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#32: Salar de Uyuni – Bolivia

2nd-4th December 2018

To finish off my time in Bolivia I embarked upon a three-day journey through Bolivia’s crowning jewel, Solar de Uyuni.

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Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat and to enter this natural wonder you need to go on a tour in a 4×4 vehicle. Lots of packages are available if you head to the town of Uyuni – the main launching point – but the most common is the three-day excursion which takes you all the way down to the south-west corner of Bolivia.

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The only problem is getting the right guide as they seem to vary in quality. Whoever you get is not just your driver, they are also your cook, and a good one will provide you with some information about the area too. Although most of them seem to do a good job there are stories of some behaving badly, not delivering full itineraries, and even drinking while driving. Booking with a good agency is no guarantee as a lot of them will transfer you to another company if they can’t fill all the seats. It can be complete pot luck who you end up with.

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I decided to book with Andes Salt Expeditions. They had some of the best reviews out of all the companies and were reasonably priced. They were also one of the bigger ones so I was less likely to be transferred. It paid off, as I was lucky and ended up with a guide called Vladimir who went out of his way to make it a fun experience for myself and the five other people I was matched with.

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The first day, after a quick stop at the ‘Train Cemetary’ – a graveyard for the carriages which were abandoned when Bolivia transitioned from steam to diesel – we reached the salt flats. It took hours to drive through the entire expanse, but we stopped a few times to have some fun with the optical illusions you can create there. Such as this encounter I had with a dinosaur.

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And this.

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We also made a couple of funny videos, one of which you can watch by clicking here.

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In the afternoon we reached Incahuasi, a rugged island of cactuses which rises up from the plane of white. It was actually once a massive colony of coral, back when this area was a vast sea, but when the bed dried up it rose to the surface and fossilised.

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Not only is it an interesting place to walk around but it also gives you an opportunity to get some wonderful views of the plane.

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To finish the day, Vladimir took us to a cave whose name I have forgotten. It was a bit quieter than the rest of the places we visited that day as most of the other groups go to a different set of caves. It was home to some interesting inner textures formed from fossilised algae. According to Vladimir, part of the latest Star Wars film was recorded here.

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We stayed that night in a hostel in San Juan. It was just a place to eat and sleep at the end of the day and a little basic, but it was an interesting novelty that most of the furniture and fixtures were made of salt.

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The following day the landscape changed. It wasn’t so flat anymore and the road became rocky as we entered the Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve, passing through yellow mountains.  Our first stop was at a place with some very interesting rock formations and views of Ollagüe, a volcano with active fumaroles.

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After that, we spent much of the day passing by lakes filled with flamboyances of flamingos, stopping every now and then to take photos.

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There are three different species of which live in this area, Chileno, Andean, and James. They thrive here because the saltiness of the water creates algae that they thrive on and, apart from the occasional fox, this area doesn’t have many predators. One of the lakes we saw later that day, Laguna Colorada, was red because of the algae. I have uploaded a series of videos of the flamingos here.

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We saw lots of other forms of wildlife that day. When we reached Laguna Ramaditas there was an Andean fox.

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There was a pair of viscachas on the side of the road and we stopped for a while to feed them carrots.

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I saw so many vicunas throughout this trip that I actually forgot to take any photos of them, which is a huge shame. We did end up having a roadside chase down with a pair of ostriches. I have a video of it here. Sorry for the shaky camera.

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In the afternoon we went to see Arbol de Piedra, a series of other interesting rock formations. More exciting was Sol de Manana, the geysers. I have plenty of videos here. It was a surreal place, with clouds of smoke wafting out from crevices in the ground, water bursting out from holes like lava, and bubbling pools of grey mud.

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To finish the day we went to a hot spring by the side of a lake in Chalviri just before sunset.

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On the third and final day, some of the people on my tour were driving back to Uynui and making a few stops along the way, but for me and a couple others, it was a shorter itinerary because we were being dropped off at the border of Chile. We did make a little stop by Laguna Verde though, which wasn’t actually that green at this time of the year but still pleasant to see. From its shore, we also got a view of Licanabur Volcano and the border for not just Chile but Argentina too. This was true frontier land.

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For more photos and videos from my last days in Bolivia, click here.

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.