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#25: Lake Titicaca Part 1 (Uros, Amantaní & Taquile) – Peru

1st-2nd November 2018

Situated on the border between Peru and Bolivia, Lake Titicaca is both the largest lake in South American and also, at 3,800 meters altitude, the highest navigable lake in the world. It has a rich history, having been inhabited by many cultures – including the Tiwanaku people – for thousands of years before the Incas came, and many ancient relics to this area’s spiritual past remain.

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This was my final week in Peru and I began it with a two-day boat journey through the lake. The boat I was cruising on took us first to the Uros archipelago. A community of floating, man-made islands made out of reeds. Each one is home to a small extended family and they form a complex network, either connected to each other directly or within close proximity.

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It is said that these people originated from the Amazon, from which they were driven out hundreds of years ago. Having no land to call their home, they created their own. The islands are mobile and they used to dwell deeper within the lake but now, having achieved a more peaceful existence with the people who live upon the shore, they have moved closer to the port town of Puno where they supplement their living on tourism and selling handicrafts.

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As a tourist, your time on Uros is very structured. You are not really allowed to wander freely and are taken to a small part of it chosen by the community. The amount of time you spend is also designated by the captain of your boat. One of the locals comes out, tells you a little about their lives, and then you get some time to browse the shops some of the inhabitants have set up.

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I am not saying this as a complaint. It was still interesting to see, even if you didn’t feel like you get to know the place and its people properly. I have seen a lot of people online complaining about this place being too ‘touristy’ and, to be quite frank, those people need to get a grip. What exactly are you expecting? You are a tourist. One out of dozens who come to a very small place each day to walk among them. Of course they are going to control where you go and try to sell you things. What other benefit are they going to get out of you nosing into their life? Minority cultures don’t exist solely for the curiosity of white people.

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After our time in Uros, we got back onto the boat and sailed deeper into the lake, passing through a channel between the beds of reeds. We saw lots of birdlife. Within an hour or so, something appeared on the horizon and it got bigger and bigger. It was the Island of Amantaní, where we were staying that night.

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Amantaní is a small island, mostly populated by Quechua-speaking farmers who have lived there for generations. There are no hotels, restaurants or cars, only homestays, which the Elders allocate to visitors on a rotating system. I was given my own room, which was surprisingly comfortable, but there was no electricity or hot water (not that I am complaining, simplicity is what I came here for). The woman who looked after me also provided me and the other guests with meals.

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After lunch, I went out and explored the island by foot.

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Despite how small this island is, it is surprisingly tiring to wander around. It is hilly and sits at an altitude of 3,800 to 4,100 meters, leaving you breathless at times. The sun is very strong too.

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First I walked to Pachatata, a peak which is home to some old Tiwanaku ruins which are still in use by locals for folk-ceremonies today.

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And then I walked to Amantaní’s highest peak of all, Pachamama, which had more ancient ruins and some wonderful views. One of my favourite sights was this photo I took.

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Amantaní has many Tiwanaku-style stone arches framing the pathways and this is one of them. In the background, you can see Pachatata, and then, beyond that, the white peaks of the Cordillera Real in Bolivia. An area I intend to explore in the coming weeks.

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Most visitors to the island remain at Pachamama till dusk to watch the sunset, but I didn’t see much point in that because it was cloudy. I walked back to the main plaza. The temperature plummeted and it quickly became chilly. On the way, I popped into a small bar and had a beer before I returned to the homestay for dinner.

I slept very well that night. At one point I needed to get up to use the toilet and saw one of the starriest skies I have ever glimpsed. In the morning, our host made us a quick breakfast and then we were back on the boat again.

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We went to visit another island called Taquile that morning. Our captain dropped us off at the northern tip and then picked us up from the other side later that day, allowing us to walk its length.

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Taquile was a little more touristy and yet also more scenic than Amantaní. Amantaní gets fewer visitors, and the ones who do come mostly stay overnight, whereas Taquile mostly just gets day-trippers. It is steeper too. Not many people seem to bother walking up to its highest peak, which is a shame because it was probably my favourite place on these islands so far, and the walk had stunning views.

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There was yet another temple at the top, which also showed signs that it was still in use by the locals today.

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After lunch, I went to the dock where the boat was waiting to take me back to Puno.

 

For more photos from Lake Titicaca, click here.

Travelblog SA#19: Paracas, Huacachina & Nazca – Peru

30th September-4th October 2018

After my week spent exploring ruins in the north I was forced to return to Lima to see a dentist because one of my fillings had fallen out. I initially tried to get it sorted in Huanchaco, but I didn’t do my research and ended up with a dodgy dentist who did a really bad job. The experience was almost a parody and there were several warning signs which should have sent me running. First, I was told to meet him at a dimly-lit street in Huacachina at night – that should have been the first giveaway. He greeted me by getting out of a car, and there was someone else inside of it whose face I never saw and who just sat there throughout the whole procedure – which was rather ominous. The ‘dentist’ escorted me into a house, where a family was currently eating dinner and through to a ‘clinic’ at the back, which was just some dingy room. The equipment looked passable, but a little old. He did wear gloves and apply all the correct cleaning agents, but he kept texting someone on his phone between drilling at my tooth, which wasn’t very hygienic. By the time I realised he was not fit for purpose it was already too late – he had drilled further into my tooth and I needed him to fill it so that the nerves were at least covered till I could get a proper job done. I suspect that the ‘filling’ was done with bad ceramic as it was coarse and he didn’t bother to shape it out properly. It fell out a couple of days later.

I was told by a friend to go to Lima where the dentists are more professional, and I was passing through there any way on my way to the south, so it just meant spending an extra night. The lady recommended to me was very meticulous and did a great job.

So, lesson learned. Always do some research if you need to get dental work done in Peru as some of the smaller, older clinics – especially in the more rural areas – can be a little sketchy.

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The following morning I was back on the road again on a bus heading south, to one of the driest deserts in the world. Throughout the next few days, I would be passing through one of Peru’s busiest tourist trails and visiting places mostly frequented by those on a short holiday. I noticed the difference in the atmosphere immediately. There were not as many local restaurants, instead lots of pizzerias and steakhouses. Streets were lined with travel agencies selling tours at laughably inflated prices. The people were different too. The locals were pushier, and the tourists a different demographic. One thing I have noticed in South America is that whenever I go off the beaten track and do something a little adventurous most of my companions are German, French, and other backpackers from the mainland of the European continent. As a Brit, I am a minority. But, as soon as enter the tourist trail, I suddenly find myself swarmed with other Brits (as well as Americans and Aussies). I am not mentioning this in a judgemental way but rather as matter-of-fact, as I do find it interesting that people from different nationalities tend to be more drawn to different places and activities.

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My first stop along my route through the desert was Paracas, a seaside town which is a launching point to the nearby Ballestas Islands, known for their birdlife. I was loaded up onto a boat with a dozen or so others and taken to the islands the next morning. As we approached, I was already seeing lots Peruvian boobies soaring through the sky. By the time we actually reached the island, there were so many species it was impossible to register them all. Cormorants, pelicans, Turkey vultures, snowy plovers, and many others, as well as sea lions.

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But my attention was mostly drawn to the Humboldt penguins (video here).

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It wasn’t just about the wildlife though. There were some interesting rock formations too, and we passed by a mysterious geoglyph whose origins remain unclear to historians.

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When the tour was over, I packed my bags and left. There wasn’t really anything else in Paracas which interested me now that I had seen the islands. There were some other lighter attractions, but they were all quite expensive and none of them seemed worth the money nor the time. I felt like I had seen the best of this area and it was time to move on. I got onto a bus heading to Huacachina.

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Huacachina is an oasis. I arrived around noon and took some time to wander. The oasis is quite pretty, even if it looks like it is being strangled by the collection of hotels, shops and restaurants competing for space around it.

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I wanted to go on a ride in a sand buggy – which seems to be the main activity here – but most of the touts by the side of the water tried to sell me tours heavily-loaded with gringo tax, so I walked away and I climbed one of the nearby sand dunes to admire the view.

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On my way down, I happened to get chatting to one of the dune-buggy drivers themselves, and he gave me an offer which was much more reasonable.

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The ride through the dunes was thrilling if a little terrifying. The drivers purposefully accelerate across bumpy ridges and plunge down the slopes to make it exciting. They seem to know what they are doing and enjoy their job. I have a video here.

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We were also taken sandboarding, of which I have another video.

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And then, after another ride through the desert, we were taken to see the sunset.

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It was only later on, once I had returned to my hostel, I found out there was a controversy surrounding these trips not too long ago. Apparently, there was an incident where some tourists died and all the dune-buggy rides were halted for a while as the authorities performed an investigation. They have since introduced some regulations to make it safer, but it is something to bear in mind if you are considering taking one of these trips.

I had a good time in Huacachina but, just like Paracas, I found it a little soulless and once I had finished my tour I didn’t feel any need to stay. I moved on the next morning.

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In Nazca, I finally found somewhere in this desert I didn’t mind the idea of kicking back and spending some time relaxing as well as sightseeing. Unlike Paracas and Huacachina, it had personality and seemed to have other industries outside of tourism. I wandered around the town that first day and went to the local market to buy some groceries. I was staying at Nanasqa, a new hostel on the outskirts, which had a lovely atmosphere and a great range of tours run by their son, Roy.

They also sort out trips to fly over the Nazca Lines (and unlike most of the other hotels in Nazca they do not rip you off, they give you a reasonable price without any bargaining) which was what I did the next morning.

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It is an interesting experience. Not just seeing the lines themselves – of course, seeing one of the world’s greatest enigmas is memorable – but I have never been on a small aircraft before. It was tiny, with only four passenger seats, and it was a rocky journey as the pilot had to pivot to get the best angles for us to see the geoglyphs. I very rarely get motion sickness but even I was glad I had a small breakfast that morning.  I have taken a series of videos which can be viewed on these links (The Monkey, The Hummingbird, The Condor and The SpiderThe Condor and The Spider, and The Tree, The Hands and The Lizard).

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Later that afternoon, I and some of the other guests at Nanasqa were loaded up into a van and taken to see some of Nazca’s lesser-known sites.

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First up was Chauchilla Cemetary, which is the only place in South America one can glimpse ancient mummies still within their original graves.

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People of the Nazca civilisation were buried in the foetal position, facing towards the sunrise and surrounded by many of their possession. Some of the pottery found with them by the archaeologists even contained food. All of these factors suggest that the Nazca people believed in reincarnation. Curiously, most of them have very long dreadlocks. Historians surmise that the only time in their adult life they were permitted to cut their hair was if they got remarried after being widowed.

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Much of this site was actually trashed by graverobbers, who took many of the artefacts and left the skeletons behind. Archaeologists have done their best to repair the damage but, even now, the future of this site’s preservation seems questionable as everything is exposed. Let’s hope they come up with a more long-term plan one day. I think this is one of those occasions where more tourism might actually help, as paying visitors give the Peruvian government more incentive to ensure its longevity.

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Next, we were taken to Cahuachi which was the former capital of the Nazca civilisation. Excavations have revealed a series of chambers and pyramids, and it is believed that this place was mostly populated by intellectuals, artisans and priests during a time when the distinction between science and religion was blurred, and its people were the masterminds behind the geoglyphs and Nazca’s aqueduct system. Just like the Moche and Chimú peoples (whose relics I visited last week), the Nazca civilisation was at the mercy of the El Niño phenomenon, and it led to their demise.

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Roy brought out a bottle of locally-made pisco for us to try and we took a little break to drink some before we moved on to our final attraction; Cantalloc.

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Cantalloc is part of Nazca’s aqueduct system, which is the secret as to how they managed to exist in one of the driest deserts in the world. It very rarely rains here but once in a year water flows from the Andes through a series of rivers, and the Nazca people found an ingenious way to stem its flow so that they could use it to irrigate their land all year round. It has – unlike many over vestiges of their civilisation – withstood multiple earthquakes because they discovered a technique of using curved stones and still remains functional today which is very impressive.

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To finish off my time in Nazca, I made a visit to the Astronomical Observatory, which had a slightly blurry but informative presentation about the geoglyphs and the many interesting theories as to why they were created. The resident astronomer was very enthusiastic and took us outside to show us some of the constellations. We also got to peer into his telescope when he showed us Mars, Saturn’s rings, and Titan.

 

For more photos and videos, click on the following links: Paracas, Huacachina and Nazca.