Travelblog SA#38: Chiloé Island – Chile

17th-20th January 2019

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In many ways, Chiloé reminded me of Wales, my home back in the UK. Although it is an island, it is so close and well connected to the mainland it feels more like a peninsula, and it is a domain of grassy hills and cows and sheep, with intermittent forests and quaint towns and villages, where time seems to pass a little slower than the rest of the country.

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I spent my first day in Castro, its biggest city which wasn’t actually very big, wandering its streets. I soon saw some of its famous palafito houses, perched over the water, and also paid a visit to its church which is of the distinctive Chiloéan Jesuit style, built from wood.

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I also made a little trip in the afternoon to the islet of Quinchao and walked around the village of Achao, which also had churches and views of the mainland.

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The following morning I ventured out to the island’s west coast for a hike through Chiloé’s National Park.

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For any other travellers thinking of going to this area, I will quickly explain how to get to the Cole-Cole beach trail, for both the Lonely Planet and websites like Wikitravel do so quite poorly. They make it sound like all hikes around Cucao region begin from the same place, whether you are heading to Laguna Huelde or up the coast to Cole-Cole, but this is not actually the case.

When you catch the bus to Cucao, the bus driver will likely try to coax you to get off at the entrance to Chiloé National Park headquarters, because that is where most of the gringos who come to this area go to but, if your destination is not Laguna Huelde but actually Cole Cole, stay on the bus because you do not need to pay the entrance fee to the park for this particular hike and the bus can drop you off a little closer to the trailhead, saving you a good hour of walking down a concrete road.

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I will be honest, the first hour or so of this trail was not awe-inspiring, but I have been spoilt recently, spending the last month hiking some of Patagonia’s finest parks. The path begins along a rather flat beach. You do have a fairly good chance of seeing some interesting birds and there are little hamlets along the way, but it is very samey for a long time and you soon get bored.

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There are also the bugs. I believe they may by some kind of breed of horsefly, but this particular kind are huge and much more annoying than anything else I have come across before. I am used to things like mosquitoes and leeches from my travels but these things, whatever they are, are truly one of nature’s worst abominations. They are very noisy and I didn’t actually realise they bite at first, as it seemed that they lacked any other purpose but buzz around you, clumsily and aimlessly, but eventually I discovered that if you stay still for too long they do bite and it’s painful. On some occasions I had over twenty of them chasing me down the beach. After over an hour of it, I threw a tantrum and went into a rage, swinging my hat in the air around me and screaming curses.

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Once I reached the village of Huentemo, I crossed a bridge and the trail became much more enjoyable. I entered a series of hilly woodlands with coastal views.

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The flunts, as I named them, were a little less in number, but continued to be an annoyance. At one point I smacked one with my hat and it fell to the ground, dazed. I crushed it with my shoe, and it was the most satisfying moment of my entire day.

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When I reached Cole-Cole, I set up my tent by the beach and I actually felt a little wistful. I realised this was my last overnight trek in Patagonia. I guess it was a great way to finish it, with a view like this.

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The sunset was pleasant too.

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In the morning, I wandered outside and there were lots of interesting birds out on the beach, including this group of (what I believe to be) curlews (video here).

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I finished off my time in Patagonia by spending a couple of days in Chile’s Lake District. Puerto Varas was the place I based myself. It was perched upon the shore of Lago Llanquihue and, although it was a bit touristy and there wasn’t actually too much to do there, it did have stunning views of the Volcanoes Osorno and Calibuco.

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This area is an old German colony so it has lots of interesting architecture. The following morning I went for a day trip to the village of Frutilla to walk around its neighbourhoods before I caught a night bus back to Santiago, where I would spend a few days shopping and seeing friends before I crossed the border into northern Argentina.

 

For more photos from Chiloé, click here, and for more from Puerto Varas, click here.

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Travelblog SA#30: Torotoro – Bolivia

19th-22nd November 2018

I deviated from my plans this week, and I believe it was a good choice.

Originally, I was supposed to be spending more time in the mountains around La Paz. Hike the Takesi trail, spend some time in Chulumani , and maybe even do what most backpackers seem to be doing these days and cycle down the infamous ‘Death Road’, but my slight disappointment with the El Choro trail made me realise that maybe I was in Bolivia at the wrong time of year for such activities because of the weather. Having lived half of my life in Wales, I am not shy when it comes to a little rain, but getting that wet isn’t worth it with the mist swirling around the Andes at the moment obscuring its views.

I began to look into other options. I needed to be in Cochabamba for an ayahuasca ceremony soon so I read up on that area. A place called Torotoro National Park caught my attention. Not only is it home to canyons, caves, waterfalls, and even prehistoric dinosaur footprints, but there also happened to be a festival going on.

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I was pretty tired when I arrived. Getting there involved an overnight bus from La Paz to Cochabamba followed by a walk through the pouring rain to reach the stand where the colectivos for Torotoro left. I was crammed into a minivan with several others and it was a bumpy ride. Although less than a hundred kilometres away, the journey took over five hours.

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Shortly after I arrived, I called into the ranger’s office and they told me if I turned up early the next morning and they would match me with a group for a tour of the park. There were still some hours of daylight left and there was a mirador only an hour’s walk away on maps.me so I decided to check that out.

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About halfway there, I came across a barrier and a woman in uniform came out to ask me where I was heading. It turned out that I was about to enter a restricted area of the park for which you need have paid the entrance fee (something I had not done yet) and have a guide. I explained to her that I was due to go out on a tour to see the caves the next morning and was just following something I noticed on my GPS.

While we were talking, a Bolivian couple with a guide arrived and the ranger was eventually lenient allowed me to tag along with them. I hopped onto the back of the guide’s bike and we headed into the park.

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I am glad I got to have had a guide for this part because it was an enlightening experience. We walked along some of the riverbanks and he showed us dinosaur footprints. Some of many I would see over the next couple of days.

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There were some other interesting geological formations along the trail, including a natural stone bridge.

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A huge boulder which, over the years, has been split apart by a tree.

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But the highlight was when we reached the mirador of the canyon.

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There was another great viewpoint of the canyon a few minutes later too, and we even spotted a group of bright green parakeets.

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The following day, I turned up early at the registry office and they put me with a group of French and Spanish people for an eight-hour tour of Cueva Humajalanta and Ciudad de Ita.

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I was a little apprehensive about Cueva Humajalanta. I haven’t done any intermediate-level caving for a while. It is something which I do not do very often because I have moderate claustrophobia.

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Most of it was fine though. I have a video here of the worst bit – where I did need some encouragement but I did manage to get through it in the end. It was a two-hour journey through all the chambers and we passed lots of caverns, underground rivers and even a waterfall.

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Ciudad de Ita, like its name (‘City of Rocks’), was a metropolis of crazy rock formations, with stunning views of the park’s landscape the entire way.

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There were also cave paintings, which our guide informed us were over three thousand years old.

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And towards the end, we came across a pair of local musicians filming a music video. They asked the French girl to sit down with them for a while as the song was about a ‘Gringita’. I have videos here.

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By the time we returned to Torotoro town I was very tired but I it was the beginning of their festival that evening so I forced myself to power on through. It was to commemorate the town’s inception 135 years ago. As evening began to set in, I went to the plaza and waited.

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To be honest, this first night to the two-day festival was not too spectacular when compared to Puno Festival (which I went to just a few weeks before and had lots of colourful costumes and dancing). People simply marched in groups, representing the different industries of Torotoro. The tour guides, bus drivers, taxi drivers, farmers, and so on. At one point, fireworks started (which I caught a video of here).

Although it was quite basic, I did enjoy the atmosphere. It was intimate, honest, and I felt very privileged to be there, witnessing this moment of community pride.

For me, the heart and soul of the party that night were a group of men playing harmonicas and drums and looking like they have chewed on far too much cocoa but loving life (videos here).

The following day was a festival too, so I lingered in the town for another day. I was tired and the cold I caught while on the El Choro trek had gone to my chest, so spent the day relaxing in my hostel. I occasionally ventured outside to see what was happening. There was a bit of activity in the streets and preparations were being made. I asked some people what time the day’s events started, and one person told me midday and another said 3pm. I went back to my room, eventually hearing a brass band at 11:30. I rushed outside and there was a parade going on. I followed it to the plaza, but there was no costumes, dancing or anything too interesting going on. It seemed to be just a repeat of the previous day, with people merely marching.

I began to think that maybe this day was going to be a write-off, but then at 6pm I heard sounds again and rushed outside, finally seeing the sort of festival I came here for – filled with music, costumes, dancing and everything (I have videos of the highlights here, but there are a lot more in the full album which is linked below).

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For a place which wasn’t even on my original itinerary, I am very glad I came to Torotoro. Not only did I get to see a unique landscape which I had never seen anything like before but I got to witness village life and a festival.

 

I have more photos of the national park and also plenty of videos from the festival here.

Travelblog SA#28: La Paz – Bolivia

9th-12th November 2018

La Paz, the highest administrative capital in the world. Its official attitude sits at 3,600 meters, but in reality when you are here chances are you could be much higher than that, as it is perched within towering peaks. It’s airport, based in a district known as ‘El Alto’, is 4,100.

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I will begin with the journey there from Copacabana. On the bus I often found my eyes drawn away from the book I was reading to the window as we circled the shore of the lake. At one point the bus began to sway and I was startled to see we were completely surrounded by water. The bus was floating upon a small vessel, being carried to the other side. From there, we ventured up into the mountains for a period of time until we crossed a threshold and were suddenly on a flat, desert-like plane which stretched for miles and miles with only the icy peaks of the Cordillera Real to be seen on the horizon.

As soon as you reach La Paz you are plunged into chaos. The bus crawls its way through unruly traffic on old roads full of potholes, but you are not overly upset about it because it is a vibrant city with lots of street markets.  I even spotted a group of people praying by a small outdoor altar with burning incense.

I was tired the day I arrived and I had things to catch up with online. The wifi in La Paz was somewhat more functional than in Copacabana but still painfully slow. I was staying in a small B&B on the tenth floor of a tower block overlooking the centre. It was a cosy little place with a kitchen, bathroom, two private rooms and one dorm with just four beds. The lady who owned it was helpful and one of the other guys staying there I had met previously before in Ollantaytambo, so I felt at home.

The next morning I began exploring. I started with the sights near to the central plaza. The cathedral is a little empty and bare, but it is the nearby Iglesia San Franciso which is the real nucleus of religious life. I have noticed so far during my time in  Bolivia that, unlike Peru, all of its churches have been free to enter.

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Next to the church there is a museum where you can wander some of the halls of the old Franciscan Monastery. To be honest, there isn’t a great amount to see in there, but the entry does come with a free tour and the guides are helpful and inform you of some of the area’s history.

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I went to visit El Mercado de las Brujas (Witches Market). A place where one can buy all sorts of remedies, potions, herbs, and even some more gruesome ingredients such as llama foetuses from old ladies if you wish. It was interesting to browse for a while, but it seems the street is beginning to be taken over by travel agencies and stalls selling tat which is somewhat polluting the ambience.

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I spent the rest of that day in museums. The Museo Nacional de Etnografia y Folklore had a wonderful collection of ceremonial masks and examples of weaving, pottery, featherwork and all over affair from the different regions of Bolivia. It is a lovely way to spend an hour and soak up Bolivia’s wonderfully diverse culture, but I did come out of there feeling a little peeved that, despite them acknowledging their foreign visitors in a monetary way, by having a perfectly-translated list of rules and entry prices at reception and charging us four times the amount they do nationals, once you have bought your ticket, you discover that none of its displays has any information in English.

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The Museo Nacional de Arte was technically closed that day because they had a temporary exhibition by contemporary artists from all over Latin America. This event was free entry and, once inside, I managed to see some of the museum’s permanent displays too because the doors were left open.

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The next day I set off early in a crowded minivan to see Bolivia’s most important archaeological site, Tiwanaku.

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Pre-dating the Incas by hundreds of years, the Tiwanaku people are one of the most interesting in all civilisations of South America. From their humble origins on the shores of Lake Titicaca, they managed to spread across a vast region encompassing parts of Peru, Bolivia, and Chile, and what makes that even more of an enigma is that archaeological evidence suggests that this expansion was achieved peacefully with very little warfare.

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This site was their nexus during the civilisation’s golden age. Its stones were carved from quarries in Lake Titicaca and hauled all the way up by a very early canal system. It is thought they chose this location, despite its harsh location, climate and lack of fertile soil, because the Tiwanaku were astronomers and it is situated upon a flat plane, allowing them to better observe the movements of the stars. Indeed, one of the pyramids they built – now not more than a mound surrounded by some vestigial walls – was thought to have had a pool on its roof for their holy men to see the night sky in its reflection, and there is also the Sun Gate which acted as a primitive calendar.

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The Tiwanaku people did not meet their end through being conquered but experienced a long period of drought, during which their civilisation dwindled. The ones who survived retreated into little villages because life was so hard they no longer had the luxury to build monuments or map the universe. Tiwanaku was abandoned, but many of its people were swept up by the Incas and I don’t think there is much mystery – particularly when you see sights such as the nearby Puma Punku – as to whom they learned their master stone-crafting techniques from.

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On the way back to La Paz, instead of being caught in all the traffic again I got off the bus and used one of its cable car systems to reach the centre. It was a wonderful way to see the cityscape, passing over all of its rugged peaks and outer neighbourhoods. I even got to see the famous market in El Alto, said to be one of the biggest in Latin America.

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On my final day of exploring La Paz, I went for a little trip to Valle de la Luna which was just a short bus ride away and had some very interesting formations. It was a great way to spend my last morning before I prepared for the El Choro trek, which is what my next blog will be about.

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For more photos from La Paz, click here.