Friday, December 21, 2007
We took a trip up to the Mamalluca Observatory in the mountains below the Atacama desert. There are observatories all over Chile, including ones from Europe, NASA and US universities, but this is the only one open to tourists. It has a 35 cm lens - compared to the 8 metre lenses on some of the surrounding telescopes. Chile is famous for observatories, as they have the clearest air in the world - a fact that we discovered after getting scorched alive from an hour in the sun!!
Anyway, a bus collected us and brought us an hour and a half from La Serena up into the mountains to the observatory.
We watched the sun set across the desert mountains, then went inside the observatory, where our English speaking guide turned the telescope to the sky, and we took turns gazing at craters on the moon - it was fantastic looking! He showed us other parts of the night sky, and told us interesting facts about stars and planets. But the moon was the fantastic sight! It was so close you could see someone walking on the moon....should that happen.
We then went downstairs, and he gave us a slideshow presentation on the birth of the universe, including a wonderful shot of where we are in the universe, and how bloody small and insignificant we are. Cool.
Then we went outside, where it was completely dark, and he took a powerful laser and began pointing out constellations in the sky. Orion was the most amazing, and then he pointed a smaller telescope at the sky, and we all took turns looking at the nebula in Orions knife...the birth of a star. He showed us many constellations, then again we looked in the telescope and saw a beautiful star cluster.
I have always been so intersted in astronomy, so this was just fantastic. He said the smaller telescopes - through which you could see star clusters and nebulae - was about 1000 dollars, so myself and Alan think we´d like to buy one!
After that we looked back at the moon with the less powerful telescope - which meant we could see the entire moon, curve and all. We were able to put our cameras up to the telescope and get pictures of it all. What a night! And all for 15 euro.....expensive, huh?!?!
So that´s my little ´P.S.´ for La Serena.....how could I have forgotten a night like that?
See you in Mendoza....!
Thursday, December 13, 2007
Myself, Alan, and the Scottish two (Alan and Gail) stayed on an extra day in El Bolson, as we found it hard to quit our lovely solitary log cabins. Talk about a peaceful break in the holidays - all we did was lie in hammocks reading our books, or playing chess inside at the window seats, pausing every now and again to look out the window at the Andes all around us. What a time it was! I´ll definitely be hitting El Bolson again on my travels. Bariloche was pretty much everything I expected it to be - a bigger town, with bigger pubs, and bigger prices - nothing near as nice as El Bolson, but we weren´t there for the beauty...we were there for the adventure!
So, first things first, we signed up for the canopy sliding. This is a fantastic little day trip where you are collected on mini bus and driven up into the mountains around the lakes of Bariloche. On arrival we were given a little demo on the proper use of the zip-lining equipment, then strapped into our harnesses and squashed into a Landrover - yes, all eight of us. Then we headed straight up the mountain, bumping and shaking up the dirt track through the trees on an almost vertical dirt track, to our first platform, at ground level. Here we were given helmets, gloves and a leather strap thingy to use as a brake, when needed (eek!). Up we climbed onto the platform - really a pallet of wood hung with wires from the branches of the tree, but that didn´t matter, as we were only a few feet off the ground. So, we stood around and then were hooked on one by one to the zip line. The instructer told us to cross our legs, put our braking hand above our head on the wire, and hold the harness with the other hand, and away we went - zipped through the trees (with the greatest of ease). All fun and laughter, until we got to the other platform which, due to the steep incline of the mountain, was about 30 foot above the ground. Suddenly the pallet of wood didn´t seem so secure this high up......and with 9 of us on it!! I was very nervous getting in line for the next zip, because the pallet was shaking beneath me, and this next zip line was so long you couldn´t see the other platform at the end of it - you could just hear the zip as the person ahead of you soared through the canopy of trees, and see their bright red helmet disappear into the leaves. So, this time, my body betrayed me slightly - when the instructer told me to cross my legs (always the last thing you do, as your legs are holding you to the platform), my body wouldn´t obey! It just said ´no´! Stubborn thing.....it took a few seconds to shake it out of it´s fear, and jump into the zip line! I was probably helped by the fact that an eight year old kid had joined our group, and didn´t seem afraid at all! Anyway, we got to a maximum height of 60ft above the ground, and did 8 zips in total, so it was great fun, and I´d do it again in a heartbeat! Being up that high in the trees was beautiful, and when you remembered to look ahead of you, you could see the lakes of Bariloche spread out below you in a beautiful tableau. A little bit scary, but definitely great fun!
The next day was the white river rafting day. We were told that the river we would be taking is a level 3 to 3.5 (as the glaciers are melting higher up in the mountains, feeding the river a bit more as the summer goes on). We took a minibus far into the mountains from Bariloche (practically back to El Bolson), and were handed our fabulously flattering wetsuits! We were all in our swimwear, so I had to put it on over my bikini, in a lovely little communal area with all the other girls. It was bloody horrible! Like trying to get the fig into a fig roll! I had to be POURED into the wetsuit! But, I got it on eventually....and headed outside to be confronted by the ballerina-esque boys in suits! If I thought I looked dodgy!!! Just kidding - I had never seen such fine displays of manliness in my life! They were hilarious.....even had a kickabout with a football, just in case we couldn´t see enough how the wetsuit hugged every curve! Then we got our lifejackets, helmets and wetsuit socks. We were assigned six to a boat, so Mac and Bones headed off to another boat with some girls, and myself, Welly, Alan, Alan Mac, Gail and Ed took our positions next to the big inflatable raft beside us. We got our safety briefing from the main instructer, then we were introduced to our man, Santiago - or, as he preferred to be called, Santi. We carried our boat onto the beautiful water (glacial water - coming from the melting glaciers - has such a fantastic blue colour, and is potable, so you can drink it anytime you like) - which was, unfortunately, also fantastically freezing! Santi went through his instructions, and we practised with our paddles. Since Welly and Alan Mac were up front, we had to take our paddling lead from them, and they had to match each other, that way we all paddled as one. We also had instructions like ´right side back´, which meant the right side paddled backwards and left side forwards to turn the boat around, or ´left side back´, which was the same thing vice-versa. We had others like ´high side right´, which meant we were flipping, and the right side people had to jump against the left side to steady the raft, or my personal favourite ´rock and roll´, which meant drop inside the raft (we sat perched on the edge for paddling) and hang on to the ´oh shit´ rope which rings the raft - that instruction was for heavy rapids that we would just have to ride out, and couldn´t paddle our way through. All these intructions came as we were meandering slowly down the river, looking up at waterfalls pouring down the mountains around us into the little canyon we were sailing through. Absolutely beautiful! Santi was also great fun - everytime another raft came close, he started splash fights with our oards, so we were soaking by the time we got half way down.
And then the rapids were upon us! We had 8 in total, and they were just unbelievable! The boat rises practically vertically, and then drops just as much - you´re leaning back in the boat looking straight down into the churning water as it throws the raft high in the air, and crashing back down again. It was so weird - you feel actual waves in the river, because it´s moving so fast and crashing against rocks. The rapids were just brilliant! The instructers messed about, jumping on the raft to give it extra bounce - and Bones and Macs instructer jumped too high on the first rapids, and fell in, and their boat had to go to the rescue! Our instructer was very happy with our response to his orders, and our paddling ability, so he said he would take us in the most difficult - and fun - angles on the rapids, so it was just brilliant. I have never felt such a rush of adrenalin in my life, it was just fantastic, and I hesitate to even begin to describe how it felt to be thrown around the blue-green waves, with water crashing around you and into you, and trying to paddle and listen to instructions on what to do - it was one of the most amazing things I´ve ever done, and I´m delighted I did it!
At the end of the rapids, Santi stood up on the edge and shouted ´high side right´, and we all jumped against the left side - and saw what he was doing...he was tipping us! Ed spotted it, and tried to jump back, but it was too late, the raft overturned, and we were all thrown into the fast moving FREEZING water! I lost my paddle straight away, of course, and was looking around for Alan - then lost myself in the feeling of the water, and just floated downstream until the raft pulled up close by, and I swam back and Alan pulled me on board. We were all just crying laughing, and shaking with the fun and coldness of it all. Brilliant!
We climbed up out of the river, to discover that we were in Chile! Just over the border.... And then we changed out of our wetsuits - again in a lovely communal shed - and into warm clothes, then back in the minibus and onwards to base-camp, where a delicious barbeque awaited us! The woman who was dishing things up had her little girl with her - a lovely niña of about 3 or 4 - who took a shine to me, and babbled away in Spanish to me for about an hour. She loved my nose ring, and kept touching it, then got a sticker and stuck it on her so she could look the same! Funny onion.
We were bloody knackered after that! We just spent a couple of days hanging out in Bariloche, then myself, Alan, and Alan Mac and Gail went on ahead to Santiago to meet EJ - the other lads took a bus the next day after. We had the unfortunate luck of arriving in Santiago and immediately meeting with an unscrupulous taxi driver, who drove us to our hostel via every street in Santiago, charging 7600 pesos instead of the 3000 it should have come to, and then when Alan Mac tried to pay with a 10000 note said he had no change, and handed Alan back his money, then took the 7600 off of me. When he left, we discovered that he had swapped Alan´s 10000 note for a 1000 note. What a bastard!! So that left a sour taste in our mouth about Santiago from the get go! Then we arrived in our hostel, which had communal showers - for men AND women! After our trip across the Andes from Bariloche - taking 28 hours - I needed a shower, so managed to get in an out quick enough to avoid meeting anyone else! And the heat in Santiago was unreal! We went out for a lovely meal that night, and that made things a little easier!!
Next morning myself and Alan got up early and caught a bus to the airport to collect EJ. All went well, and we had the exciting Arrivals reunion! Love airports... Then we went back to the hostel and collected our gear, and moved on to the next hostel, Casa Roja - which had a pool! We were too early to check in, so had to start drinking at 11.30 in the day. The rest of the lads arrived at about 5, so at that stage we were well oiled! We all swam in the pool, and drank some more, and pretty much had a great reunion in Santiago! Met some skater dudes in a park close by, and practised our Spanish. All good! And that´s how it continued for a week - we rarely left the hostel, except for food, and spent our time lounging by the pool in the 35 degree heat, and drinking beers by night. We met some lovely Irish lads - Stretch and Fuzz, from Tipp and Clare - and hung out with them, and had basically a bloody right laugh in the hostel! Even felt the earth move - our first earthquake! Turned out to be a 4.6 quake 500 miles away, so we only felt the tremor, but by God it was weird! Dunno if I´d want to feel anything stronger!!
We finally tore ourselves away from the party hostel, and headed north to La Serena, where I am just finishing up today before heading to Mendoza for Christmas. It´s a small enough town, overlooking the Pacific, with not much to do. We have a lovely hostel - Casa Maria - which is literally someone´s house, with some rooms out back for guests. Maria, a child of the 60´s who is about 60 now, treats you like you are her personal guests in her home....fussing over you, making sure you have coffee and tea, and stewing apricots with cinnamon from her back garden too cool you down on the hot days. It´s lovely! We´ve just been relaxing here after the mentalness of Santiago - taking my first swim in the Pacific, and strolling around town, and basically lounging in Maria´s back garden listening to the birds. Nice!
The lads headed off yesterday to Mendoza, and myself, Alan, Alan Mac and Gail, and EJ and Welly are going on today on the overnight bus. Our apartment better be nice!
Doesn´t feel like Christmas at all......it´s just too damn sunny. Also, there´s no real decorations up, so it really doesn´t come across as a Christmassy type place. We´ll decorate the apartment, though, and Gail and Alan have booked the apartment next to us, so we´re planning a monster Christmas dinner for 9 people - and we´ll have two cookers to get everything ready, so hope it´s good.
Really missing the kids! Can´t get my head around not seeing them Christmas morning, and hearing what Santa got them! It kinda feels like we´re just missing Christmas this year, and we´ll have it again next year. Strange. So, onwards again, and back to Argentina we go....just another few hours here. Maria is fussing again, and trying to make me drink some tea, so I´d better go oblige her!!
Saturday, December 01, 2007
The two main mountains in the range are Fitz Roy - above - and Cerro Torres. Fitz Roy gave the name to the village, El Chalten, which means volcano in the indigenous language, as clouds are pulled up from behind the mountain and blow out through the top, giving the appearance of constant smoke pluming from the summit. We got to El Chalten with a bang - literally. The buses front wheel blew out, and the driver crashed into the sidewalk. When we arrived, we met Alan and Gail in our hostel, and we all decided to take a short hike, as it was only lunchtime. We took the hike to the viewing spot above the village where you can get perfect views of Fitz Roy, on a clear day. The weather was amazing - sun splitting the skies, though obviously as you got higher, the wind got a little chillier (blowing, as it does, in off the snow covered mountains). We hiked up to the viewing spot, and had perfect views of Fitz Roy - incredible! It is an amazing looking mountain, and we all agreed that had we not known the local story on the mountain, we would definitely have thought it was a volcano, so convincing is the strange wind draft that draws the clouds straight upwards. It was only a three hour hike, and we had booked onto a glacier trek the next day, so we went to the only supermarket in town and found a meagre dinner from the offerings, as well as our usual ham and cheese sambos for the next day.
Ah, the glacier trek! We had assumed, like all other treks, that we would be collected at our appointed time and brought somewhere to begin the trek. But no - we were to be collected at 7, and wouldn`t be home until 7, and would walk straight from our hostel into the hills. So I got up early the next day, and cooked a big pot of porridge to help us on our way! What a hike! We left our hostel, walked around the back of it, and began our ascent up the surrounding mountain. After 2 hours of uphill, downhill, uphill, downhill, desert, trees, and more uphill we arrived at `base camp` for some brekkie - namely tea, coffee and some bikkies, plus the last toilet until the way back! We were all strapped into harnesses to wear on our hike, and given a little bag with our crampons, and off we trotted. We walked for another 2 hours, and got to the edge of the lake gazing over to the other side at the glacier, and up above it into the ice sheets covering the mountains behind, buffeted by winds so strong they were blowing some smaller girls (no, not sturdy me!) off their feet and down the gravel gorge beside us! We climbed across the moraine, and found a deep and fast flowing river coming from the lake - both that cerulian blue that only water filled with hundreds of nutrions and minerals can be (named `glacial milk`). And across this river? A zip line. So, one by one we were hooked onto the line, and we had to lie into it and climb across the river slowly, pulling ourselves along the wire, and trying not to look down at the rushing water below! I went very slowly on my first go - bit embarrassing really! The way back was better.....
After the excitement of this, we had an almost vertical climb over a huge hill to get to the side of the glacier - there were ropes attached to some parts of the trees to help pull us up the next chunk! We climbed over the top, and rested at the edge of a waterfall - all the water in the national park is potable, so we all had a nice refreshing drink of the water. The climb down was almost as scary as the climb up, and an hour after leaving the river, we finally made it to the edge of the glacier and got to put our crampons on! As the instructer was putting on ours, he commented that the hiking runners would make it difficult for ice climbing, as the soles bend within the crampons instead of staying stiff like hiking shoes. We were soon to find out what he meant!
After a short teaching trip on how to walk in crampons, we set off in a single line, wrapped up in waterproofs, and thermals, and hats and gloves and scarves! They took us around the glacier, showing us sink holes (some caused by the river below - you could look down the hole and see the water rushing almost 40 meters below you - and some caused by rocks sitting on top of the glacier heating up by the sun and slowly melting their way down through the ice - the melted water above them creating a lens, so the melting speeds up the lower they go). The glacier is 3km wide, so it was like being on the surface of the moon, or some other planet anyways! And though you imagine glaciers to be smooth and flat - well, I did! - the constant movement of the glacier means shards are pushed upwards and against each other, meaning you climb as much as walk through the ice, and around huge canyons of ice below you. The crampons made a very satisfying crunch in the snow, and the sun shone the whole time, with passing clouds releasing the blue of the glacier to counterpoint the white we saw when the sun beamed down. We stopped for lunch in a mini-canyon of ice, as our instructers set up a rope system over an overhang of ice above us. Ah - we were to CLIMB the ice? So, they asked for a volunteer to go first, and I hopped to it! They put my helmet on, attached my harness to the rope, and gave me two ice axes. Lean forward, hit the ice axes in one by one, and then kick your feet in one by one after it, and in this way make your journey vertical, and then almost over on yourself on the overhang. And wow, what a feeling!! I was climbing up the ice, and feeling very adventurous - especially when I looked down! - but then I discovered what they meant about our hiking runners - they bend within the crampons, so you couldn`t get a firm grip with your feet in the ice without hurting your toes A LOT. So I only made it half way up. Ahhhh...
Alan had the same problem, but made it a little further than me, Ed`s runner actually fell off while climbing, and only Daragh made it to the top - worked through the pain!! After the ice climb, we hiked back across the glacier - drinking some water flowing across the top (ice cold and very refreshing - as well as being packed with minerals...called glacial milk for it`s milky blue colour), and up the vertical hill again - ouch! Then back the other side, and to the river. This time it was no shame, and I flew across it. Very proud! When Alan was going across, our instructer, Mathies, rocked the rope like mad, so Al was bouncing up and down like crazy! So funny! He did the same to Mac, but it was just hilarious when he did it to Al, coz Al couldnt`t see why he was bouncing, and thought it was the wind! Brilliant! We hiked back two hours to the campsite, and were taken out of our harnesses and gave back our crampons - and thanked our wonderful guides for a fantastic day! (220 pesos - less than 50 euro). From the camp, we made our own way back to the village, and finally stepped through the door of our hostel, weary and sore, at 8 that night! What a long day of hiking and climbing and fun fun fun!!
We had decided not to go back to El Calafate, and on to Rio Gallegos, to make the long journey up to the Lake District, so we joined a bus journey called Route 40, which makes its way (so we were told) up through the Andes to Bariloche, and takes two days with a night stopover in Puerto Morino on the way. Well, the next morning, tired and weary, we got up for our 12 hour journey, which turned out to be a bus with no air conditioning or toilet. Fun. And we had no packed lunch - for the first time on the trip - and had to rely on the stops at petrol stations for sustanance. Not pretty! We arrived in Puerto Monino tired and dusty! A 12 hour trip with no views, just hot sun, and desert! Our hostel was nice enough though, and we decided to have a couple of drinks in the bar, as the bus was at 7.45 the next morning, and we were pretty wrecked! However, we met an English girl (from Hong Kong) in the bar, and ended up showing her what Irish and Scottish can do if they put their minds to it! The hostel bar closed at 12.30, so we went to a bit of a deliverance pub across the road (earlier in the evening, we had been beeped at by a car of lads who drove up and down the same street four times to slowly cruise by us and stare)...the door closed behind us to silence! However, beer did flow, and by the time I left at 3.30, I had the phone number of Lucias, who is from Mendoza and would like us to come to his house at Christmas time, and beer bought for me by Rodrigo, and pizza given to me by I don`t know who, and we had all made fast friends, despite them not having any English, and us having very little Spanish. The joy of a friendly smile, eh? Daragh and Ed went for a later spin in the desert, but that`s another story....
So it was with sore heads we made it on to another 12 hour journey across dirt roads in a bus with no suspension. Great. But the arrival at El Bolson was well worth it! Beautiful mountains, log cabin, free spirit....it was heaven to lie in this morning, and wake to the sound of trees and birds and general nature!
So, we had a hippy market today, with all organic food and lovely things, plus stalls with dirt cheap local handcrafts and wooden jewellery, as well as knitted and woven clothes, which they were doing as they sold them! Beautiful!
Anyway, there`s hikes to be done, and bikes to hire, so today is my lazy day, and I`ll get back into the swing of things tomorrow. We are leaving for Bariloche on Tuesday, where we will zip line through forest canopies, white water raft, hang-glide, and generally live it up in the adventure capital of Argentina, before heading to Santiago to pick up EJ from the airport to make our Christmas complete.
Nice life! I`m off to enjoy sitting out under the stars, with no houses in sight, and listen to the sounds of the world not rushing past.