Scurrying into El Hormiguero…(The anthill)

From our first week in the bustling metropolis that is Santiago, we were ready to get ourselves back to volunteering in somewhat more sedate surroundings-and the El Hormiguero in El Monte proved to be just that! Another placement that we had found through the HelpX website, with the simple yet tantalising description:

In the midway between Santiago and the surf-paradise Pichilemu, we have our creative centre “El Hormiguero” (the anthill).

We are exploring in eco-building, natural pools, aquaponics crops, arts, music and any interesting expression of new lifestyles.

With our eagerness to find alternative lifestyles, building methods and my much coveted ‘life skill acquisition’, on the face of things this place looked like it could tick all of the boxes-and so we had three weeks or so to find out-El Monte here we come!

So then….where to start? Well as always, the adventure begins with a journey, in this case a mere 1 hour bus into the unknown. We managed to get on the right bus, we just had a little hiccup with getting off in the wrong spot-probably a twenty minute or so walk from where we should have been. In theory no problem, but with your backpacks on and the midday heat beating down on your head, that twenty minutes takes on a whole new significance! Still, nothing that couldn’t be fixed with an empanada and fresh juice stop-and so our first introduction to the charm and friendliness of El Monte washed over us. Yes that’s right, you wouldn’t expect a vendor of empanadas and fresh juice to be a significant meeting, but the man in the square of El Monte was an absolute ray of sunshine and he would continue to shine for our entire time at the anthill! At this point it’s worth pointing out that El Monte is not exactly a destination for tourists, or for want of a better word, Gringos! As such we kinda stick out like a sore thumb, but that only served to encourage kindness and warmth from pretty much everyone we met over the following three weeks or so.
I digress, back to our journey…once we had located the main square, we had basic walking directions that would take us to the anthill and so we hit the road for another twenty minutes or so until we saw the palm trees-the significant landmark that would signify our arrival at our destination. You see, the anthill, aside from the description as given above, is a palm tree farm!

Well baked, slightly sweaty and reddened in the face, we negotiated our way to the entrance to find our hosts for the build up until Christmas, and for sure what we found was both intriguing and bewildering. Soon enough we were offered a beer and set about getting to know Vicente and Martina, some German guys that were already there volunteering, and also the various animals that we would find ourselves growing to know and love. Alpacas, emus, a donkey, a peacock, two peahens, chickens, ducks, dogs and cats-to say there was some variety is an understatement! And all of this in the setting of a traditional adobe farm, albeit it with some wonderfully quirky design features. Impossible to describe effectively with words, a montage seems most fitting to give you an impression of the location:

As I’m sure you can see, this place was quite special, and it would only get more magical. It turned out that our period of volunteering coincided with Martina and Vicente’s wedding, which they were going to be having at the farm! So it was up to us all to landscape and decorate the grounds in readiness for 400 guests to celebrate their union-and what a fantastic few weeks it turned out to be. Initially we had to clear the palm tree forest of all debris as that was where the ceremony and meal was to be-and this was the worst job of all! It may surprise you to know that palm tree leaves are pretty damn sharp, and all of us suffered greatly with significant punctures and lacerations caused by these pesky leaves! Fortunately for us we were there at the tail end of this job, the German guys had been pretty much focussed on the forest for their entire stay, and it was really starting to take its toll on their enthusiasm!
Still, once the forest was cleared there was more varied work to do, and luckily for us it was the period of time where you could really see the transformation taking place.
After a few days of us being there, we were also lucky enough to welcome the arrival of a couple from Leeds, Rob and Charlie, a couple who happen to have extremely similar ideals and plans as ourselves-albeit they are a little further down the line than us. This proved to be amazing, we shared so much, and I would say that they have became close friends. They were both extremely knowledgeable about various alternative farming methods and construction ideas, and it was fantastic to just sit and talk about hopes and plans (not dreams, plans!).

Back to the work, Martina and Vicente have a booming landscaping business work on projects throughout Santiago…reason that their business is booming? Well, they’re pretty damn creative, that’s why-and so we were tasked with the job of implementing their creative ideas, on their property, for their wedding…No pressure! Working with Rob and Charlie was brilliant, and in our time there we managed to build two beached areas, a water garden, some mighty fine gates, got involved with some adobe walling, and an immaculately decorated venue for the wedding-as well as Rob and Charlie getting to grips with a number of bridges, sprucing up a gypsy caravan, relocating the aquaponics and generally being open to our constant questioning!

In addition to all of the work at the farm, we were blessed with the wonder of El Monte, for here we would find warm and friendly folk who would fall over themselves to make us welcome. The daily Christmas market in the local plaza, and free capoeira lessons at the wonderful local community centre. Despite the fact that there was no common ground in terms of language-it turned out to be possibly one of the most friendly martial arts clubs I have ever been to, they even started having lessons in the town plaza for eveyone to watch. We loved it, and soon enough Rob and Charlie were hooked as well-a welcome distraction from the work at the farm for sure!

Twice a week we would get our capoeira on, and the rest of the week was dedicated to graft, and the occasional two litre bottle of El Gato wine!! The work was full on, after all there was an immovable deadline to meet-so it wasn’t as if we could leave it to the next volunteers if we didn’t finish-so finish we did…Culminating in a spectacular wedding!

It was a fantastic ending to our time in El Monte, after three and a half weeks we had made some special friendships and enjoyed a magical time at the farm…Now Christmas was upon us, and the grafitti laden streets of Valpairiso awaited!

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My, it’s a bit Chile…

Argentina fading in the wing mirrors, and the magnificent Andes looming ahead, it could mean only one thing-we were bound for Chile. Absolutely my favourite border crossing to date-from Mendoza it’s a 7 hour bus journey to get to Santiago, straight over the Andes, and it’s absolutely fabulous. You begin with a drive through the flat lands and vineyards of Mendoza region before you soon start climbing up the mountainside and dipping in and out of tunnels as you twist and turn up to the majestic mountain range that runs pretty much the entire length of the border between Chile and Argentina, as well as running through Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia. It’s the highest mountain range outside Asia, over 4000 miles long, and as you make your way towards the border you pass by the mighty Mount Aconcagua, which at it’s peak rises to an elevation of about 6,961m and is the highest mountain in the Western hemisphere. It was breath-taking just to get near it on a bus journey, and just a week following our journey one of our friends was actually going to be climbing it! Just another 15km or so on from passing the mountain and you reach the border, where you have to step off the bus into snow and icy winds; obviously I was wearing shorts and t-shirt and was completely unprepared for exiting at the border, a schoolboy error some may say! The border crossing itself was extremely straight forward, although worth noting that Chile has extremely strict controls on what you can travel into the country with-so definitely worth checking what you have in your bags before making the crossing, otherwise the danger of a hefty fine. Specifically you can’t take any organic materials across the border, no honey, fruit, vegetables…as well as your stash of weapons and drugs!!
So, safely through the border we started the descent from the border via a series of no fewer than 27 switchbacks! Quite the introduction to Chile!

Before we knew it we were arriving in the thriving metropolis that is Santiago, time for a week of sight seeing in the capital before our next volunteer placement in El Monte. We weren’t simply going to be wondering the busy city street though, as is our eagerness to learn Spanish, we soon found ourselves a week long Spanish language course to see whether we could give ourselves a little bit of a kick start. Queue 5 hours a day in a hot classroom getting somewhat frustrated with my inability to just pick up a language with no problems…Obviously Jo was much better prepared than I was, and certainly got to grips with more than I have managed.

That’s not to say we didn’t manage to explore the city-Santiago is a vibrant, busy, thriving and colourful city, with a whole load of awesome museums and enchanting street culture to charm and seduce you. From the multi coloured buildings lining the streets in the  district of Bellavista, housing numerous bars and restaurants for late night entertainment; to the many green spaces and museums that provide a platform for arts and cultural expression-it really does seem to have something for everyone. Not forgetting the backdrop of the Andes to put things in a different perspective. Amazingly, as of the census from 2002, a massive 35% of the population of Chile live in the capital-which certainly makes for interesting etiquette on the metro during rush hour!

Basically Santiago proved to be a wonderful introduction to Chile, next stop the sleepy town of El Monte and a few weeks volunteering at ‘The Anthill’…And what a surprise that turned out to be!

Volunteering in San Rafael-wine country!

Following our injection of tourism, it was time to settle for a volunteer placement once again-this time spending 6 weeks in San Rafael, Mendoza region, wine country!
Quite the different proposition to Aldea Luna, here were volunteering at an Argentinian finca and boutique hotel-as we had arrived during low season there weren’t too many guests to tend to, and so we spent a lot of the time preparing the hotel for high season.

While we had the experience of organic farming in isolation in Northern Argentina, here we found ourselves tending to horses, llamas, chickens, dogs, cats and geese in the shadows of the Andes. Daily duties were simply to feed the animals and tend to any odd jobs around the hotel, and to sort out lunch for Nicole, the owner, and her parents, Hugo and Carmen. Once again we found ourselves in a predominantly vegetarian environment, and to be honest I thoroughly enjoyed adding a number of delicious vegetarian recipes to my repertoire…Including the taste sensation of beetroot, carrot, ginger and garlic gyoza!

Overall it was a super relaxed and thoroughly social placement-Nicole, Hugo and Carmen were absolutely brilliant, and we had many a laugh and good night!
As with all of our placements, even though the work didn’t exactly fall into the ‘life skills’ category-it was invaluable to work with someone like Nicole-who has an keen eye for detail and impeccably high standards. Not surprisingly there are a number of awards from TripAdvisor proudly displayed in the lobby of the hotel.

San Rafael itself is a quaint little town full of bodegas and, more importantly, delicious ice cream parlours. Obviously it wouldn’t be acceptable to be in Mendoza region without some wine tasting, and so we indulged in the local favourite of Jean Rivier to whet our appetites-an appetite that would be fed quite regularly during the remainder of our time in Argentina! Here we also finally broke our duck on Argentinian ice cream, and what an experience that was. Cheap and delicious gelato, with a list of flavours as long as your arm, ice cream is something of a passion in Argentina, and now we truly understood why!

Other highlights from our time here came from interaction with the guests and Nicole’s friends-particularly the opportunity to attend, and then conduct, Argentinian BBQs-or asados as they are known. Unlike the British equivalent, where you go to the shops grab as many burgers and sausages as possible before rushing to a gas powered BBQ to cook them before the sunshine disappeared, an asado is a much more considered event. Obviously the fact that you have glorious sunshine certainly helps-so great big hunks of meat would be slow cooked over a couple of hours on wood coals made from burning local hardwoods…Certainly no gas powered BBQs or bags of coal to be found here! Chorizos, morcillas (black pudding), chinchulines (cow small intestines), mollejas (sweetbread), and other organs, are served first while the larger cuts of beef are left to slow cook over the coals.
The result is a wonderfully tender and smoky beef sensation, including the salty deliciousness of small intestines (chinchulines), a delicacy that, prior to tasting, I would have definitely turned my nose up at!
Obviously it helps that you get to use Argentinian beef, regarded by some (mostly Argentinians, obviously!) to be the best beef in the world…Why? The beef’s quality apparently comes from the grass the cattle feed on. Unlike other countries, most Argentine cows are not fed on grains, but are raised eating grass in the pampas, the biggest beef producing region of the country where open flat plains dominate the landscape.
All of this washed down with wonderful red wine-obviously!

For sure it was an unexpected injection of some luxury into our volunteer journey-and we did get pretty comfortable there-but by the end of the 6 weeks we were ready to continue, a bus journey across the Andes awaited, Chile was calling!