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April 2016

Week fifteen: wine and sunshine

Having left tourist-town and rejoined the real, city world, it was time to undertake some ‘real world tasks’. Namely, doing three weeks worth of laundry and getting my legs waxed. Seems mundane, but was in fact rather an unexpected experience!

First off, myself and a group of elderly local women were left waiting on the pavement until the salon owner had finished his siesta and deigned to open. I successfully managed all obligatory small talk with my Argentine beautician and was feeling right at home. That was until she began slathering thick caramel onto my legs and pulling it off with her bare hands! I explained that this is certainly not how we do it in England, only for her to giggle away whilst cleaning my legs with ethanol. My pale ‘English Rose’ appearance came as quite a shock to her, and she almost recoiled when I said I didn’t want my face to be waxed too! A very Mendocina experience, that I shan’t be in a rush to repeat.

My next basic task turned bizarre as I nipped into the post office to send my first (and probably only) postcard. I couldn’t even find the service counters. That was until a synthesised voice emanated from behind a two-way mirror. I felt like I was in a police interrogation room, simply for attempting to fulfil a tourist necessity!

With these tasks out of the way, I was free to enjoy the laid back, picturesque way of life that Mendoza offers. All streets are lined with trees (rich with autumnal tones during my stay) to the point where you feel like you’re walking through a Cezanne masterpiece. Beyond this, you can’t ever go far without reaching another grand, tiled plaza; perfect for a good sit, or a perusal of the artisanal markets therein.

The highlights of these walkways can be found in the enormous Parque General San Martin. From lovers in the rose garden to violent and muddy BMX rallies, this park caters for all. I spent an afternoon reclining on a small island on the lake, watching the world and its kayakers go by. I spent a later afternoon scaling the Cerro Gloria hill to the Liberty statue. I can only assume that this is some sort of pilgrimage location; nothing else could have explained the group of people crawling backwards up the dramatic flight of stairs to the top.

Otherwise, the main activities in Mendoza revolve around the sheer abundance of wine produced and drunk in the region. Options for exploring include minibus tours around a variety of bodegas, or renting bikes and finding your own way between the vines; naturally I did both.

Reuniting with Flora and Haydn, a week after parting ways in Chiloé, we celebrated and caught up over copious wine. Unfortunately, the romantic visions we had of cycling through vineyards were somewhat overzealous, as the first few kilometres of said journey was along a distinctly un-scenic main road! Persevering, the wine tasted all the better at the end. We visited two very quaint, very swanky, private bodegas and were particularly thrilled when the latter gave us a ‘which wine is which’ cheat sheet. Otherwise, my palate could differentiate ‘red’, ‘white’ and ‘smells like bonfire’, but that’s my lot!

My second alcoholic sojourn came a couple of days later. (Between the two came ‘free wine hour’ at my hostel, followed by ‘perpetual happy hour’ on the local bar strip, followed still by ‘stay up all night continuing to drink free wine with the non-English-speaking night staff’! I needed a day to recover!)

This time, on an organised outing, the focus was much more on touring the factories and bodegas, learning the scientific trivia (rather than just using a ‘tasting menu’ as an excuse to order three glasses each!)

We toured a quaint organic bodega, learning about the use of fruit trees instead of pesticides, to distract potential predators. We moved on to an enormous, somewhat soulless, factory, with the capacity for creating 40million litres of wine per annum! The highlight of this tour were certainly the ever growing wooden barrels, which ranged in size from 12,000 to 37,000 litres. Sadly, our tasting session did not correlate to such superhuman sizes.

A quick detour saw a snack stop at an olive oil factory. Not particularly enamoured with the simple process of ‘pick and squish’, I still enjoyed the tasting spread they put on (far more than the olive-based beauty products they were also pushing!)

As the afternoon progressed, fears were mounting that we would hear the same tour over again. However, the final, family run bodega seemed more like a fun project for a grape enthusiast than a serious money-making venture. Thus, our guide exuberantly demonstrated all sorts of brewing processes, armed solely with a single grape as a prop and bundles of enthusiasm.

By the end of it all, I discovered I liked the wines made by sticking wooden poles in the giant wine swimming pools best; a touch of oaky flavour, without leaving an ashen tongue in its wake. Although I’m not sure I can exactly order that in a restaurant!

Other than that, Mendoza saw yet more foodie indulgence: ranging from an evening in a posh restaurant, to an Airbnb dinner party (via a lot of trawling the ridiculously large Carrefour supermarket for bargains!)

As the rains came once again, the hostel filled with trapped, restless travellers; some stuck in the country as the main border crossing to Chile was plagued with snow. When even the hostel’s free wine and breakfast pancakes were wearing thin, I headed northwards. Yet, unwilling to face another twenty hour bus just yet, my journey was to be broken up by a stop off in Valle Fertil- a ghost town thus far. Toto, I don’t think we’re in the popular and plentiful wine country any more!

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Week fourteen: all plans thwarted by rain, lethargy and chocolate

After arriving back onto the mainland from Chiloé, I had grand plans to make it across to Argentina. Unfortunately, having missed the only bus headed that way, I found myself trapped in rainy Chile.

Wanting to make the best of the situation, I decided to add the tourist town of Puerto Varas to the itinerary. I can imagine it would be glorious in the sunshine; apparently there are even spectacular volcano views. However, neither luck nor weather were on my side, thus I found myself wandering the streets, looking for a hostel, in the pouring rain. (Clearly the weather hadn’t stopped the tourist industry from booming, as everywhere was full!)

Other than an afternoon spent walking through the woods around the Saltos del Petrohué waterfalls, I treated myself to plenty of R&R in Puerto Varas. Played a lot of cards, indulged in more cake cafes and, accidentally on purpose, cooked enough food for a small family, for myself. I felt particularly swanky when sloshing red wine into my sauce, a la Jamie Olivier, in a slightly grotty hostel kitchen! But wine is cheaper than all other ingredients here, so ¿porque no?!

Said waterfalls were, again, something I could imagine being far more impressive, weather permitting. Gushing rapids took on some jagged, tactile lava formations; a high speed, dirtier version of the Galapagos Tunneles, if you will.

Somehow plagued by mosquito bites, despite the biblical weather conditions, I was once again on a mission to leave the country. Unfortunately, Bariloche, Argentina, was similarly afflicted with monsoon season. Adding to this, I found myself at the bus station, miles out of town, with no Argentinian pesos and no way of acquiring any where I was. Thank god for Yvonne, my Irish Bariloche buddy, who took me under her wing, providing money for the bus and company for the following five days.

In an attempt to immediately immerse ourselves in Argentine culture, all we successfully achieved on this first day in Bariloche was an obscenely large, meat-heavy meal. The guidebook had warned about ‘generous portions’, but I could not have anticipated the six, sizeable lamb chops that were presented to me. (I let myself down and had to take some in a doggy bag.)

When at last the sun shone, we ventured into the surrounding countryside to soak up some spectacular views, along with some overdue vitamin D. A short (but horribly steep) hike up Cerro Campanario offered a vista across multiple adjoining lakes, autumnal colours and jagged snowy peaks. Not dissimilar to Guatapé (in Colombia, all those weeks ago), only with blistering winds to boot.

At the foot of the hill, it is common to rent bikes and cycle the Circuito Chico. However, after breaking the bank on the aforementioned meat feast, we decided to take it on foot instead. We passed the grand Hotel Llao Llao, which looked straight out of a Bond film (and sadly dwarfed the quaint wooden church nearby into insignificance.) A walk through the woods, a picnic under some looming peaks and we were done with nature for the day. Luckily an elderly couple, in a swanky car, took pity on us at the bus stop and became our guides for the rest of the circuit and the drive back to town; dropping us off at one of the most glamorous chocolatiers I’ve ever seen. Think 1930s stained glass, meets Willy Wonka’s mouthwatering sights, smells and amusingly uniformed workers.

Unfortunately (or perhaps most fortunately of all) this seemingly innocent trip to the chocolate shop set a precedent for the rest of our time in Bariloche. Owing to one too many beers with our Argentine hostel-mates, we were unable to face the grand hike up Cerro Cathedral. Instead, we challenged ourselves to the Bariloche hat-trick: a town famed for its chocolate, artisanal ice creams and craft beers.

Of course, still aiming to live on a budget, we rinsed all the free samples on offer; from glamorous Russian themed shopfronts, to seedy erotic chocolate shops, we left no sugary napkin unturned. Ice cream-wise, I sampled eight different flavours, in four days, from three separate establishments. Amusingly the fruity flavours were virtually untouched in all display cabinets; chocolate and dulce de leche maintain a stronghold over this diabetic town.

Similarly sickly sweet is the general appearance of the area. I had ‘Welcome to Duloc’ from Shrek stuck in my head for days! Even the cathedral, a nice pointy change from colonial architecture, looked straight out of a cartoon. Thus we counterbalanced our sugary surroundings by finding the ‘cool’ part of town and treating ourselves to some cheap piercings. Again, ¡¿porque no?!

The second time we planned to climb Cathedral, we were instead thwarted by horrific weather. Even our back up plan, to visit the nearby town of Colonial Suiza, failed, as the second bus we needed didn’t seem to exist. Not wanting to show ourselves up in front of our new French friend Charlotte, we instead took refuge in a kitsch tearoom, ate yet more cake and then scaled Cerro Campanario again. The views are somewhat lesser when the wind and rain prevent you from ever fully opening your eyes, but it was an achievement nonetheless.

Perhaps my most successfully Argentinian evening, and the pinnacle of our gastro-tour, was when we guilt-tripped our hostel’s resident trainee chef to cook up an asado feast (indoors, due to the monsoon.) He had been all talk for several days, so imagine our surprise and delight upon returning home to find yet more piles of meat and a whole host of accompaniments. He even catered for my ‘no beef’ diet, despite it being totally alien to all Argentinians. We gorged ourselves; an international family dinner, with no shared language, other than attempts at broken Spanish and French. The perfect end to a week of culinary delights. (Or the perfect ‘beginning of the end’, as the night progressed to several local cervecerias before closing in the wee hours.)

With knee-ache from one too many hills, brain-ache from attempting to speak too many languages and stomach-ache from severe overindulgence, I boarded my 19 hour bus to Mendoza; and was charged ridiculous amounts for the privilege! (But at least I was fed three underwhelming inflight meals and treated to a game of bingo included in the price.)
n.b. Everything in Argentina is expensive; not least because all cash points charge a fiver and limit your withdrawals to just £100. The amount I’ve spent on ATM charges alone doesn’t bear thinking about!

Week thirteen: cake, coincidences and Chiloé

Just as I was getting up and out of my less than talkative hostel, the ‘small world’ cliché proved itself best yet as I bumped into Denny, a guy I went to university with, sat casually in the reception. Naturally I latched onto him and his friends, and after having done a day hike up the volcano, I felt totally justified in sympathising with their aches and pains from nine days hiking in Patagonia! Accordingly, no one was in any rush to take on difficult activities and we dedicated ourselves to finding anywhere that would simultaneously satisfy all of our cravings: cake and beer.

The south of Chile is apparently famous for its cakes; a fact that I learnt almost too late, thus I am making up for lost eating time! Between mounds of homemade guacamole and the discovery of our new favourite vegetarian restaurant (even if they do name the dishes after emotions- blurgh) I still managed to find the time and stomach capacity for cake, at any time of day or night!

As ever, good intentions for an early start the following day and a hike in the nearby national park were thwarted by overindulgence the night before (not naming any names, but it actually wasn’t me for once!) However, we salvaged the day with a trip to Ojos del Caburgua- an outrageously blue lagoon with multiple waterfalls gushing into it. The perfect spot for a picnic (because apparently all I do in Chile is look for the next place to eat!)

Determined to view the falls from all angles, and even more determined not to pay a £1 entrance fee to two separate viewing areas, we traversed the rocky “path” across the river. Turns out the grass was quite literally greener on the other side; and the view was far superior too!

My next couple of days were defined solely by luck of the grand cosmic draw: the last bus heading my intended way was full, thus I was forced to lounge on the beach for another day. (It’s a tough life!)

However, everything began tipping in my favour when an English speaking hairdresser, with wild curls herself, arrived at the hostel; for the first time in three months, I felt I could trust someone with my signature do! Beyond that, a pub quiz was organised for that evening; my most favourite activity. Despite the questions leaning heavily on geography and astronomy, in order to allow all nationalities an equal chance, we only went and bloody won it!

Feeling I couldn’t achieve any higher victories in Pucón, I boarded my bus, ferry and bus down to Chiloé island and arrived in Castro- the main town.

Unfortunately, there is one giant hill, and, despite my best efforts to circumnavigate almost the entire island around it, all roads force one to both scale it and descend it, heavy backpack and all. At the end of this epic journey however lay a lovely hostel in a traditional Palafito- a waterfront house on stilts. (This one is certainly less sinister than Lemony Snicket’s version though!)

Colourful palafitos and wooden churches galore, the whole town feels like the film set from ‘Edward Scissorhands’, if it were left to dilapidate for a while!

After feeling far too touristy in Pucón, I was excited to get a little off the beaten track; however, it turns out that Castro, on a Sunday, out of season, is a ghost town. I empathise heavily with Goldilocks: I want just the right amount of fellow gringos around!

I walked and walked and took in the sights. The Chilote churches are supposedly a huge draw, but looked to me a little too IKEA flat pack (with optional external support legs, in case you build it wrong.) Whilst it made a nice change from Colonial architecture elsewhere, I don’t exactly see what UNESCO are making such a fuss about; sorry.

The following day, fuelled by the hostel’s excellent free breakfast, I headed down towards Cucao and the National Park.

My luck was in once again as I befriended some fellow gringos, with whom I was able to share an unexpectedly lavish dorm, a great deal of common ground and, most importantly, our sense of humour. (Made a welcome change from the overly keen outdoorsy types elsewhere on the island!)

Accompanied by some local dogs, we marched our way through the flora and fauna of the Parque National de Chiloé. A series of wooden walkways led us through dense forests and out towards an incredibly windy beach. It was in no way a strenuous hike, but we still had a glamorous lakefront deck to recline and recuperate on afterwards.

The only other thing on offer in and around Cucao is another pleasant walk; this time across a windy headland, that wouldn’t look out of place in Cornwall! The end destination: a bridge to nowhere, at a point that supposedly ferries souls onto the next world. Incredibly picturesque, were it not for the keen tourists taking photos (who we obviously, unashamedly joined.)

After an evening by the fire and a meal in the town’s only restaurant being interrupted by numerous cows at the window, once again the rains came and it was my cue to leave.

Week twelve: culture, nature and roast dinner

Whilst Tam did uni, convalesced and generally faced real life, Charlie and I dedicated ourselves to more cultural pursuits.

From a photographic exhibition in the basement of La Moneda to an unsuccessful attempt to visit another of Pablo Neruda’s houses, we immersed ourselves in Chilean history, identity and pride.

The highlight of Santiago’s cultural offerings has to be the museum of human rights and memory of the dictatorship. Harrowing at times, we pushed our way through the 70 stops on our English audio guide, learning of the terrors and torture faced here, in the worryingly not so distant past. A huge museum full of legislative artefacts, videos and generally horrible pieces of information, I learnt a lot about modern Chilean history and a lot of new Spanish words pertaining to dictatorships and subsequent anarchy.

Following an enormous and rather moving tribute to all of those lost in the fight for freedom (complete with innovative acrylic fake candles that I definitely want to emulate) the second floor was far more peppy, detailing the story of the resistance. Our favourite part was, without doubt, a video montage of unmistakably 80s adverts and catchy theme tunes for the advancement of ‘Chi, Chi, Chi, Le, Le, Le’.

Our other cultural pursuits were based largely on price, thus we did (I’m sorry to confess) go to the zoo!

Perched on the side of Cerro Cristobal, a looming hill, with vast urban vistas all around, lies Santiago’s small, but try-hard zoo. Most animal species are covered, but merely one or two of each, and most looking rather unenthused by their new digs. Personal favourites had to include the overly fluffy red panda and the completely comedic Bactrian Camel, placed at the peak of the uphill climb, thus earning a ridiculously undeserved spot as the grand finale!

Evenings also included a slice of Santiago’s cultural cuisine, with a trip to the crowded bar serving up the local delicacy: Terremotos (or ‘Earthquakes’ to you and I.) Everyone in there, bar none, was sipping on these sickeningly sweet pints of fortified wine, topped off with grenadine syrup and a dollop of ice cream. To our delight, our newfound friends even bought an old cauldron-sized pan from down the road, planted it on the table and requested the barman to fill it with said cocktail. Chaos inevitably ensued and I now know several Chilean drinking chants- should come in useful at a later date!

Back in the real world, we spent my last day in the city attempting to make a homely Sunday roast. Whilst the sub-par quality of our oven caused the cooking process to take over three hours, the final result was worth every moment of impatience. The perfect goodbye to my hosts, who were probably sick of me lingering around!

I jumped on a nightbus, threw dagger stares at a man who was snoring like a hacksaw, and before I knew it, I was in Pucón.

As it transforms to a ski resort within the coming months, this place (even more than the rest of Chile) has a sickly European feel to it.

Despite my spending my first day lounging on the black sand, lakeside beach, this is apparently one of the country’s adventure capitals. Not wanting to disappoint the stereotype of all tourists in the vicinity, I therefore signed up to scale the summit of the nearby Volcan Villarica.

Woke up at stupid o’clock and was informed that conditions were great for climbing (although to me it looked dark and windy as hell!) Luckily, for a mere £10 extortion, the nice man turned on the rickety, unsafe chairlift and enabled us to skip the first hour of the climb. Beyond that, we continued heavily uphill (about as steep as a staircase) up some rocky terrain towards the looming glacier. Here we strapped on our crampons and traversed the ice. This part in itself was a lot of fun, even ignoring the sprawling views across the lakes and oddly-spaced mountains.

Above the glacier, thanks to an eruption last year, lay far more rocks, ash and the most treacherous terrain yet. Had to focus more on my feet than the views at this point.

Up at the summit, the crater was unfathomably deep, reaching down to the magma and the centre of the earth itself! It all became clear why they had forced us to don dorky gas masks, as the volcano spat out increasingly opaque, and particularly stinky, sulphuric gas clouds.

Unable to bear the stench too long, we headed down an alternative, but equally difficult path. My personal highlight came when the rocks subsided, we donned our protective nappies and unpacked our bumwhizzes for some sliding! Heading down the pre-carved ice tracks, I had zero control over my ice-axe braking system or the amount of snow I gathered in my knickers! At times I even picked up enough speed to appreciate how fantastic this place would be to ski (and then I crashed into the girl in front, oops!)

After this, the terrain became squishy sand which turned my legs to total jelly before hitting the final stretch of solid ground (with the chairlift sat stationary and mockingly above!)

The seated drive back to town, removal of my boots and cold beers on the roof terrace, surveying the distant volcano that we had just conquered, were some of the most blissful moments of my trip so far!

To my much unprepared body, this was apparently all a little too much and what was intended to be a brief afternoon nap took me through until the next day and into the next blog week…

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