Travelblog SA#34: Punta Arenas – Chile

19th-23rd December 2018

Despite never crossing a border my flight to Punta Arenas from Santiago was over three hours long, demonstrating just how vast Chile’s boundaries extend from north to south.

And I noticed the difference in climate as soon as I stepped off the plane and into the cool Patagonian air. It was evening. I was worried that I wouldn’t find a place to pitch my tent before it got dark, but it was surprisingly light for 9pm.

As it turned out, I needed have. I had yet to realise just how far south I had just come, but they call this area Chile’s ‘Antarctic Region’ for a reason and it was the most extreme I have ever been on either of the hemispheres. Not only that, but summer solstice was just two days away.

I set up my tent in the yard of Hostel Independencia, which was a little rustic but one of my favourite places I have stayed in my entire time in South America. Eduardo, its owner, was very forthcoming with advice and the first thing he did was sit me down with a map and tell me about some of the local attractions. The kitchen had a large AGA-type oven which kept the living areas cosily warm. The wifi was faster than the dorm I stayed at in Santiago and the showers were hot.

There was still light in the sky when I when I climbed into my sleeping bag at 11pm and it never really went completely dark. I woke up at 3am a little confused because it was already getting light again. It took me a while to get used to this and I didn’t sleep very well the first two nights there, but the eerie twilight which occurred for just three hours each sunset was quite beautiful.

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I began exploring the next morning. Punta Arenas is a charming place. It feels more like a small sea-side town than a city. The roads were never congested and there were boats rocking in the bay. Most of them seem were for fishing but no doubt some were destined for Antarctica.

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There were a few museums worth visiting. Most notably the Regional Museum of Magallanes and the Salesian Maggiorino Borgatello Museum. Both of them have a focus on local history, but the Regional Museum also has an entire floor of displays showing how the European colonials who inhabited the area lived, while Maggiorino Borgatello has lots of information on natural history and native cultures.

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There is also a world famous cemetery near to the Salesian museum which is definitely worth a wander.

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It was the second day that I began to venture further afield. Originally I wanted to go to Magdalena Island to see its colony of Magellanic Penguins, but the boat was cancelled that day due to the strong winds which often sweep across southern Patagonia during this time of the year, so instead I caught a bus to the nearby Magallanes National Reserve where I got my first glimpse of Patagonian Forest.

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When I registered at the ranger station I chose to do the ‘Las Lengas’ trail, a 10km circuit through the park. It took me about four hours, in all, and it passed through several different kinds of landscapes and viewpoints.

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I also saw several species of bird, including a pair of caracaras which I stalked for a while and got very close to a few times but never managed to get a decent photo of because they always flew away just as my camera was ready. I did catch a fairly decent video of one of them which can be viewed here.

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On my third day in Punta Arenas, the boat to Magdalena Island was cancelled again so I took some time to relax and do some shopping. Not only did I have Christmas coming up but the Torres del Paine trek too and I was worried about Puerto Natales – the next town I am going to – would not have as much variety.

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On the fourth day, I finally made it to Magdalena and it was worth both the wait and the hefty price (my funds dwindling as they are, this late in the trip).

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I mean, what can I say? It is an island full of penguins! The species here are Magallenic, which is the third kind I have seen this journey. Some of them had chicks too, which were easily spotted (despite not being too small) from their grey furriness. I have uploaded some videos which can be viewed here.

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And a pair of skuas managed to capture a baby gull while I was there, which was a bit upsetting to watch but just as much a part of nature as seeing cute baby penguins. I have a video of this event you can watch here if you choose to click it.

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I also saw a pair of Magallenic geese.

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After the boat returned to the mainland I got onto a bus heading to Puerto Natales where I would spend Christmas before tackling an eight-day trek through Torres del Paine.

 

For more photos from Punta Arenas, Magallanes National Reserve and Magdalena Island, 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#26: Lake Titicaca Part 2 (Puno Festival) – Peru

3rd-5th November 2018

I arrived in Puno at a great time of the year. They were in the midst of a festival known as ‘la Fiesta Jubilar de Puno’ which commemorates the town’s inception 340 years ago. Parades, concerts, markets, and all other such affairs were taking place, but the main event wasn’t until on the morning of 5th when two people embodying the mythical figures of Manco Cápac and Mama Uqllu – the Adam and Eve of the Inca civilisation – rise out from the lake and march into the city in search of land on which to build their empire.

I still had a couple of days to wait for that but in the meantime, there were other attractions to keep me occupied.

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I went to visit both Cutimbo and Sillustani, two sets of ancient ruins located upon the mountains nearby.

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Cutimbo wasn’t quite as impressive as Sllustani in a structural sense, but it did have the bonus of being home to some primitive cave paintings and it was easily accessible via public transport. The morning I went there I had the entire place to myself, so I got to wander around it alone and connect with its energy in a way which isn’t possible when a place is crowded.

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These edifices are tombs. The Tiwanaku people practised a tradition of ancestor-worship which was later adopted by the Incas too.

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I went to see Sillustani the same day. It is a much busier site than Cutimbo and I was forced to book it as a tour as transport there is difficult. The structures are quite similar only there are more of them.

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There are also some wonderful panoramas of Umayo Lake.

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Another day, I went to Puno’s Carlos Dreyer museum, which was small but charmingly provincial. It was home to lots of ancient relics and a collection of art, both by Dreyer himself and other local artists.

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And then, when the morning of the 5th finally arrived, I walked over to the pier where the ceremony was to begin. I came an hour early but the place was already crowded. I chose a spot and waited.

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Eventually, young women and men dressed into traditional clothing walked out into the road in single file. They had their palms facing outwards (which I am guessing was in reverence to the Sun). Once they passed, we had to wait for a little longer, and then I both saw and heard a commotion coming towards us.

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As you can see in this video, the moments proceeding Manco Cápac, Mama Uqllu and their entourage’s arrival, were a little chaotic. Many of the people in the crowd were shouting and I think it was in complaint about how many people with cameras were hovering around, blocking people from actually seeing the event. And why were there so many police officers, too? It seemed a bit overkill. And, finally, why weren’t the officers – as many of them as there were –  doing their job, and getting the annoying people with cameras to move out of the way?

But, besides from that, this beginning to the festival was very interesting. A man came with burning incense, and people (including myself) placed their hats over the fumes, which I am guessing was some form of blessing. People performed limpias (cleansings) with wreaths and, during those moments, I could feel a very strong religious fervour in the air. It seems that many of the folk traditions from Lake Titicaca’s pre-colonial times are still alive.

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After the initial entourage had passed, there followed a series of parades. People in traditional clothing danced to live music and they came in waves. It seemed to me that each group came to represent a  different district in the area. Here is a short video from the start of it, but if you would like to see more there is a link at the bottom of this blog to my entire album.

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It was over in less than an hour, but it felt longer. People dispersed and I went to have lunch.

Later on that day, I wandered over to the plaza to see if anything was going on and saw people were claiming spaces on the steps outside the cathedral. It looked like something important was about to happen so I sat down.

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I was told by the other people waiting that another parade was due to commence in half an hour but, in true Latin American fashion, it was an hour beyond that before anything actually happened. The first activity was Manco Cápac and Mama Uqllu and their entourage passing through again, and then followed a brass band and cowboys riding Peruvian Paso horses (which are famous for their strange but beautiful gait) (video here).

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After that, nothing happened for a while, but I knew something was coming though because everyone remained were they were sat and stared out into the plaza expectantly.

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Eventually, a series of parades started. At first, the cavalcades all featured small children supervised by adults (video here).

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It was cute, for the first half an hour or so.

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HOW MANY CHILDREN ARE THERE IN PUNO? I thought after an hour had passed.

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I know you are probably thinking that I just don’t like children and am being a grump, and there is possibly some truth to that, but you try watching over an hour of half-awake children bumping into each other and failing at basic choreography, and then tell me you don’t want to tear your hair out.

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I fought back the temptation to ask people around me if this entire parade was going to be just children or there was something else worth waiting for later, but I suspected that it wouldn’t go down very well. I noticed then that most of the audience were middle-aged women, probably all waiting for that moment that it was their child in the parade. I couldn’t see many fathers. Most of them were probably drinking pisco somewhere. It all began to make sense. This was the sort of affair only a mother could love.

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I considered leaving, but I felt compelled to stay just in case it got better. Not just that, but the crowd was so tightly packed by then I couldn’t see a way out. I was wedged in.

It seemed to go on forever. It got to the point that every time a banner appeared at the corner of the plaza – announcing the next school taking part in the procession – I thought. “NOOOO! Please! Not more!”

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“They have trapped me…” I thought, after almost two hours had passed. “I am not going to make to Bolivia or Chile… I am not going to see my boyfriend, friends, or family ever again. I am going to grow old and die here…”

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Eventually, after what seemed an eternity, the children taking part in the parades became a little older in age and their performances improved. To be fair, this one (video here) was actually really good. It inspired me to stay longer, but eventually, I realised that it was an exception. Most of them were still rather lacklustre.

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“Maybe the schools with bad parades are focussing their energy on the sciences, and they will produce great minds…” I told myself. It helped me get through a little longer.

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But then, a few minutes later, I saw this rather lazy tribute to the fire services. It broke me.

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I got up. The crowd had thinned a little by then (I guess I am not the only one who got a little bored) so I managed to get out.

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But the thing is, as I was walking away from the plaza, I passed some of the upcoming parades and some were good again, so I found myself lingering.

I eventually developed a system. If the parade was good, I stayed and watched. If it was bad, I travelled into the future by walking further up the road to see the next one. It was a good system.

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For a while, I was on a narrow street. The dancers didn’t have as much room there, so I suspect they were not at their best, but it was nice to see it this way for a while because it was a more immersive experience (video here).

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“This is what I came here for!” I thought when I reached Parque Pino (video here). I stayed there for a while and watched some performances from outside San Juan Church.

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Admittedly, I didn’t stay till the very end, but I think I was pretty close. It had been over five hours since I originally sat outside that stop outside the cathedral by the time I left, and it was well into the evening. I was tired, it was getting cold (I had not brought a jacket out with me) and I was needing to go to the toilet quite badly so I went back to my hostel.

Puno Festival was an awesome way to finish off my time in Peru and I am very glad I plotted my itinerary so that I was passing through there at that time. I know I may have complained about parts of it being a slog, but some of my comments were tongue in cheek and, no matter how ropey some of the choreography was, the costumes were almost always interesting.

The next day I was crossing over the border into Bolivia, marking a new chapter in my journey.

 

I have only shared a small amount of the videos I took from Puno festival here, to see more of them (as well as photos from other parts of Lake Titicaca) click on this link.

To read the first part of my time in Lake Titicaca, click here.