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).

Curlews

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#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.

Travelblog SA#24: Cusco & The Sacred Valley Part 2 – Peru

25th-30th October 2018

After my foray to Machu Picchu, I returned to Cusco for a while.  A place I had already spent a few days at (which you can read about here in a previous blog) but was drawn back to because of its old antiquated charm and there was still plenty more to see, not just within the city itself but also within the Sacred Valley just outside it.

I ended up spending almost an entire week, but I did my sightseeing at a relaxed pace. I had my boleto turistico now, so I had access to plenty of sites. I will not bore you with every single museum and relic I visited and instead focus upon the highlights.

 

Pisac

Although I found its ‘traditional market’ a little touristy, Pisac’s ruins are a must-see if you are exploring the Sacred Valley and just a short bus ride from Cusco.

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You can reach the Inca ruins by climbing up a steep trail from the central plaza or, for those of you who don’t want to get sweaty, you can catch a taxi to the official entrance on the other side. But if you do this make sure you still see all of the ruins, as the most interesting ones are a little further out.

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Just like in Ollantaytambo, I did notice that the guides here seem a little lazy. If you do get one, clarify with them how far they are actually going to take you into the complex as, when I was there, the (rather underwhelming) parts which just so happen to be near to the car park were crowded with people on tours, but places like Inti Huatana were pretty much empty.

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Not that I am complaining. It meant I got wander around them mostly to myself.

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Whilst on the way back to Cusco from Pisac, you can also see two other smaller sites called Tambomachay and Puka Pukara if you like. I enjoyed visiting them, but I am a bit of a fanatic when it comes to ruins. They are conveniently very near to the road, so it is easy to get off a bus and hop on another one afterwards, but I wouldn’t say that they are must-sees if you are short on time.

 

Moray and Salineras

These two sites are located quite close together but cannot be reached by public transport, so they are easiest booked as a tour from Cusco.

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If you already have your boleto turistico then Moray is worth getting off of the bus for. Some of the people on the same tour bus as me waited while we were taken around this site though because it is not included within the BT (and it is admittedly not really worth it if you are not planning to see any of the others included in the ticket).

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Most people just take a photo of it from above and then leave, but you can wander down into it if you like. Although it is quite easy to get bored of this site visually, it is quite interesting from a historical perspective. The lower levels never flood, no matter how much it rains, and archaeologists are still not completely sure why. They also discovered that there are slight differences in temperatures between the terraces too, proving the Incas found an ingenious way to create a series of microclimates between the different levels. It is believed they grew different variations of crops in them.

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Salineras was definitely the highlight of the day though. Being privately owned, it is not part of the boleto turistico but only costs ten soles to enter. Built by the Incas hundreds of years ago, it is still a fully functioning salt mine today. During the rainy season, the irrigation channels fill all the individual pools and then, over the course of several months, they dry out until it is time for harvest.

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Chinchero

I originally intended to spend a night at this place on my way back from Ollantaytambo, but I couldn’t find any reasonably-priced accommodation so decided to make it as a day trip from Cusco instead.

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This village often gets compared to Pisac, as they are both home to a market and a series of Inca ruins. Chinchero feels like more of a genuine Andean town though. Whilst wandering around you will see lots of people clad in traditional clothing and its market is definitely for the locals as well as tourists.

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The ruins are not quite as preserved or impressive as Pisac’s – the colonials built a church on top of them – but the setting is lovely.

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The church is very interesting too. Its inner walls and ceiling are covered in old, faded, but beautiful murals. It was one of the most memorable ones I have seen in South America so far, but unfortunately, it is forbidden to take photos inside so I can’t show you any of it.

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Around the back of the ruins, there is also an old Inca trail which leads into another valley if you fancy seeing some extra scenery.

 

Sacsayhuaman

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Just a short walk from Cusco itself, these ruins are a great example of the Inca ’s masterful wall-building.

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They are also situated upon a peak overlooking the city, meaning you are in store for some great views. I cannot recommend these ruins enough

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Museums

There are two art museums included in the boleto turistico, the Museo Municipal de Arte Contemporáneo and the Museo de Arte Popular. Both are okay and quite close to the main plaza. If you are walking past, then pop in, but I wouldn’t go out of your way to see them. Same with the Museo del Sitio del Qoricancha which, apart from its interesting collection of trepanned and elongated skulls, is just a collection of non-engaging artefacts and poorly translated displays.

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The Museo Historico Regional is quite good though. It is set within an old colonial building and gives you insight into the history of Sacred Valley from both an ecological and anthropological perspective.

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Last but, definitely not least, is Cusco’s Museo de Historia Natural. I actually enjoyed this place, but not entirely for the reasons intended. If you have a thing for laughably bad taxidermy, then this is a place for you.

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It is not included within the boleto turistico but, at only three soles for entry, it will keep you entertained for a few minutes, and it is (to be fair) one of the few museums in Cusco which is reasonably priced.

 

Centro Qosqo de Arte Nativo

A surprising bonus included on the boleto turistico. Every evening, this place has a one-hour performance of traditional Andean dances from the Cusco region accompanied by live music (a video here). It was a perfect way to finish off my time in the Sacred Valley.

 

For more photos from Pisac, Moray, Salineras and Chinchero, click here.

More photos from Sacsayhuaman are included in my Cusco album.