From the beach of El Quisco to the Atacama Desert

Having spent a few days in Valparaiso, and with a couple of weeks teaching for the English Opens Doors program approaching, we decided to get some much needed coastal time under our belts. Over the entirety of our travels, the surprising thing is that we haven’t seen more of the sea-so we headed to the Chilean coast and  El Quisco. Most famous for being home to another one of Pablo Neruda’s haunts, Isla Negra, El Quisco proved to be the perfect tonic to the concrete jungle that is Valpo, a few stunning sunsets perfect to massage the soul and move us forward to our next volunteer placement. Aimless meandering up and down the stunning coastline certainly didn’t disappoint, and we even managed to happen across a Pablo Neruda artistic reserve on the cliff tops-the kind of place that you would never find if you were actively looking for it!  Walking around this hidden gem you find a number of sculptures hidden amongst the foliage, most impressive were the eerie stone faces that look over the shores, listening to the waves crashing on the rocks far below-it’s easy to understand how an artist would use this place as a source of inspiration: 

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Stunning scenery, great seafood, a perfect little cabana just 5 minutes walk from the beach-you couldn’t really ask for much more-apart for time! Alas that wasn’t something that we could afford ourselves, and in the blink of an eye our lazy couple of days were over, and we were headed back to Santiago once again-over the following two weeks we would be teaching assistants for the English Opens Doors Summer Camps. Nothing too taxing, we would be working with Chilean teachers delivering a number of activities for students who had enrolled in a free summer English language program- they’re run over the whole of Chile, so deep down we were both kind of hoping to be sent to Patagonia, alas that was not to be. For my first week I was placed in Los Angeles (Chile, not California!), and Jo in Concepcion-then for the second week we were both back in Santiago. With little spare time to explore the respective cities there’s not a lot I can tell you about the districts; as for the camps themselves-we got to work with some great people in an extremely positive and enthusiastic summer camp environment-so more great teaching experiences under our belts. The only negative being that we had to comprise a lip dub to Justin Bieber’s Sorry, which still haunts my dreams now…If I never hear that song again it will be too soon!

Having loitered in the central region of Chile for long enough, we now had some time to be tourists for a while, and from the recommendations of many, we were headed North to San Pedro, before making our way into Peru. San Pedro is the gateway from which to explore the Atacama Desert, something that neither Jo or I had considered before our trip to South America-but it is thought to be the oldest desert on earth, the oldest continuously dry region on the planet, (it has experienced extreme hyper aridity for at least 3 million years!) and is the home of the other worldly terrain of the Chilean Valle de la Luna. Not surprisingly at one point NASA tested their Mars landing equipment there and looked for signs of life in the earth of the desert-finding none …..You could say that this place is barren!
First we had to get there though, and it turned out to be ‘one of those journeys’. I feel like I haven’t had a proper travel moan for ages, this trip certainly gave me fodder for a paddy of epic proportions. It was simple enough in theory-there was a direct bus from Santiago to San Pedro. It was a night bus so we would get some form of faux chair/bed, hop on, fall asleep, arrive in San Pedro-easy! Alas that wasn’t to be the case in this instance. The chain of events that followed can’t really be explained properly as no one explained anything to us during the whole journey! What I can tell you is that our simple one bus journey evolved into a mammoth four bus marathon! First up our bus just stopped at one station and was there for what seemed like an age, there appeared to be some problem with the door-so we had to wait until a mechanic could come and fix it. Fast forward an hour and a half and we were set to recommence our journey, off we go again all happy and relieved that things were sorted. At some point during my broken slumber we shuddered to a halt and informed that we would now be changing buses, on some random street at an ungodly hour in the morning. Ok, so a grumble and a little bit of a moan, but the other bus was there so we quickly changed and got ourselves comfortable again….For about ten minutes, when the new bus pulled into another bus station and kicked us off! We were simply told that we would need to catch another bus to San Pedro-as our bus was now out of service! With our extremely limited Spanish, and the help of a fellow traveller, it looked like we would have to wait at this bus station for three hours for the next bus to San Pedro, or take another two buses which would get us there sooner-so we opted for the latter, adding an unwelcome 4 hours onto the total journey time. Eventually we made it-30 hours later-but for sure my patience with people when I’m tired and travelling is limited, and it hasn’t gotten any better over the last year and a half!

Having finally arrived during the dark of night, we managed to get a taxi (a random 4X4) to take us out to our ‘desert base’ and soon we settled into our tent excited about what San Pedro had to offer; yes, that’s right, we were going to be braving some camping in the desert. The Atacama is also home to the imaginatively named Very Large Telescope (VLT), for the very reason that there is nowhere better on the planet to look at the midnight skies. Unfortunately my camera isn’t up to the job of demonstrating the displays of stars that we were treated to each night, so you’ll have to take my word for it-it was spectacular, and as we were camping outside of the town where there is zero light pollution-we were treated to a wondrous show each night. 

When we actually managed to get into San Pedro the next day we discovered the town itself to be quite the tourist haven, with dusty ‘Mad Max’ type streets and adobe buildings-you really feel as if you are experiencing a time gone by-all be it truth be told I think that nowadays it purely exists as a tourist destination. That doesn’t take anything away from being there though, it really is a funky little town. 

Like everyone else arriving in San Pedro, you walk around a few tourist shops, have some food, and then set about organising your activities for the next couple of days-there are loads of tour agencies doing various excursions, from sand boarding and quad biking, to nightly stargazing walks. Our focus was on a visit to the unique Valle de la Luna, and to go and visit the nearby geysers. After exploring a few  options with the local travel companies you soon work out that they’re all very similar and you just need to negotiate yourself the best deal. Having gotten what we thought was a great deal, the next day we were on our way to explore the moon like landscape that the desert presents-quite simply it was absolutely gorgeous, a myriad of colours and surreal rock formations melting and pouring into each other-it was a little like being in a lava lamp: 

The entire day was breath-taking, the only downside being that our tour guide quite simply didn’t speak any English-it ended up being quite comical and forced us to try to use what little Spanish we had acquired to decipher the general gist of his tour. After a full day in the desert, the evening held nothing more than a beer or two and early to bed in the sweltering pod of heat that was our tent-but not for long, for at 4.00AM we would be getting picked up for the following days visit to the geysers. Now, for what happened next I blame on tiredness, although others may point to stupidity, I’ll leave it up to you to decide. As is the very nature of the Atacama, it’s hot….Really hot. So, 4 AM one morning getting ready to go and visit some geysers, where we have been told there are hot springs, Jo and I promptly dressed some nice lightweight shorts and t-shirts. It didn’t really occur to us that we would be going to 5,300m above sea level at the crack of dawn, and at that time, at that height, it may be just a little bit Chile (pun intended!!). It didn’t really sink in until we were surrounded by people on our minibus dressed for winter, looking at us as if we were crazy fools-and as such we arrived at the geysers to the amusement of many….Little freezing gringo couple-how funny! Anyway, aside from that the geysers were, again, spectacular, other worldly, wonderful….I run out of original superlatives so forgive me for repeating myself! The amusing thing is that unlike the UK there is  no real health and safety, merely the casual observation:

if you see a hole in the ground, try not to stand on it….

Arid desert, bubbling volcanic pools and hot springs, but still San Pedro wasn’t quite finished-to complete our stay we grabbed some mountain bikes to go and explore Pukara de Quitor, a pre-Columbian stone fortress overlooking the San Pedro river. With Machu Picchu looming in our futures it was a great introduction to the wonders that lay ahead. The ruins date back to the 12th century, and were built initially as a defence against internal threats from neighbouring villages and communities-upon the Spanish invasion they took on a more significant role in the defence from  these foreign invaders. It was to no avail though, as signified by two huge stone heads, carved into the rock in memory of the Pukará de Quitor leaders beheaded by the Spanish when they sacked the town in 1540. A few hours walk in the sweltering heat would stand us in good stead for future excursions, and obviously provided some more camera fodder!

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And so it was that we prepared to leave Chile for Peru,  with a feeling of a fair amount of unfinished business-as with Argentina, we have barely scratched the surface!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Salta, La Rioja and the Talampaya Canyon

Having said our farewells to the our ‘family’ at Aldea Luna, and having the fortune to get a lift to the bus stop from Martin and Anabella, our travels resumed and we set about having a few days of tourism before our next volunteer appointment in San Rafael. The unexpected expense in Argentina being a significant factor in restricting just how much sightseeing we were going to get to do. Still, we had 5 days and so we planned to go to the picturesque town of Salta, then onto La Rioja and the Talampaya National Park.
We easily managed to get ourselves back to Jujuy bus station and then a mere two hour wait for the bus to Salta-the perfect amount of time to catch up on a little bit of internet action-and eating some meat empanadas after our month of enforced vegetarianism!

Unlike the adventures across Asia, the journeys here lack much in the way of drama or terror-we soon arrived unscathed and not in the least bit stressed in Salta, and made our way to our hostel. It was here that we were greeted by the most delightful host, with no English and our very broken beginner Spanish-it was rugby that united us! As soon as I had managed to establish the fact that I was Welsh, the smiles were unstoppable as we shared in England’s demise at the World Cup, and Argentina’s emergence as an upcoming rugby superpower-oh how they are benefitting from inclusion in the Rugby Championship. Anyway, I digress, as it was late we managed to organise food to be delivered to the hostel and we ate and crashed, before rising early to discover the quaint and eerily quiet streets of Salta…It took a while for us to realise that it was Sunday, and not until the following day to understand that Sundays really are rest days in Argentina. It actually turned out to be to our benefit, as we explored Argentinian street vistas uninterrupted for the first time.

One of the ‘attractions’ of the city that we had highlighted as a must visit was the MAAM Museum, which is the Museum of High Altitude Archaeology, and the home of the ‘Children of Llullaillaco’ in the Cryopreservation Laboratory. Basically these are mummified remains of Inca children that were sacrificed to the gods on the mountains of Lullaillaco 500 years ago, and as per the altitude and hence low temperatures they are the best preserved Inca mummies that have ever been discovered.
These remains are now actually kept frozen in the afore mentioned museum, and at any given time one of the mummies is on display. While it sounds pretty macabre and potentially bad taste, the exhibition is excellent-giving a real insight into the customs of the Inca’s and the background for these ‘sacrifices’. The children that were sacrificed were believed to have been the most intelligent and attractive, often from families of high standing in the communities. Even more surprising is the fact that the children were actually left on the mountain tops while they still alive, albeit sedated with coca leaves and a maize beer, and left to die in their sleep. Surrounding the bodies a number of artefacts and other offerings were found, rich collection Incan treasures laid out assumed to be part of the sacrifice to appease the mountain gods.
On our visit the youngest of the children to be found was on display, ‘El Nino’;

The boy
His age is around seven years. He sat on a grey tunic with legs bent and his face in-resting on his knees. A blanket of brown and red half covered his head and body. Like all men of the Inca elite he wore short hair and a trim white feathers, supported by a sling wool wrapped around the head.
He is dressed in a red garment; has in his feet leather moccasins light-coloured with brown wool appliqué; It has anklets animal skin with white fur on his right wrist and wears a silver bracelet.
His fists are clenched; The face is not visible and his eyelids are half closed.

With time limited before our start date at our next volunteering project-we left Salta after a couple of nights and headed onto La Rioja, with a view to visiting the Talampaya National Park-another UNESCO World Heritage Site for us to add to our already impressive list-the only place on the Earth’s surface where you can see all stages of the Triassic geological era, which witnessed the emergence of the first dinosaurs.
Our first challenge was getting there, as on our arrival in the pleasant surroundings of La Rioja we discovered, to our dismay, that any organised trips to the canyon were going to be way over budget! The canyon being around 3 hours bus journey from La Rioja, the trips we found were coming in at over £100 each-quite significantly more than expected. Not to be put off, we eventually found a way to get there for about half that cost-local style!! Basically this involved us getting a local bus and getting them to drop us off on the main road through the desert near the entrance, and in comparison to some of the adventures we had in Asia-it all went like absolute clockwork….Although not without a fair amount of apprehension on my part obviously!

So having negotiated our way there, we soon found ourselves amongst the sheered red boulders that had fallen from the walls of the canyon around us, upon which were a gallery of 1, 000 year old rock paintings, made by the Ciénaga and Aguada peoples who inhabited the area. The pictures ‘apparently’ depict various animals although I was pretty certain that they were more indicative of alien invaders….Riding llamas obviously!! At one point during the tour you are brought round to the botanical garden of the area where you find a huge carob tree, which is thought to be more than one thousand years old, as well as twenty or so different native cacti, shrubs and trees.
All in all the area was absolutely spectacular, as you will see from our photo journal…

In what seemed like the blink of an eye, our time was up and we hit a night bus to Mendoza ready to begin our next HelpX placement in San Rafael….La Carmelita here we come!

Va va…Vang Vieng

As traveling continually proves to demonstrate extremes, from Phonsavan and the historic Plain of Jars we travelled to Vang Vieng, a riverside town made famous for its tubing scene. Famous that is, until it became somewhat infamous for hedonistic parties and danger on the river. The problem was that people were mixing heavy partying with fast flowing water-not a fantastic combination in anyone’s book.
The Laos authorities recently addressed the issues that were facing Vang Vieng after a large number of fatalities on the river, and have clamped down on the riverside bars that were causing much of the mayhem. Now it is attracting plaudits for the right reasons once again, and is establishing itself as a destination for mountain biking, trekking, kayaking, caving, swimming, rock climbing, and much more reserved river tubing. Did I mention how beautiful this place is? No? Well Vang Vieng is little more than a few streets lining the one side of the Nam Song river, while on the ‘other side’ you have a backdrop of spectacular cliffs and a patchwork of vivid green paddy fields. It really is stunning!

On arrival in the town we set about finding somewhere to stay, a task royally cocked up by my good self when I found somewhere online-only to book it for the following week. Thanks to the good folks at Agoda, this was a booking that couldn’t be amended, and so we were left wandering the riverside looking for somewhere else to stay. This wandering took far too long, either the guesthouses were full, or they were too expensive for our liking, and frustration was beginning to show in my ever reddening face! It’s at this point that we fell upon some ‘accommodation Karma’, one of the guesthouses that declared themselves full to me was actually showing availability on Agoda, and so thinking that they may have reserved huts for online bookings we booked online and rocked up to secure our hut. As it turns out their standard rooms were fully booked-and they just hadn’t gotten round to updating their account on Agoda-so with some quite obvious disdain to the manager, they had to concede and honour our booking with one of their ‘executive huts’….Thank you very much!!

Oooooh yes.....

Oooooh yes…..

Preeeeetty happy I can tell thee!!

Preeeeetty happy I can tell thee!!

Settled and happy, we turned our attentions to immersing ourselves in the surrounding landscape-literally! We had found a couple of nearby caves that we could explore, as well as a small vantage point to climb from which we could view the town-and so it was a simple case of following the signs through the rice fields..

The 'signposts' here had a much more rustic feel...

The ‘signposts’ here had a much more rustic feel…

There was no real clear pathway-it was just 'that way'

There was no real clear pathway-it was just ‘that way’

A shrews eye view...

A shrews eye view…

The mountains that set the backdrop for this riverside town

The mountains that set the backdrop for this riverside town

Difficult not to be blown away with the surrounding environment...

Difficult not to be blown away with the surrounding environment…

Jumping for joy!

Jumping for joy!

The walk took a little longer than expected-but eventually we found our way to the first challenge of the day-the climb up to the vantage point. No health and safety risk assessment here, just a makeshift ladder that starts you off on your climb-before all obvious direction disappears and you’re left to ‘follow your nose’ and climb for the top. The climb was so much more challenging than we were expecting, but it was absolutely worth it as we stood at the top with shaky legs, and took a moment to soak in the views:

The view starting to materialise as we climbed through the tree canopy

The view starting to materialise as we climbed through the tree canopy

Slowly but surely we made our way to the summit

Slowly but surely we made our way to the summit

Despite the fearful climb, it was more than worth it!

Despite the fearful climb, it was more than worth it!

As gravity dictates, the climb down was very much quicker than our ascent and we continued on to the caves. A little more reassuringly we were advised that the caves weren’t accessible without the accompaniment of a guide, and so we ventured into the cave while trying to keep up with a ‘gazelle like’ local vaulting effortlessly between the stones through the entrance. Inside we were met with stunning rock formations and a myriad of ‘musical’ stone that our guide drummed and played with glee.

Into the darkness....

Into the darkness….

Some alien like rock formations

Some alien like rock formations

Caves-fun for all the family!

Caves-fun for all the family!

If you look closely you'll see that this is 'disco stone'!

If you look cosely you’ll see that this is ‘disco stone’!

Stone snakes....

Stone snakes….

Musical stone

Musical stone

Feeling like quite the intrepid travellers, we retired back to the town to enjoy one of the other magnificent sights that Vang Vieng has to offer-outstanding sunsets with hot air balloons floating by, adding to the drama.
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Having thoroughly enjoyed our time in Vang Vieng, once again we were ready to hit the road-next stop the capital, Vientiane, where we planned to secure our Visa for Vietnam before heading to the South of Laos. As usual, the prospect of boarding another bus filled Jo with joy, but at least this journey was ‘just’ five hours..

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That was then, this is Laos

After a few days in Chiang Mai we set ourselves for pastures new once again, this time we were heading for Laos and the experiences a new country and culture have to offer.

Both of us were looking forward to further challenges, things had gotten pretty comfortable in Thailand, the tourist route so well travelled that it was rare you ever felt like you were really out of your comfort zone.
Laos has the reputation of being 10-15 years behind Thailand in terms of its tourist industry. Given its recent history that’s quite understandable…Per capita, Laos is the most bombed country in the world…..Yeah that’s right, hard to believe isn’t it? To give you an idea of the extent of the bombing, if you averaged out the frequency of US bombing between 1964-1973 it would equate to a bombing mission every eight minutes, 24 hours a day for the whole 9 years. Laos had more bombs dropped on it during that time than were dropped by all sides in the whole of WW2….. And all part of the Vietnam war, a conflict that they were neutral in.
Some of the history of the country was covered in Manufacturing Consent, the book by Noam Chomsky, so I had an idea of some of the historical background, and was eager to learn more about the country and how it is recovering from the devastation caused during the Indochina wars.

So we literally squeezed ourselves into a minibus, and set off for he Chiang Khong/Huay Xai international border crossing. The journey was a pretty hair-raising one to say the least, our driver fancying himself as Sebastian Loeb in the making, tires screeching as we overtake lorries while hurtling round blind corners-little did we know that this would be good preparation for the journeys to follow in the mountains of Laos!
Giving us some respite from the terror onslaught, we stopped off in Chiang Rai to visit Wat Rong Khun-otherwise known as the White Temple. Neither Jo or I had read up on the temple beforehand, and so we weren’t entirely sure what to expect. On approach the first impression is that you are beholding something truly magnificent-like when Superman first sees the Fortress of Solitude gleaming in the sunshine, quite breath-taking:

Like a beaming sparkly beacon of Buddhism....

Like a beaming sparkly beacon of Buddhism….

On closer inspection, things start to get a little bit weird…Take a look at the photo above again, notice anything? Anything like the bizarre statues in the foreground?! That was just the start of things, around the grounds, hanging from trees were the heads of various horror film characters-Predator, Freddy Kruger, Pinhead & Jarhead all featuring. Things got even stranger inside, where the temples walls were depicted with images of Michael Jackson, Hello Kitty, Superman, Terminator and Harry Potter! Turns out that this is actually privately owned by an artist called Chalermchai Kositpipat, and is actually an art-exhibit in the style of a Buddhist temple. It does serve as an active temple, but more of a tourist attraction than anything else. It really was quite bizarre-especially not knowing its background before visiting!

Quite magnificent in approach...but look a little closer

Quite magnificent in approach…but look a little closer

What you doing hanging around here...you should head to the temple!

What you doing hanging around here…you should head to the temple!

Somewhat baffled, we plunged ourselves back into our own personal vehicle of terror and set off to complete our journey to the border. Our entrance to Laos was rather more sedate, over the 4th Friendship Bridge that straddles the mighty Mekong River that separates Thailand and Laos.

The Mekong!

The Mekong!

And so that was it, we’d made it-we were in Laos, the third country on our South East Asian adventure. Our first stop was a night in Huay Xai, a small town near the border crossing where many travellers rest up before setting off into Northern Laos. Time for us to familiarise ourselves with the currency, the Kip, and attempt the language. The currency is particularly difficult, currently £1 is worth 12,000 Kip, so you’re always dealing with large numbers when paying for things. The conversion isn’t difficult, just simplify things so that you’re working at 10,000 kip to the pound and you’ll always be overestimating costs-no problems….It’s just getting used to having to pay 100,000 Kip for a night in a guesthouse, it feels like you’re handing over a lot of money!

Fed, watered and rested, we got up early the next morning to make our way for our first stop proper, Luang Namtha, and our first efforts at travels on a local bus. If we thought that the previous days’ journey was terrifying, that was just the warm up. Now faced with roads that snake and carve their way through the mountains, we got on a decrepit old bus that looked like it was ready for the scrapheap. The general rule of thumb on the bus seemed to be, if there’s a modicum of space, then there’s room for one more-and soon we were jam packed to the rafters for departure. So we headed for the mountains, at some points I think that it would have been quicker to walk up some of the inclines, and then during the descents we would be treated to the occasional wrecked truck lying prostrate in the ditch, just a nice little reminder of the perils that the road offers! It took us roughly 6 hours to travel 150Km, and yes that’s only an average of 25km/h, but I assure you that the downhill sections were perilously quick!

Eventually we made it, shaken & stirred, but in one piece and we headed into the town to explore Luang Namtha. The town services a national park area in the Northern Highlands of Laos predominantly known for its hiking and kayaking-given that we’re here in dry season, a jungle hike was the obvious choice. The town is literally centred on one main road that passes through-and there wasn’t really much else there at all. A few guesthouses, a couple of restaurants and some tour offices-that pretty much sums it up! So we found a guide and opted for a single day hike-the following morning we would be setting off into the Nam Ha protected area for a day in the jungle. It was that evening that we first encountered Lao style balut at the street market that was quite something else-not that we actually tried it, but for those of you that don’t know balut is a developing duck embryo that is boiled and eaten in the shell. Literally you have a ducks egg with the top open, and the head being presented for you to chow down on, definitely something that sits outside of our comfort zone at the moment!

Onto the hike, and it really was great to get out into the jungle for the day. The hiking was of moderate difficulty, which was perfect for just the single day. We passed through primary and secondary jungle areas, before finishing the hike through some rice farms-really was quite stunning:

Rough in the jungle, in the jungle...

Rough in the jungle, in the jungle…

...Inner inner jungle

…Inner inner jungle

Look closely and you'll see LOADS and LOADS of spiders!

Look closely and you’ll see LOADS and LOADS of spiders!

Leaves...Big in Laos!

Leaves…Big in Laos!

Great example of jungle bridging!

Great example of jungle bridging!

As we emerge from the jungle into the valley

As we emerge from the jungle into the valley

One of the rice farms we hiked through

One of the rice farms we hiked through

A look back at our travels!

A look back at our travels!

Fantastic to experience and very much washed the memory of the previous days’ bus journey away, only problem being that we now had to think of the bus to our next stop, Luang Prabang-a mere 9 hours across the mountains…