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#31: Cochabamba, Sucre & Potosi – Bolivia

23rd-30th November 2018

Coming to Cochabamba felt like my travelling had come full circle because it is possibly because of this place that I am in Bolivia now. Years ago, I watched a documentary called The Corporation which covered the story of how the people of this city rioted in against the rise in their water rates shortly after their supply was privatised in 1999. It escalated over the course of several months and the army had to be called in. There were several injuries and even a death but the people never backed down and eventually won. To this day, Bolivia remains one of the few countries in the world to retain a publically-owned water supply.

I remember feeling inspired because I saw a nation whose people had something that my own country lacks and I wanted to go there one day.

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And now here I am. Although, I admittedly didn’t do much during my time in this city. The cold I had been suffering from over the last couple of weeks had gone to my chest and I wanted to rest to make sure I was well enough for the ayahuasca ceremony coming up.

I did go up to see the Cristo de la Concordia one afternoon though. It is the second largest statue of Jesus in the world and it is set within a park overlooking the city. The cable car to reach it was near to my guesthouse so it was a nice way to spend a couple of hours.

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Eventually, the night of the ceremony came. I still had not got over my cold but decided to go ahead with it anyway. It was in a house on the outskirts of the city and there were about a dozen other people there, most of them locals from Cochabamba.

The shaman was a man called Miguel Kavlin, and he has been a practising scared medicine for several decades. He spoke to us for a while about some of the experiences we were likely to have before the ceremony began and then commenced with a long period of meditation and prayer. We were each called up to imbibe some of the liquid.

What happened over the hours which followed I will not go into too much detail, as it was very personal. Almost everyone who drinks ayahuasca will experience contact with spirits and entities. They will also relive moments from their past – some of which they thought they had forgotten – which helped shape the person they are, and they will do so in a way which helps gain a sense of clarity. It is an emotional rollercoaster, but most people come out of it feeling a sense of catharsis.

I cannot compare Miguel to other shamans because this was my only experience with ayahuasca but I can say that I was very happy with the way he worked. When I arrived I was nervous and he said some things to me which put me at ease. He has a very comforting presence about him and he worked hard all night to create a great energy in the room. While I was fading in and out of awareness, between all the visions I experienced that night, he was playing drums and other instruments and their rhythms helped ground me.

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I didn’t sleep at all the night of the ayahuasca ceremony and then the following night I caught a bus, so I was very tired by the time I reached Sucre. It was a great place to kick back and rest, having well-maintained colonial streets, a laid-back atmosphere and lots of great restaurants.

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After resting, I spent a couple of days touring around Sucre’s museums. The Cathedral and the Museo de Charcas had great collections of colonial religious art, and I also particularly enjoyed the Museo de Arte Indigena which had old lots of old tapestries which were excellently crafted. There are some outdoor activities one can embark upon from Sucre, including day trips to mountains and waterfalls, but I was quite happy to spend my days there languidly. My mind was still contemplating a lot of the things that I saw during the night of the ceremony and it was going to take me a while to feel ‘normal’ again.

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After a couple of days in Sucre, I moved on to Potosi, one of the highest altitude cities in the world. It is a historic place, nestled beneath Cerro Rico, the world’s largest known silver deposit which people have been mining for over four hundred years.

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I spent my first couple of days in Potosi still pursuing light activities. I had to acclimatise again as I was at 4100 meters. I wandered through its UNESCO awarded streets and I visited its Convento de Santa Teresa, which has been home to Carmelite nuns from affluent families for centuries and is now also a museum.

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A visit to Potosi isn’t complete without going down the mines though. It is not one of those things you do for enjoyment but it is illuminating and part of the experience of Bolivia. There are some dangers involved, as the mines still largely operate the same as they did hundreds of years ago, so you are at a slight risk of cave-ins and breathing in noxious gases.

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First, we all needed to be kitted up in red over-garments, rubber boots, and helmets. We even had to wrap our feet in plastic bags for some reason. Our guide then took us to the market so that we could buy snacks, drinks, dynamite and coca leaves as gifts for the miners. It was surreal seeing how easy it is to buy dynamite in Potosi. It only costs $3 a stick and you can buy them alongside groceries.

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In the first few minutes descending into the caverns, a couple of the people in the tour turned back. Apparently, that is normal, and I could understand why. The initial tunnels were quite narrow which forced us to climb and crawl, and the air was dusty. All the silica in the air combined with the altitude makes it difficult to breathe.

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Despite this being one of the most gruelling work environments in the world, the miners seem quite proud of their job and fairly happy considering that their life expectancy is so short. Most of them don’t die from accidents but from a condition known as silicosis, where the lungs fill up with the silica dust. They say that once you start working down there you have twenty years before the disease either kills you or forces you into retirement. At one point we met a man who was on his twenty-fifth year, currently the oldest miner.

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One of the most interesting things we saw were the effigies for El Tio, a local deity whom the miners leave offerings and pray to daily. I have videos of our guide explaining this tradition to us here.

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It is true that there is a slightly voyeuristic element to first-world people paying to be taken on a tour down these mines, but I also feel that if you enjoy some of the trappings of the modern world – such as a smartphone – you owe it to these people to see the price of obtaining the necessary materials. It is sad that these people live such gruelling and short lives but, having lived many of my years in Wales, I know that simply closing these industries down without giving people other means of income is not the answer. I have seen what happens to such communities. I am not going to pretend I am smart or knowledgeable enough to know what the answer is though.

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For now, I do think that tourists going for trips down these mines are mostly a good thing. The gifts that they give to the miners help supplement their income and the more people who are aware of the poor conditions, the more likely things are to change. Most of the guides are former miners who have now found a source of income which doesn’t require them to spend as much time down in the caverns so it has probably prolonged their life spans.

 

For more photos from Cochabamba, Sucre and Potosi, click here. This album also includes much more videos from down in the mines.

If you are interested in taking part in an ayahuasca ceremony with Miguel then you can contact him via email (miguelkavlin@gmail.com) or WhatsApp (+91 82642 44598).

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.