Posts Tagged ‘South America’

San Carlos de Bariloche is a small city in Río Negro, Argentina. Most people seem to call it Bariloche, and for some reason I call it El Bariloche. It’s surrounded by the foothills of the Andes and it sits on the shores of Lake Nahuel Huapi. It’s a regional tourist centre for mountaineering, hiking, and skiing. I don’t remember ever making the decision to come here, it just seemed like a natural progression on my journey from Mendoza to Tierra del Fuego. I had intended to travel down the coast of Chile and return through Argentine Patagonia. The cost of Argentina at the time I visited was considerably less than Chile, so I think this was a strong motivation. I dodged the hotel hustlers at the bus station and decided to walk into the town; I was pursued by several stray dogs as is often the case on my travels in South America. The outskirts seemed unremarkable and didn’t leave much impression. However, after checking into a local hostel I immediately set out to have a look at the town centre and the view across the lake. I was very impressed.

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Julio Roca statue

My experience of both Chile and Argentina was always tainted by watching football. My image of the people from this part of the World was always dark haired swarthy characters who either outclassed or out cheated my long suffering England team. This image is of the exotic Latin types transplanted from the back streets of Napoli or Madrid into the vast regions of the Americas. I was aware that there was an influence, especially this far south, from Germans and British. Although I knew this I never really expected to land in what seemed like mini Switzerland. The style of the centre could have been plucked from William Tell. It’s a beautiful if embarrassingly twee town. Most of the people seem overwhelmingly European, or should I say Northern European. The comparison with Santiago de Chile and Mendoza was quite striking. I felt like an outsider with my scraggily dark hair and unshaven black face.

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Centro Civico

This part of the World was settled by some Germans, the name of the town may actually come from Carlos Wiederhold who established a shop here. There were subsequent migrations of people from all the Alpine areas of Europe. Slovenians, Austrians, Swiss, and Northern Italians. The aesthetics are specifically Alpine with log cabins and those large boulder type walls, the sort you may find in Aspen, Colorado. I always wonder about ski type places whether things are built like this because they have to be or because they just feel that they should be. Is it the abundance of ‘ski lodge’ materials that lead to the ski lodge aesthetic or do people just think, well, it’s a ski lodge kinda place so let’s make it look that way. Either way, I’m not complaining. I love the place! There are many nice little cafes and chocolate shops. You can wander round looking at the semi ethnic souvenirs with an icy breeze rolling in from the lake.

It’s so far from most places, including Buenos Aires which feels another world away. It makes me wonder if it could be the perfect hiding place for Germanic types hiding from prosecution or trying to evade War Crime charges. If Hitler ever did escape before the Red Army rolled in I image this place would be a great choice. There are a couple of publications who used this area as the backdrop to their various conspiracies. To lend weight to the argument the local German School was apparently run by former SS Hauptsturmführer Erich Priebke. Anyway, that war is over and Bariloche stands as a testament to solid and tasteful Architecture with streets of old world charm. I actually returned here on the way back from Tierra del Fuego, I wish I had stayed longer!

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The Perito Moreno Glacier is in the Los Glaciares National Parkin the south west of Santa Cruz Province, Argentina. I took a tour there from El Calafate and went on a boat to get close to the 60m+ high terminus which is 5 kilometres wide.  The glacier is advancing from its 30 km length. The ice cliffs sometimes collapse into the lake which creates a pretty impressive noise and an even more impressive splash. When I think of glaciers I just imagine a world of ice. The reality here is that it juts past the green forest clad hills. These evergreen hills contrast sharply against the blue ice of the glacier.

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I finally left Cusco which was hard to do, every time I ventured out I found some new places. On my last night before I caught the bus I was on a hillside next to a Jesus statue, oh… and next to an Indian woman with an alpaca, that’s Peru for you. I opted for a more economical bus than last time, I realised soon that this was a mistake. Cheaper buses are not too bad usually, there won’t be as much food and the steward will be undetectable from the general public, you put your own luggage on and tear your own ticket off, all these things are easy for me. The problem is that on these cheap buses you get the lower end of the market in terms of people. In this case mostly old native women with bundles tied to their necks and little bowler hats perched on their heads. It’s customary for me to be sat next to the little kids, drug dealers or crazy old people. On this particular occasion I thought it would be ok, a youngish guy put his bag next to me and saluted me ‘Buenas!!’. He then wandered off and I was left to think …ah well at least no screaming kid, I’ll get some sleep maybe have a brief conversation about football (I can actually converse with Peruvians as they speak Spanish using words and sentences unlike Chileans and Argentines). However, I was premature in my assumptions, no sooner was I relaxing into a state of pre-slumber than the biggest native woman ever… came and sat next to me.

                                                   As with most of the Indigenous people in this part of the world she was about 4 foot tall and 5 foot wide. Although that’s harsh. I take it back. She was only about 4 foot wide after shedding three of her blankets, these Aymara people LOVE blankets and bundles, there is no limit to the number of fine woven products they adorn themselves with. Within the many blankets and shawls a couple of niños usually pop out, the niños traditionally cause much trouble and their faces are always covered in food. This particular lady had no niños to speak of but she took all of her seat and half of mine, she also stunk of dried animal dung. Eventually I got fairly comfortable but every time the bus swung to the right (Peru is very mountainous by the way) she squashed me into the window. The discomfort got worse as the night progressed because the heaters were broken so everybody’s feet were catching a chill. The rest of the journey progressed like a bad lucid dream.

                 After a change of bus and the most informal border crossing ever between Peru and Bolivia, we reached our destination…Copacobana on lake Titicaca, by this stage the bus was mostly filled with Gringos. I chose the cheapest hostel 2 US dollars a night (15 Bolivianos) it was …basic, but ok. I found Copa to be very cool indeed. Yes it’s touristy, and most of the buildings are modern and falling apart, but there is a very nice vibe in this town. It’s a small place surrounded by the lake on 2 sides and a steep mini mountain. I suppose that’s why they named the area in Rio after this place. I had a wander up the mountainitop for sunset, it knackered me. It wasn’t a long way but this little mountain is actually 3966m above sea level, it’s hard to catch your breath at that altitude. I met a guy off the bus called Konstantin from Munich, although his mother is from Croatia, we went for some food which cost less than 1 US dollar, he was sick the next day but I survived.

                The following day was one of my best, it was the reason I came travelling and justified all the bollocks that it takes to reach a place like this. A great mixture of a boat ride, chatting to various people and a great walk on my own. I went on the boat to Isla del Sol, the legendary birthplace of the Sun(god), this was a sacred site way before the Incas, despite what the lonely planet says. After paying for a crap museum to see some rocks, we were guided up to the ruins of the temples and sacrifice tables. Near this area was a big rock that looks like a puma….hence the name Titi (puma) caca (rock). The name was a new thing to me as I always thought Titicaca meant… titi = Breast, Caca = poo. The discovery of this translation makes more sense. 

After looking around the temples and so forth we could either do the three-hour hike back to the other end of the Island or just head back for the boat. I was ambling round for a while and didn’t realise how little time I had to get back, so I set off on a mission and soon overtook most of the group on the steep climb. I took great satisfaction in strolling past the two dreary American girls with all their expensive mountain gear. Backpackers from wealthy Western nations carry far too much equipment. If you want an indication of what to pack for a trip just look at the locals. It was a short walk on a small island, take some water and a snack! If there is one mantra for backpacking it is “Half the stuff’ twice the money.”When I reached a point outside of the peloton I had a great walk.

It was totally silent and motionless; the view was amazing. The island looks very Mediterranean…like Corsica or parts of Greece, but in the distance were peaks of over 6000m, I was always surrounded by the deep ‘azure’ of the lake (Im sorry – it’s the best word) and in the distance I could make out little groups of natives tending their crops and smacking their asses, I mean donkeys. The altitude and sunlight made the walk pretty strenuous but I soon reached the end village in just under 2 hours, the only people to keep up with me were a Canadian and a Dane who told me some great stories of Amazonian adventures. They recounted a tale in which they couldn’t find a boat so they tried to build one, it didn’t work.

                                                 I have realised whilst travelling that literature is really an extension of such tales. That’s how things started before people could write. The need to share stories, exaggerate stories, or create stories. Unlike books, oral traditions are far more entertaining because you can live the experience through the expressions on someone’s face. You can also ask questions instead of leafing through the footnotes at the back. I’m the kind of person who buys books with many footnotes. I wish I could remember all the stories that people have told me but there is something beautiful about a story starting and finishing with you. Even if the storyteller remembers things word for word it will never be the same again. the moment is fleeting because of who is there and what else is going on. These stories were told on a wooden balcony drinking coca tea overlooking Lake Titicaca. During that time  we also found a stray English girl from the boat who had shunned the entire tour and gone on the trek instead. I really respected her confidence to completely ignore the tour and just wander off. If we all did that there would be no tour. I usually stay the bare minimum of time as a simple courtesy to the guide and out of respect for the destination. We had  time to kill so we took pictures of various rustic scenes from the main village. I found a Rasta donkey complete with dreads (it was young and therefore fluffy), we also found some Pigs and a load of alpacas.You are never far from kids and animals in Bolivia.

A brief note on alpacas and Llamas:

Alpachas and Llamas are actually related to the Bactrian (two hump) and Dromedary (one hump) camels of the Mongolian steppes and the Arabian deserts. You could say that these two creatures are proto-camels. Several thousand years ago the ancestor of these species travelled over Panama and eventually found its way over the now disappeared land bridge between Alaska and Siberia. This migration and subsequent genetic modifications led to the appearance of the furry Bactrians in the Gobi desert and the Dromedary of the Arabian desert, which are both of course Camels, the greatest living beings on this earth. Few other creatures are so well suited to their environment.

After eating at an unfinished restaurant and being served by a girl of 7 years we quickly got down the hill to catch the boat. On the way down the hill we saw a group of Israelis who started to ask how far it was to the top, I told them about 30 mins and very steep at that, actually it was more like 10 but hey.. they had little Indigenous kid carrying their packs. I will be cruel only to keep cosmic karma in check. Any fully grown able-bodied person who gets small kids to carry their stuff deserves what’s coming.  The journey back on the boat was much swifter than the reverse trip in the morning as I was talking to people. Time passes quickly when involved in interesting conversation, and there is usually an opportunity to scare gullible backpackers. I spent some time next to the two dreary Americans from the bus the previous day. The journey was less pleasant for them as every time one of them opened her guidebook and pored over some place I said ‘ Oh my god, don’t go there!!!’. This is a really annoying habit I have developed after several months of travelling, I don’t think anyone has actually taken my advice, at least I hope not, otherwise their journeys will be scant at best. I think one of the American girls disliked me because she was actually born in Surrey and I said it’s the English equivalent of Delaware, what do you know or care about Delaware? My point exactly. I crashed out after disembarking and later went to eat (another) trout. The trout of Titicaca are among the biggest in the world.

The brief stay and the journey to Titicaca has been one of the most rewarding. It’s a place I have seen on many travel shows and there is the great sense of deja-vu when you see the colourful villagers and the perfect blue of the water. When people imagine backpacking this is what they imagine. It really lived up to my expectations and it’s one of the few places I missed as soon as I left. The lake and rocks have always been sacred to the people who inhabit these parts and I can see why. It’s a truly special place.

I just completed a monster bus journey breaking my previous record of 23 hours, my new record is 33 hours but actually it took 34 and a bit due to some complications at one of the stations. I would have extended this journey to at least 40 hours but the bus schedule prevented this task so I now find myself back in El Bariloche. My original intention was to go down the Atlantic side of the continent and come back up the Chilean coast on the Pacific side. Unfortunately this was made impossible by cost and seasonal variations in transport. So I have just revisited many of the places I have already seen, I thought I would be more annoyed but instead I just think that there is a certain symmetry to the entire journey. Sometimes its nice to return to places you have already seen, it gives you a sense of the passing of time and what you have seen and done in the intervening period. I think between my first visit to El Bariloche and my current one, it has been the most intense period of travel for all the time I have been away from home. It has been the most difficult due to the sheer distance between places and the inaccessibility of places I had intended to see. I am always trying to calculate the value of any journey or destination, ‘worth’ or ‘value’ is difficult to calculate. This isn’t an obsessive need to categorize experience, sometimes it can be simple economics. It is worth travelling so far on a bus and using up so much time to see..a rock, or a building, or a town? A lot of the time it’s very subjective and based on who you are travelling with and even the weather. If you trying to come up with an equation it would be something like:

 p / t + m = value

p =  number of photographs taken

t =  time

m = money

Actually that’s complete bollocks. I really hate maths. The idea of working out an equation for how good a place is or how worthwhile an experience is… is total crap!! Being in horizontal snow with Antarctic winds on the Beagle channel is beyond the realms of calculation. Looking at 1000m plus granite pillars after a half hour scramble is impossible to compare with anything. Watching a 50m ice tower collapse into a lake off one of the most impressive glaciers in the world… you just cannot describe in words, pictures or anything else

 Tomorrow I´m going back into Chile and visiting the Lakes region; Pucon. I feel this is a halfway stage in South America before I head up to the Atacama Desert and eventually into Peru. The thing I cannot believe is that the best is yet to come, I´m really glad to have finished up in South America as everywhere else would have been slightly disappointing after here. It might be premature to say it, as I have much to see, but Argentina is still the best place. This is especially true of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego. Travel is often just A to B, a bus taking you to a town then minibus to a hostel. Travelling in Patagonia is totally different, you can stare out of the window for hours and see nothing, I actually thought I could see the curve of the Earth because there was such emptiness. I think of all the photos I have taken the ones from Tierra del Fuego will be the best. I sometimes took a photo, and immediately after looked at it on the view screen and just stared in wonder. For some reason photographs can make something more real, I don’t think video cameras have the same effect. I have really been heavy on the editing, this saves money for development and forces me to take higher quality, or more pertinent pictures, the Brazilian girls I travelled with take millions, half of them with themselves doing catalogue style posing. They asked me why I don´t have myself in the photo and I said there are 3 main reasons:

1. I don´t actually want to see my face next to some of the most beautiful scenery in the World, it detracts from how Impressive something is.

2. I am usually the one taking the picture, I don’t trust other people to take a picture, even if they say ‘Is it ok, do you want another?´ I never have the heart to say..actually you cut my feet off and it’s lob sided, your visual sense is questionable and reflects your poor choice of clothes, haircut and general way of life.

(where was I ?) oh yes, number 3

3. The most important reason why I don´t like to be on photos is vanity. Vanity is one of the most common modern sins and one of the most difficult to detect. Pictures of people next to famous monuments and mountains inevitably get blown up and framed then left on the mantlepiece or in the office. I and most others don´t really need to remind ourselves that we have been somewhere which means that in general these type of pictures are done for the benefit of other people, as if to prove you have been somewhere. The people pictures I have taken are generally from meals or just to remember faces and faces in places. Having said this I do usually take a picture when I have just got up a mountain or something, this is some human weakness to show man´s power over nature, I’m sure Freud had a name for it.

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                      As for the moment I’m staying in a homestay type place again, no English in sight. It´s veryt nice and tasteful and the owner looks like the comedy actor Luke Wilson (brother of Owen). I´ve got a mere 9 hours on the bus tomorrow, so I´ll get some token sleep……………….hasta la vista y buenos noches (manana para ustedes!!)