Cerro Torre. We both really enjoyed our walks and were exhausted by the end of the day having walked over 25km. We had a reasonably early start the next day to catch our 2 day bus to Bariloche so we went back to the microbrewery for dinner and then an early night. Both towns had been good but El Chalten was definitely our favourite. It had a much quieter, chilled vibe although our hostel was party central which was good fun for the time that we were there. It was also more beautiful being surrounded by mountains and we were lucky with the weather. Next up after 2 days we would be in Bariloche, still technically in Patagonia but also known as the Lake District. It was time to say goodbye to ice, snow and stark and hello to forests, lake and hopefully some sun!

Ushuaia: 22nd December – 27th December. Christmas at the bottom of the world!

We arrived in Ushuaia about 7.30 pm but being so far south the sun was still high in the sky (albeit hidden by clouds that had just finished a downpour). After 13 hours on the bus and a border crossing that was slightly more stressful than necessary (thanks to our bus driver thinking NZ was part of Australia and insisting that Paul hadn’t completed the necessary online visa or paid the reciprocal entry fee Australians have to) we were really looking forward to dumping our bags at the hostel and heading out for some famous Argentinian steak and chips. Obviously this was our first mistake as you should never look forward to anything when arriving at night in a new city let alone a new country.Our first job was to get money. Shouldn’t be an issue in a city of 60,000 people but there you’d be surprised. We walked towards the main street on the look out for ATMs, found one and my card wouldn’t work. Don’t panic Mr Mannering! This had happened before and there always seems to be one bank my card doesn’t like and one bank that it always works in. I just have to find it. Continuing on   – the aforementioned downpour had left quite a few large and deep puddles on the roads and yep as I was on the pavement a monster truck roared past and bang I was covered in icky puddle water all down one side. Not the best introduction to a place! Continuing on we found our second ATM and my card wouldn’t work again. This went on for the next 6 ATMs we could find and we were getting highly annoyed. Thus we decided we would just walk to our hostel with our bags – it didn’t look far on the map they provided. 20 minutes later we had gone up and down the street it was supposed to be on according to the map but there was no sign of it. So we walked back into town and headed for the tourist office, they confirmed that yes our map was completely wrong and the hostel was in fact close to the airport a good 10 minutes drive away in a taxi and too far to walk. Brilliant. It was now and hour and a half after we had got off the bus and we were no further to “dropping our bags off”. On our 7th attempt at a different ATM I could draw out money but at a charge of about £4.00 for every £100 drawn. Having painstakingly researched and opened a new bank account to avoid foreign withdrawal charges I was not happy about this and we worked out it was still cheaper to try and use Paul’s card. On the second attempt it worked – phew!

Now to find a taxi and our stupid hostel that was waaaaayyyy out of town! We had already decided we didn’t like the hostel which was a mistake. It was probably one of the best hostels we have stayed at so far!! The people that ran it were so lovely and it was just like a home from home with really nice dining rooms and kitchens. Plus there were a lot of solo travellers there and we all sort of formed into one big group. It was lovely and for the 4 nights we stayed there we felt really at home, cooking and chilling out with everyone discussing what they had done. We also had a great night out with them and some others we met along the way which was great fun. We were sad to leave on Christmas eve as we had booked a different place closer to town with a private room for Christmas. (Budget now requires dorm rooms where possible!)

Ushuaia itself I found to be a slightly strange town. It is so far south that everything is expensive and obviously a lot of people that are there are going on Antarctica cruises so a lot of tourists have money. It is nestled into a bay surrounded by snow-capped mountains so to look at very beautiful but the town isn’t pretty with power lines everywhere and ugly (and often run down) buildings. It is also a working port so there is a big dockyard there too – never the most attractive of things! Our impression was also probably tinged by the fact that we had pretty bad weather during our days there. It was very grey and on two days extremely cold and even when we had a little bit of blue sky and the sun was shining it could still rain on you – Patagonia is weird like that. It can literally snow, rain, blow a gale and have blue sky all at the same time. Never seen anything like it!

 Our first couple of days we just relaxed after Torres and got a feel for the town. I dragged Paul to a little museum about the local people’s way of traditional living. Ushuaia is the gateway to the Tierra Del Fuego National Park. This translates as the “land of fire” – an odd name I always thought for a land covered in snow and ice but the museum explained how it got its name. The local tribes were nomads and made huts out of braches and leaves every three or four days before moving on a little further up the coast once the food supply (mussels and fish) was thought to be dwindling. Every family always kept a fire going – it was never allowed to go out as with the weather getting a fire started was near impossible. The fire was obviously their only warmth and so it travelled with them all the time – even in the canoe the fire was transferred to the middle of it where a child would make sure it didn’t go out (the canoes leaked). Thus when European explorers came this far south all they could see along the shoreline were thousands of little fires some still some moving and hence the name. The traditional tribes also went naked as they found their skin dried quicker in front of the fire than clothes did. When the Europeans arrived bringing clothes a lot of the tribesmen died as they had no experience in washing clothes and disease quickly spread. Paul and I were freezing in summer and in thermals, gloves, hat etc – how they existed naked, in winter, living outside, I don’t think I’ll ever understand.

Walking to the glacier

Walking to the glacier

The next day was Cristmas eve and we had to move on to our next hotel. We already knew where in town it was so we had no more drama with bag dropping and once introduced to the owner/manager we went back out and caught a taxi up to Glacier Martial and walked for a couple of hours up to the base of the glacier.There were lots of families making snowmen and having snowball fights which did make me feel really Christmassy – or I did until Paul started throwing snowballs at me and I fell over (he kept throwing by the way)!

Snowbaaaaaallllllll!!!

Snowbaaaaaallllllll!!!

That night the owner of the hotel told us he was celebrating Christmas with his 2 brothers and a friend plus the four guests of the hotel (it was actually his house with 3 spare bedrooms for guests). We thought it was so nice of him to include us and it was a real feast. Not turkey with all the trimmings like at home but a fantastic slow cooked beef in sticky sauce with potatoes and salads and lots and lots of wine. It was amazing as it was all completly free and to me was really illustrative of how friendly the people are here. We stayed up until midnight and toasted Christmas Day with champagne – a really nice touch!

 

Our Argentinian Christmas table

Our Argentinian Christmas table

Christmas Day itself was very relaxed. Paul cooked chilli con carne (my request) and I bought some fizz. We chilled, read and played chess (much to Paul’s disgust we had 2 draws) and in the evening we went out for dinner. A nice relaxing day all round but not the same as being at home.

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas!

On boxing Day we decided to get a bus to the National Park and walk one of the trails. It was really nice but the weather could have been better. It was spitting on and off all the time and the clouds were concealing what we knew were very beautiful mountains but it was still nice to walk through the forests and on the shores – all the while thinking about the traditional people and the fact they lived naked. So cold!

 

Tierra del Feugo National Park

Tierra del Feugo National Park

We also booked our bus for El Calafate on boxing day and although it was a day bus it was a long one (are there any short ones?!) we left at 5 am and got into El Calafate at 1am the following morning. We would also need to go back Into Chile and then out of it (such is the shape of the 2 countries) so we fully expected it to be a pretty rubbish long and stressful day. It didn’t disappoint but I was really looking forward to the next few days in El Calafate and visiting the famous Perito Moreno Glacier.

Amazing sunset on the way to El Calafate - the only good thing about the bus journey

Amazing sunset on the way to El Calafate – the only good thing about the bus journey

Torres Del Paine. The W Trek: 16th – 21st December

They are many ways to enjoy Torres Del Paine. The National Park itself is huge and you can hike all around the perimeter – known as the circuit trek. This would take you between 7-9 days and you would need to carry all your own gear (tent, sleeping bags and mat, cooking equipment and food). Part of the circuit is known as the W trek (named for the shape of the trek ascending and descending three valleys) and it was this that we were going to hike. The majority of people only hike this part and as such there are four refugios along the way where you can choose to stay instead of camping. They all also have restaurants so you don’t need to carry any food other than snacks. This is what Paul and I had decided we would prefer to do. Chile is extremely expensive and it isn’t cheap to do it this way but I am so glad we didn’t camp. Patagonian weather is massively unpredictable and the wind is unlike anything I’ve ever known. It isn’t uncommon for tents to break and I just don’t think I would have got any sleep which would have made the hike so much less enjoyable!

The Park and the W trek

The Park and the W trek

Although our accommodation and food was taken care of we still had quite a lot of organising to do once we arrived in Puerto Natales. There is a hostel in town called Erratic Rock and they hold a 3pm talk every day about what you can expect and the logistics of everything. It’s free, they provide tea and coffee and it’s just fantastic. They have a guide talk for about an hour taking you through everything you need to know for both the W and the circuit. It’s so worthwhile because on the internet there’s not that many hard facts about the timetables of buses, what they cost, the return schedule etc etc. They also give input on the route you can take. We were pleased as they suggested going from east to west (which we did). This means that the “highlight” of the hike – the three towers is visited on your last day (and if you get up early enough) at sunrise when the towers turn a magnificent shade of pink.

Erratic Rock also rents out all the equipment you could possibly need which was useful as I wanted to rent trekking poles. I never thought I would be one of those walkers but on the Colca hike my knees had really started to hurt on the downhill stretches so I figured better safe than sorry and I was glad I had them.  Talk listened to and poles rented we went off to buy our round trip bus tickets to get into the park (3 hours from town) and some snacks. I also needed to buy a much more significant hat than the beautiful but flimsy knitted one I had got in Peru. I settled for a windbreaker that completely covered my ears. Not exactly the height of fashion (Paul says I look like a Russian dancer) but it did the trick and I was warm and toasty pretty much all the time.

Day One: Puerto Natales bus, Catarmaran and hike. Lodge Paine Grande to Refugio Grey (11km : 4 hours)

 Monday morning came and we walked to the bus stop along with all the other “hardcore” walkers with the massive trekking sacks and tents strapped to their backs. I felt quite piddly with my little 20 litre! We got dropped off at the second stop the bus makes to catch the 12.00 catamaran across Lake Pehoe which drops you off at Lodge Paine Grande.

At the beginning...

At the beginning…

This was where we staying the second night so it was interesting to see what would be waiting for us after two days of walking! The weather had been good to us so far although it was so windy we couldn’t hear ourselves talk. We set off for our 11kn about 1pm knowing we should be at the refugio by about 5 at the latest for a nice glass of wine. The walk is up the valley so it’s really quite exposed. The colours were beautiful even though the weather turned and the sky turned grey. As we were walking towards Lake Grey and Refugio Grey we thought this was quite apt!

Looking Russian!

Looking Russian!

Cute!

Looking cute!

We arrived at the refugio at 4.30. It was so nice! Much more like a fancy ski resort lodge than what I was expecting. We got shown to our room which was 4 bunk beds but we had it to ourselves which was a result! The showers were lovely and hot and there were wood burning stoves dotted around. They also had a separate restaurant and lounge area with leather sofas and comfy armchairs. We had the option of continuing up to the glacier itself another hour or so walk away but as soon as we saw this lounge we decided that we could do that tomorrow and cracked open a bottle of wine. The trek had properly begun!

Day Two: Refugio Grey – Grey Glacier – Lodge Paine Grande (7 hours : 21km)

It was another incredibly windy day and we started out in rain which very quickly turned to hail as we approached a very exposed lookout point. It really didn’t matter though as the views of the Glacier were astounding and standing next to iceburgs with hail pounding down on us was quite an experience. We continued on and with the glacier getting bigger with every step the sun came out for a little while and the views just got better and better. Eventually we turned around and walked back they way we had come, past refugio Grey where we stopped for lunch and then onwards towards Lodge Paine Grande. Another bottle of wine in front of the fire while we waited for dinner and an early night with the knowledge that the third day could potentially be our longest day.

He nearly got blown away...

He nearly got blown away…

The stunning glacier Grey

The stunning glacier Grey

 

Looking down on to glacier Grey

Looking down on to glacier Grey

 
Walking back in the shadow of these mighty peaks

Walking back in the shadow of these mighty peaks

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Day two finished!

Day two finished!

Very excited about new hiking trousers!

Unfortunately, Paul had woken up with a very sore leg and so didn’t particularly want to walk where he didn’t absolutely have to.  We both started up the French Valley but after about 20 minutes Paul decided he had had enough. Knowing this might be the case he had thought ahead and brought the kindle with us so he sat on a rock looking across to the hanging glacier while I continued up to the halfway viewpoint. The weather wasn’t great at this point but it was still a spectacular sight. You walk along a ridge and a horseshoe of snow covered mountains and glaciers surround you. It was absolutely lovely and I stayed at the viewpoint for quite a while before turning around and going back down to Paul.

Arriving at Camp Italiano

Arriving at Camp Italiano

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I thought the rest of the days walk wouldn’t be as good but the sun came out again and the last couple of hours were walking next to beautiful glacial lake as still as a millpond with the mountains across from us. Again just beautiful.

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We got into the refugio about 6. This time it was more what I expected – a basic common room with as many bunk beds as possible squeezed into dorm rooms. The four refugios are run by 2 different companies and the first two were completely different in character, food and service. The first two dinners we had were really tasty and large. Not so much in the second two. Also, I had left my Chilean immigration entry paper back in my main bag in Puerto Natales – safer I assumed. This wasn’t a problem in the first two refugios but suddenly in the third I had to pay a 6,000 clp “tax” or they wouldn’t accept us. Apparently this was not only the law but also the company’s policy. I couldn’t believe that if it was the law the first two refugios wouldn’t have minded so eventually we had to accept that we would have to pay it again the next night as it was the same company. Ummmm no. They still “taxed” us but this time it was for using the beds. Paul was ready this time and had the printed out confirmation with the total we had paid which clearly stated it included all taxes and agreed with the pricing list they had on the wall. Apparently though we had paid taxes to someone else and they needed an extra 3,680 clp. They didn’t care about the fact I didn’t have my entry paper with me and in the end I was happy as it was less than I was expecting to me. Still, overall we weren’t that impressed with the last two places which was a shame because it, as Paul said it, “leaves a bad taste in your mouth”. It is extrememly expensive to do the hike staying as we choose to in full board lodgings and we felt like we were being taken for a ride on both occasions. 

Day Four: Los Curnos to Refugio Chileno (Approx 13 km : 4 hours)

This was quite a short day and we were at Chileno about 3 in the afternoon. It was a beautiful day and we stopped so often because we felt like we were in a trekking magazine advert. When we arrived we had a decision to make – as it was such a nice day it was possible to continue for another 2 hours to see the towers and then two hours back to get back for dinner about 7.30. The alternative was to settle in and enjoy a bottle of wine in the sunshine knowing we could hike up and back in the morning and still get the 2pm bus to town at the end. You can probably guess that the wine won out and we spent a very enjoyable afternoon with the sun on our faces reading, chatting and looking out at the views. At that point I really didn’t want the hike to end and I was wishing we could do another couple of days.

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That night we asked at reception what time we would need to leave in the morning to get up to the towers at sunrise. 3am was the reply. I knew there was no way on this earth that I could convince Paul of that one but I still tried (albeit not very convincingly!) In the end we settled for a compromise – leaving at 5 we should be at the towers for 7 which while missing the pink colour should still get beautiful morning light, plus we could be back down to the refugio in good time to have a cup of tea and a half hour rest before continuing on with the rest of the walk back to where the bus would be waiting for us to go to town. It so happened that I woke up at 3am that night anyway and it was absolutely peeing it down and blowing a gale. I snuggled back down happy that our decision had been vindicated but also really hoping it cleared in the next two hours!

Day Five: Refugio Chileno – Towers – Puerto Natales (Approx 15km : 5.5 hours)

At 4.45 my alarm went off and we dragged ourselves out of bed and I hastily made some ham and cheese sandwiches from the breakfast that had been left out for us and we set off. Although it was still incredibly windy, the rain had completely cleared and it was a clear morning and sunrise.

View of the towers at 5.15 - shame about the 2 hour walk awaiting us.....

View of the towers at 5.15 – shame about the 2 hour walk awaiting us…..

We had an hour of walking through forest, before getting to the last 45 minutes or so of hiking steeply uphill and over a field of boulders. The forest walk was amazing, accompanied as we were by the dawn chorus and beautiful golden light. Unfortunately as we neared the towers cloud and mist descended again and it actually started to snow as we made our way over the boulders. We couldn’t see the top of the mountain at all and to make it worse as we were going up we were being met with sympathetic smiles of those coming down – who had got up in time for sunrise!! We recognise one of them and he said it was good but the towers hadn’t turned pink as the cloud/sun conditions weren’t right. I know I am a terrible person but I was (quite a lot) happy to hear this!!  It seemed the towers (and the early risers) were going to have the last laugh though as one smiling French person who bounded down, past our half frozen faces with rain lashing in our eyes, asked us “why are you bothering?”  Ever the optimist I was convinced that the sun would come out for us in time we just had to persevere. It wasn’t that hard to imagine as we had seen over the previous 4 days pretty much every type of weather that exists and quite often at the same time.

Before the cloud/mist/snow!

Before the cloud/mist/snow!

Sure enough as we hurled ourselves over the last few boulders the mist lifted a little and we caught a glimpse of one and half of the three towers! They are behind a beautiful green lake which was in itself stunning. It was extremely cold up there but we tucked into the ham and cheese sandwiches and after about 10 minutes could see a patch of blue slowly making its way across the sky. The sun came out and yes we could see all three towers! Quick, quick – THAKE THE PHOTO!!!

1,2,3! Success!

1,2,3! Success!

After about 25 minutes watching and taking it in the clouds came back over and this time it was for keeps. The rain started falling pretty heavy and we were soaked and cold by the time we got back to the refugio. That cup of tea and coffee was very welcome now and we dried ourselves off in front of the fire. We still had to walk the remaining 7km or so to the shuttle bus in the pouring rain but we consoled ourselves that the shuttle bus picks everyone up from a hotel which would hopefully be a good place to sit and dry off. We were right and the lobby of the hotel was a real sight of sore eyes. Comfy sofas, fires and a restaurant. I got changed out of my soggy things and celebrated the end of the trek with a hot chocolate. We had done it and it had been amazing. The scenery was out of this world and it hadn’t been particularly strenuous or challenging. Expensive yes, worth it, definitely.              

 

 

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