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!








Christmas in Valparaiso

Last year we were staying on a piranha farm in Northern Thailand, and Christmas day actually involved a pretty gruelling Thai boxing class….This year was not to be so strenuous! This year we would be indulging in cocktails, wine, food and street art in the enigmatic city of Valparaiso, Chile.

It is the 6th largest city in the country, yet the greater Valparaiso Metropolitan Area is the second most populous, and it lies just 70 miles from Santiago. Today it is the most important port in Chile, and indeed is one of the most important South Pacific ports, but a far cry from its signifiance pre Panama Canal. In the second half of the 19th century, the city served as a stopover for ships traveling between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, earning it the names “Little San Francisco” and “The Jewel of the Pacific”. All of this would change with the opening of the mighty Panama Canal-which had a huge impact on the ship traffic that Valparaiso would see, and ergo the port based economy took a heavy fall.Since then Valparaiso has reinvented itself, its myriad of mazy streets providing inspiration for artistic and cultural expression. In 2003 the historic quarter was given UNESCO World Heritage Site status due to its improvised urban design and unique hop scotch of hillside architecture sprawling away from the coast. It’s difficult to put into words the landscape that you are faced with upon arrival, the city literally leaps from the sea and crawls up the surrounding hillsides. A series of 26 old and rickety funiculars are scattered around the city giving your legs the option to circumnavigate the steep inclines that you face at every corner! Street art meets your gaze everywhere, a lot of it breathtaking, but equally so much of the grafitti is just a collection of banal tags. This explosion of colour on the walls, combines with the crazy streets and perilously balanced buildings certainly gives the city something of an ‘edge’, especially when placed against the contrast of previous experiences in the sleepy town of EL Monte, and the modern and cosmopolitan Santiago. But this is something that the city never denies, in fact this edginess is positively embraced. Probably the best way to describe to you Valparaiso is to quote the famous Chilean poet-diplomat Pablo Neruda, a hugely influential figure in Chile-and someone who had quite a magnificent home on the hillsides of Valparaiso. On visiting his home, one of the things that you have to do while visiting the city, you apprecite what an eye for design and detail that he must have had, plus the fact tht he was a bit of  party animal-with a pretty cool bar just off his living room! Wonderful art deco design features, couple with the most superb panoramic views of the quagmire of streets falling away down the hillside to the docks nestled far below-the perfect fodder for artistic inspiration I would think:

Ode to Valparaíso
by Pablo Neruda

(translated by Molly Allison-Baker)

what an absurdity
you are,
how crazy:
a crazy port.
What a head
of disheveled
that you never finish
did you have
time to dress yourself,
and always
you were surprised
by life.
Death woke you up,
in your nightshirt,
in your long johns
fringed with colors,
with a name
tattooed on your stomach,
and with a hat.

(read the full version of the translated poem here)

Christmas turned out to be a funny time to be in the city, the streets much quieter and calmer than we were expecting-as it transpired it was the perfect time to go on a tour of discovery of the balmy alleys and streets, in search of some of the much lauded graffiti that adorns the walls, roofs and passageways around the city…What you find is a myriad of amazing artwork:

I was reaching for my camera at every turn, always eyes wide open, a smile at the corners of my mouth. Valparaiso certainly isn’t a pretty city, but it is captivating!
As for Christmas day, we had rented an apartment for the festive period, so with the opportunity to use a kitchen we did what seemed most apt…..Cocktails, red wine, beer and steak and chips!

Aside from street art and steak, we travelled up the coast a little to Viña del Mar-the neighbouring seaside resort, a little bit like the younger yet more responsible sister…Which fails to charm in the same way as the gritty streets of Valpo-but would serve a purpose should you be seeking some beach time and a swanky night out!

Getting back to Valparaiso and I cannot help but feel that our experience of the city was somewhat an oddity-the Christmas period giving the whole place a much more lazy and sedate feel than the reports I hear from others. I think if you were to visit at New Year you would get an entirely different perspective-but for us a few days in our little apartment were perfect, a very Merry Christmas!

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!

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!


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!

Enter mystical Myanmar – Yangon

Having had a few days in the modern wonder that is Singapore, we landed in Yangon looking forward to exploring the mysteries of Myanmar.
Yangon is the former capital of Myanmar, and remains the largest city with a population in excess of 5 million. It was originally a small fishing village called Dagon centred about the Shwedagon Pagoda. In 1755 King Alaungpaya conquered the village and renamed it Yangon, since then settlements formed around the central Dagon area eventually forming the sprawling city of today. When you visit the city now, you will notice that it is now made up of a multitude of ‘townships’, a reminder of how the city developed from it’s humble beginnings. The British seized Yangon in the Anglo-Burmese War of 1852, and subsequently transformed Yangon into the commercial and political hub of British Burma-lining the streets with colonial buildings and British influence.

We arrived at our hotel in downtown and hit the streets to do some exploring-the par for course upon arriving anywhere on our travels. Stepping out onto the street and we were met with the most intense heat that I think I have ever experienced….The street temperature was 46 degrees! We ducked, dodged and weaved our way into every spot of shade possible as we ventured towards our first tourist spot-the 2,500 year old Sule Pagoda in central downtown. Not quite what you would expect from an ancient pagoda, nowadays it serves a dual purpose, the other being that of a rather busy roundabout. Supposedly enshrined in the temple is a hair of Buddha, given to two Burmese merchant brothers by Buddha himself. More recently, during the 1988 and 2007 protests, the Sule Pagoda was a meeting point for anti-government and pro-democracy protesters.
We negotiated the Yangon traffic to enter the temple and were soon hotfooting it around the pagoda-literally! At all religious sites in Myanmar you have to remove your shoes and socks and, bearing in mind the temperatures, it felt like we were walking on the surface of the sun! This feeling was amplified by the suns’ reflection off the quite wonderful golden stupa located in the middle of the temple-and soon we found ourselves a shady spot to simply sit, and absorb.

The Sule Roudabout....I mean the Sule Pagoda!

The Sule Roudabout….I mean the Sule Pagoda!

Ready to brave the heat once again, we set off to explore the colonial architecture of the Yangon streets. It was really tough, there’s no comfort of an air conditioned MRT like you have in Bangkok & Singapore-you just have to tackle the heat and traffic, and take it slow! Soon you realise that Yangon has a three dimensional street structure. I know that sounds like a strange statement, but it’s the best way that I can describe the fact that to find offices, shops and businesses you look all around on street level, as well as up. For example, our hotel was on the seventh and eighth floor of a building, with just a little doorway and a lift giving you access to all businesses in the building.

The colonial streets of Yangon

The colonial streets of Yangon

Not only street level, you can see the many businesses in the upper levels on the left

Not only street level, you can see the many businesses in the upper levels on the left

Walking around the streets we encountered street food like no other. Sure in Bangkok and Siem Reap you have street stalls selling bugs, but in Yangon the street vendors offer something quite different, but equally as difficult for us to comprehend. The best way that I can describe it is to call it ‘entrails fondue’, basically you have a street vendor with a large vat of hot oil, and a selection of unidentifiable ‘animal parts’. Locals just take a seat around vat, pick a nugget of choice, and then cook it themselves in the oil. I have to say that the thought of actually trying this cuisine didn’t even come close to crossing my mind. There have been a number of formally questionable culinary experiences over the last seven months, but this proved to be a step too far!
We did end up discovering some local fare, albeit not as risky as the ‘fondue’-and it was done so quite by accident. Settling down for the first bottle of Myanmar Beer and a street vendor comes around serving what I thought were salted peanuts, I managed to order some of what he was selling and we were given a container of sweetcorn and beans, accompanied with an unidentified paste. Not what we were expecting, but it was absolutely delicious, we still don’t know what the paste was (we were afraid to ask!) and haven’t seen this titbit anywhere else-so if you’re in Yangon, keep your eyes pealed. Frequenting the street café located under our hotel, we sampled eating as the locals do-a few beers and a number of little side dishes. Meat balls with chilli sauce, vegetable noodles, spiced sausage and more sweetcorn and beans-spot on!

Having explored the streets and Sule Pagoda, next on the list for Yangon were the central market and the famous Shewadagon Pagoda. The market is a welcome respite from the heat of the day, and so we headed there before heading up to the temple for sunset. Yangon market has to rate as once of the best ‘gift’ markets that we have been to, a cavern of jade, jewels, clothing and art. Interesting, bustling and colourful-and, of course, out of the heat of the midday sun.

The main hall of the market, the high roof helping keep the heat of the day away

The main hall of the market, the high roof helping keep the heat of the day away

Take your pick of interesting alleyways with a myriad of trinkets

Take your pick of interesting alleyways with a myriad of trinkets

With no tuk-tuks or identifiable form of alternative transport, we grabbed a taxi and headed for Shwedagon Pagoda. Here we encountered our first ‘tourist tax’ when hit with an unexpected $8 fee for entry to the pagoda-at the time it seemed quite expensive, as Myanmar is in comparison to the rest of South East Asia, but it would prove to be worth every penny.

The imposing sight of the golden Shwedagon Pagoda

The imposing sight of the golden Shwedagon Pagoda

Golden Buddha under the Bodhi Tree, signifying the moment he reached enlightenment

Golden Buddha under the Bodhi Tree, signifying the moment he reached enlightenment

It's a pagoda!!!

It’s a pagoda!!!

Shwedagon Pagoda was constructed more than 2,600 years ago, making it the oldest Buddhist stupa in the world. It is situated on Singuttara Hill and towers above you at a height of 99 metres, overlooking the sprawling Yangon city below. It is the most sacred Buddhist pagoda in Myanmar, as it is believed to contain relics of the four previous Buddhas. The staff of Kakusandha, the water filter of Koṇāgamana, a piece of the robe of Kassapa, and eight strands of hair from the head of Gautama.
It was here that we would encounter something that we found quite funny, all of a sudden we found ourselves being the subjects of surreptitious photography. Locals would be walking by and engineering opportunities to get us in their photos, ‘check out the tourists’! It’s easy to forget that until 2012, Myanmar has been a difficult place for people to travel, and so tourists are still something of a novelty. Being a subject of so much intrigue in a heaving and populous city just seemed quite odd.
Our inflating ego’s aside, Shwedagon Pagoda proved to be absolutely breath-taking. A large complex of temples and pagodas centred on Shwedagon itself, as the sun set, the darkness drew in and the candles were lit-we both had to take a moment to come to terms with our surroundings-it really was quite overwhelming.




Having been blown away by Shwedagon, our time in Yangon had drawn to the end and we readied ourselves for a night train to possibly the most famous of Myanmar images-the pagodas of Bagan. Our research had informed us that the train journey was a little bumpy, but well worth it for the views. Little did we know how ‘bumpy’ it would be….

Interlude-72 hours to Singapore

Having left the schoolhouse in the rear view mirror, we found ourselves thrust back into the hustle and bustle of Siem Reap. After spending so much time away from the tourist trail, the bright lights of Pub Street were brighter than my memories, and the city was bursting at the seams with excited holidaymakers. It was from here that we had planned to tackle our longest journey yet-a mammoth 72 hours to Singapore.
Singapore hadn’t featured in our original plans, with a reputation for being not-so-friendly on the wallet, but one of Jo’s friends had recently moved out there so a great chance to go and have an interlude from our travels proper. Our plan was to take a bus to the border town of Poipet, hop on a train to Bangkok, get a sleeper train to Butterworth, and from there tackle the last leg of the journey to Singapore-it was going to take a mammoth effort.

This quickly changed as we found ourselves somewhere we could watch the Mayweather vs Pacquiao fight at 8.30AM the next morning…Both being huge boxing fans it was something that we just couldn’t miss out on watching, and so our plan for onward travel became more fluid. After some to’ing and fro’ing regarding the first leg of the journey, we found ourselves booked onto a minibus that would take us all the way to Bangkok-leaving at 2AM in the morning. Certainly not ideal, but definitely the best option allowing us time to watch the fight.

Fight day arrived and we headed to Charlie’s Bar, Siem Reap. Getting there for opening time we managed to snag ourselves a spot at the bar, right near the big screen-which was an absolute result as soon the place was packed to the rafters-it was at this point, right after breakfast, we made something of a misjudgement. We made the ‘ever-so-wise’ decision to have a beer while we were watching the fight. Now, we’re not necessarily known for our all day drinking binges, but that’s precisely what ensued and to say that it made the journey a tad more challenging would be a understatement of considerable proportions.

I’m not entirely sure what time we rolled into our hotel room, but it felt like I was in an alcohol induced slumber for no more than 15 seconds before the banging on our hotel door woke me-it was 2AM, our bus was here, we were both in something of a state, and we had to start our journey to Bangkok-ouch!
To say that the minibus journey that followed was a challenge is putting it mildly, first of all we drove 5 hours to the border where the minibus just parked up on the side of the road and the driver went to sleep for a couple of hours, it turns out we were waiting for the border to open! Bumbling through the border, we were armed only with a red sticker to indicate that we were getting onwards travel to Bangkok. With little idea how things would pan out, we just put our faith in the wonders of Asian transportation of tourists, and soon enough we found ourselves loaded onto our minibus and hitting the roads bound for Bangkok. It always just works.

Having made our way to the capital and then negotiated the MRT to get to the central train station, another hiccup in our plans-there were no tickets to Butterworth. We had to keep travelling, and so we booked ourselves onto a night train to the lesser known city of Hat Yai on the Malaysian border, and then we would try to work out onwards travel from there. This came with some feelings of caution, as travel to Hat Yai is generally discouraged due the city being a target of terrorism in the separatist campaign conducted by the Patani United Liberation Organisation and similar radical groups. However it was our only option on a way forward, and so we bit the bullet and readied ourselves for a journey into the unknown.

The colourful streets of Hat Yai

The colourful streets of Hat Yai

As it turns out, Hat Yai looked to be an interesting, bright and vibrant city, and I would have liked a little longer there to explore the city, but we were on a mission and needed to secure our onwards travel ASAP. At this point we do have a tale of caution to share with anyone who happens to find themselves in similar circumstances. When we arrived at the train station, well rested but still groggy, we disembarked to the usual clamour of people offering you transportation options. No problem for us, we knew that we just needed to grab an onward train ticket to Kuala Lumpur. Sadly, the train was fully booked and suddenly we found ourselves victim of a ‘transport tout’. Basically the moral of the story here is that the ‘travel agents’ around the train station are making a significant profit out of befuddled and bedraggled tourists-take a moment and seek out tickets from the bus companies directly. We weren’t so savvy and paid over the odds for our tickets, but we did eventually get ourselves on a night bus direct to Singapore, and so the end was in sight, albeit on the other side of a hefty bus journey across the whole of Malaysia!

Getting comfortable for the final leg

Getting comfortable for the final leg

With little more incident, we found ourselves in the gleaming city of Singapore, and ready to have a ‘holiday’ from our travels. It was fantastic to find ourselves in familiar company once again, and great to share fine food and good wine. It was a fair leap from the conditions where we found ourselves over the last couple of months! Singapore proved to be a surprise package, we constantly hear people just describe the city as ‘clean and expensive’, yet we found that we enjoyed it immensely. The amazing food you get from Hawker centres, the greenness of the city, we didn’t ever feel crowded or uncomfortable, the juxtaposition of the old and the new-all in all a welcome city break from the craziness of the Bangkok’s and Phnom Penh’s of the world! As with our arrival in most major cities, we found that our best introduction was to follow one of the Lonely Planet’s walking tours, and boy did it deliver-from the old of the Singapore Cricket Club and Raffles Hotel, to the spaceship like Supreme Court and a three column skyscraper with a ship laid across the top, and the extensive and picture perfect botanical gardens-Singapore in all its glory.

A pool to relax by-bliss!

A pool to relax by-bliss!

Buildings on and around The Orchard

Buildings on and around The Orchard

Be wary on your entrance to the Haw Par Villa depictions of the ten courts of hell

Be wary on your entrance to the Haw Par Villa depictions of the ten courts of hell

Memorial Park, Singapore

Memorial Park, Singapore

Inside the impressive supreme court

Inside the impressive supreme court

Singapore skyscape

Singapore skyscape



We marvelled at the all encompassing MRT system with it’s massive shopping centres and luxury shops, a far cry from what you may find at Kings Cross. Certainly you could live in Singapore and never leave the confines of the rail network…For sure we had settled back quickly into tourist mode.
At the end of a truly welcome few days in Singapore, we took to the skies for the first time since arriving in Asia and set our sights on our final destination in the Asian chapter of our adventure-Myanmar.