My first month in South America…
14.11.2009 - 08.11.2009 30 °C
After 12 hours on a flight from Auckland I landed in a pleasantly warm Santiago, the capital city of Chile! The first thing that struck me about South America was how little of the queens English people spoke, I had been told that learning spanish was advisable to get by, but in true Jamie style I thought I would learn the hard way….. Nearly one month later my spanish is getting better and I can ask basic questions and understand a bit, but its actually a big regret that I didn't learn good spanish before I arrived! Still its now firmly on my todo list for my return to the UK!!
Santiago was a nice city, but didn't have that much to do, unless you wanted to go out partying…. So after a couple of days of seeing walking to lookouts, eating completos (basically a hot dog, served with ingredients such as avocado, diced tomato and mayonnaise), making friends with the locals and chilling out in the hostel overlooking the historic Plaza de Armas I moved on!
My next pin on the map would be the town of Valparaíso, after a short (4 hours) bus journey I found myself in a fairly large seaside town. From the water Valparaíso begins to increase in hight rapidly and is basically built on a hillside, to help with these hill the Chileans have built ascensores. The ascensores are like very small wooden boxes, almost sauna like looking and pull people up and down these hills, if anyone has ever been on the Scarborough Cliff Railway they will know exactly what I mean! Though I seem to remember my old man being too tight to pay for us to use the lift and we always had to walk up the steps to the Grand Hotel, I am sure he always put a positive spin on it though..
Whilst only in Valparaíso for a couple of days, I managed to get to the beach resort of Viña del Mar further up the coast, it was just coming into their busy season and all the bars, tat sellers and cafes were just getting ready! As I was there mid week the beach was pretty quiet, except for the odd surf caster and person relaxing reading their books. I am assured that come the weekend the place is transformed by young Chilean's frolicking on the beach.
Early on a Wednesday morning I managed to squeeze into the ascensore with my backpack and headed towards the bus station, I soon realised that I was pushing it for time. Not wanting to miss my bus I tried to flag down a taxi, things were not looking good, until I saw a guy cleaning his taxi! In Jamie spanish I explained that I wanted to get to the bus station and used the word rapido several times.. To add insult to injury as I sat in the taxi my top button of my shorts popped off! Fortunately I managed to save the day using a plastic bag, the thought of running for my bus with my pants half way down didn't fill me with joy! After all the it seemed to do the trick and I made it 2 minutes before the bus left, panic over!
The bus was heading to Mendoza, Argentina on the eastern side of the Andes. As we climbed higher and higher the road got more windy till we eventually got to the boarder post. At the boarder post it was actually snowing, all I can say is spot the English person on his holidays, wearing shorts on t-shirt in the snow! On arriving in Mendoza you will be pleased to know that it was shorts weather and the plastic bag was still holding up well!!
After getting a bus to my hostel I was greeted with a 16 person dormitory that you couldn't swing a cat in, still it was somewhere to get my head down! There were two dutch girls in my dorm and as they were girls I thought they might have a needle and thread…. On asking the question they politely told me perfect English that neither of them had one, I then mearly mentioned that oh thats a shame and that was going to ask them to perform the repair! In which one of the girls gave the reply, YOU BASTARD! From that moment I knew we would get on like a house on fire and we would be great friends.
Argentine is famous for its steaks and vino, I must say we made sure we sampled as much as possible. After a night out in Mendoza we got a local bus to the wine tasting region and hired bikes to explore the local wineries! After visiting a couple of the vineyards we got settled at one with a great terrace, playing good music, excellent nibbles and superb rose! A couple of bottles later Martine (one of the Dutch girls) really didn't want to do the 10km ride back to Mr Hugo's where we hired the bikes from, after a quick conversation with the owner of the vineyard we found we were in luck, he was going back into Mendoza for an art exhibition, would give us a lift and arrange for Mr Hugo to pick up his bikes! By the time we had finished the vino and he had shut up shop, the bikes had gone, we don't actually have one photo between us actually on bikes….. Still good time had by all! Here are Martine, Sam and I enjoying the vino!
That evening he invited us to the gallery, free booze, we didn't have to be asked twice!
After our last lazy day sat by the pool in Mendoza we got the night bus to Salta. I have become accustomed to taking night buses and the Argentinean night buses are very comfy, it was about 1:00am and I awoke to what I can only describe as the sound of death, it was a really loud noise that sounded like ice falling out of a cool box and then onto someones lap, which then caused them to give the highest pitch screech from a bloke that I have ever heard! What had actually happened is a stone had either been thrown or had somehow bounced up from the road to the second level of the bus and smashed the window! After I realised everybody was OK I started to think about the sound that the guy made, it was like nothing I have every heard before. I analysed it for a while, I realised that this guy must have thought he was going to die, I mean you wake up and the window is caving in around you and you obviously think you are in some accident and you are going to die! Was that the sound of death? I think it was pretty close to it, though I would like to think in a similar situation I would be more inclined to go down fighting rather than screaming like a biiiatchh… Poor guy, he was quite embarrassed I think!
In Salta we mainly partied, drunk more good wine, ate the best steak I have ever had and went gaucho horse riding! The Gaucho horse riding was good and the horses were not brain dead like the last trek I did in New Zealand, its a similar kind of riding to what I had done already, though the owner of the ranch called cowboys (western style horseman) gays!!! Who was I to argue with a stumpy, balding, slightly plump gaucho?
The two girls Sam & Martine were pretty much doing the same route as me, so we stuck together! To be honest, they might not admit it but they needed me!! Next stop San Pedro, Chile, in the desert!! After the 8 hours or so on the bus, we were officially in the Chillian desert. San Pedro was a really nice place and underneath all the dust there is a really nice desert town with lots of character. San Pedro was quite expensive, but what do you expect in the desert? During our 3 days there we would go star gazing, sand boarding, visit moon valley and go for afternoon strolls in the desert.
The main reason for heading to San Pedro was to book a Salar De Uyuni trip, this trip would take us three days and would involve taking a 4x4 though desert, salt lakes, geezers, volcanic mud pools, seeing flamingos & llamas, staying in local villages on route and ending up on the famous Bolivian salt flats.
The trip was impressive to say the least, maybe with exception for the drunk drivers (which I will talk about soon). There was three vehicles from the same company following each other around stopping at the various sights, that said our group was a bit weird!! It was the girls and I plus a young French boy and his 63 year old granny. Granny was an old battle axe, she snored and farted at rate that would be picked up as a large scale tremor on the richter scale and she also seemed to love the coca leaves!!
Many Bolivians chew coca leaves and whilst it is where cocaine effectively comes from it does not have the properties of the class A drug that is mentioned in our newspapers everyday, I tried it the once, it tasted like… well chewing leaves and stained my teeth, I didn't have anymore coca leave from Granny!! Mum just for your reference and to assure you that I am not going to become a druggy have a read of http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coca.
So back to the drivers… one afternoon they kept disappearing and leaving us in villages waiting. At one of the villages the children told us what was going on, thats the beauty of kids they cannot keep a secret! They mentions words like cerveza and chikos, which basically translates to beer and girls! Sure enough when they came back they were drunk as skunks, I said that I wasn't having it and the Frenchy who spoke good Spanish explained that we would drive, he wasn't having any of it, probably thought he would loose his job…. I said fair enough and put up with it, after all he probably did this on every trip!
It wasn't long on the sandy tracks when he made what I would consider a serious mistake and could have easily lost control, bearing in mind his driving had been very good before! I lost it, told him to stop and basically told him to get out of the vehicle and I would drive, I had not made it 30 years on planet earth with all the stupid stuff I have done, to be killed by a pissed up Bolivian in the middle of the salt flats! He was drunk and obviously wasn't too happy about it, threatened to leave me there or take me to the Bolivian boarder, he was using words like gringo, saying I was in his county and being quite abusive! Maybe it was because I didn't understand what he was actually saying or maybe it was because I didn't want to end up in a Bolvian jail for ripping his drunken 20 year old ass out of the driving seat, but I managed to keep myself composed and told Frenchy to tell him he had one more chance and to drive carefully!! He got us to the lodge in the end and I was in my opinion the bigger man and used the word amigos and shook his hand! What else can you do in a country like Bolivia?
The trip ended in the town of Uyuni, we stayed there for two nights and marvelled at the women wearing bowler hats, generally ate slightly better food we had all been craving and planned the next stage of our trips! It was time to say goodbye to the Dutch girls, but there were 8 of us from the trip that were heading in the same direction Potosi!!
On a Monday morning we got on a very basic local bus to Potosi, this bus had everything, a drunken guy laying on the floor, hospital patient and even a nun! It was almost like been on transport in India!
We arrived in Potosi in the rain, the highest city in the world! Potosi was a nice, but hilly city, it had all the bustle of Bolivian city, but at a staggering 4200 meters, was pretty high!! The highlight of Potosi was going into a real working mine, these mines are not for the faint hearted! The miners work 12 hours a day in appalling conditions and for very little money! Each year many miners die in accidents! Before we visited the miners we stopped at the miners market to buy them gifts, dynamite, soft drinks and coca leafs! Certainly don't think you can easily get these items in Leeds market!!
After Potosi numbers dwindled a little as people went in different directions, but we were still left with 5 of us that got the night bus to La Paz!! We were visiting La Paz during election time, La Paz the capital of Bolivia is quite a party town, but not unfortunately not during election time….. To be honest this did not matter as I was preparing myself for what would be my greatest physical achievement to date, summiting Mt. Huayna Potosi, a glacier covered mountain at 6088 meters!!!
Day 1: From La Paz to “Huayna Potosí” base camp Lodging in our Refugio. Practice mountaineering techniques in the old Glaciar. Return to hut.
Day 2: In the afternoon ascent to high camp 5200 mts. Lodging at Refugio II. After dinner we then tried to sleep for a few hours, none of us really slept very well!!
Day 3: At midnight we would climb in the dark to the summit (ice climb), descent to base camp!
As you can see from the pictures it was a truly amazing experience, only 50% of the people who attempt it actually summit the mountain, in fact one person from our group had to turn back as he thought his chest was going to explode! I can honestly say this is the hardest thing I have done, our guide was pushing us hard as he wanted to get back to La Paz to vote, I would have to stop and get my breath back about every 5 minutes!! Apart from the lack breath and a slight headache I didn't really suffer from altitude sickness, that was until later on that evening back at base camp. I had all the symptoms shivering, tingling fingers, hard to breath and loss of appetite!! The altitude sickness eventually went away but it took a days rest in La Paz and probably another couple of days after that to get back to my former self!
So now I have summited a mountain over 6000 meters I can honestly hand on heart say that I will never do it again, it was amazing but I don't think I should ever put my body though that ordeal again!! Though I must say, from the start failure was never an option for the machine :-)
Next stop Peru, the land of the Inca's……..
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