Week Twenty: birthday, burgers, buses, boats and bye bye Buenos Aires

I began the week/ I turned 22 in the best way I know how: in the crowded, dimly lit, most happening hotspot in Palermo: Burger Joint. Aside from their distorted megaphone cruelly tricking you into thinking your name is being called, their burgers (and curry ketchup) are the stuff dreams are made of. Throw in a bargain beer and heaps of atmosphere and I’m sold.

Sales pitch over, and onto the rest of the big BA b’day bonanza. As May 25th marks the celebration of the 1810 revolution, we began with a mosey around the Plaza de Mayo, to see what was kicking. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people stood milling around; with nothing obviously organised in place (we had probably slept through some sort of parade knowing me) everyone just took to the streets, to watch, protest, wander and eat copiously.

Whilst clouds consumed the main Avenida de Mayo from all the choripan barbecues, my birthday date, Cass, and I retreated indoors for a glamorous birthday lunch at the famous Cafe Tortoni. We stepped back in time, to the world of hardwood pillars, stained glass ceilings, creepy mannequins and waiters in bow ties. Deeming lunch unnecessary, I ordered nothing more than cake, champagne and more cake; the ideal birthday trio!

As we walked off the sugar rush, I indulged in purchasing a present for myself from the glorious El Ateneo bookshop. We also attracted a few bemused stares as we sealed the date with a roadside tango session. Unfortunately, attempting to learn from an elaborate floor diagram didn’t prove all that easy; more like grown up, ungraceful hopscotch.

Arriving home, we were joined by our new hostel recruits for the partying to commence. I felt particularly lucky when Katy (who I thought had been having a siesta) walked in with an indulgent cake and a Disney princess balloon, to complete all my birthday dreams. On a trip populated almost entirely by brand new faces, it was a privilege to have my (relatively) long-term Aussie gal pals around to spoil me.

An evening in a trendy Palermo bar (rather than a burger place) and some late-night street hot dogs rounded off the day almost exactly the way it had began. I quietly congratulated myself on choosing the perfect city and a wonderful crowd to spend the day with; and I’d like to thank Argentina for throwing a country-wide bank holiday fiesta in my honour!

The next few days were, as expected, a little slow moving. Unfortunately, my treasure hunt for a birthday card waiting at the post office was somewhat fruitless, in that said office had been converted into a museum of all things postal. This journey did however bring me to the riverside Puerto Madero neighbourhood. Clearly once run down and industrial, the red brick warehouses along sided the yacht dock now house a plethora of restaurants and simply scream ‘gentrification!’ Throw in the art gallery housing the expansive private collection of Amalia Lacroze de Fortabat (someone rich and important I assume) and you’ve got yourself a very civilised spot to shelter from the blustery afternoon.

Tenuously in-keeping with the international art on display (Warhol, Dali and Turner to name drop but a few) I proceeded to explore some of the less classically Latino pursuits BA offered. A trip to Chinatown (or ‘Barrio Chino’) presented plenty of shops selling utter crap and satisfied my cravings for chow mien (that had been plaguing me for several months!) A brief hissy fit about hating all the clothes in my backpack led to an outing in the overpriced and super chic Alto Palermo shopping mall. And, the pièce de résistance of being a rubbish tourist, a desire to escape alcohol for the evening steered us towards watching the new X-Men film in our local cinema! The speakers were somewhat dampened as most of the audience were focused on the Spanish subtitles, but otherwise, I very briefly completely forgot I was in Argentina!

Having entirely moved in and clearly become too comfortable in this city, I finally designated a leaving date and Cass and I planned one last hurrah. Having heard about BA’s penchant for underground Speakeasy bars, we become consumed with the idea of getting into one. With a little help from Facebook (and a lot of help from my formerly-local friend Sophia) we garnered this week’s password and got ourselves all dolled up. This involved piecing together any basic forms of glamour to be found within my backpack; cue donning my new top and cutting holes in my tights, as sandals were my only remotely acceptable footwear, despite the monsoons!

We pulled up outside Frank’s bar, a dark doorway on an empty backstreet in Palermo. I sheepishly mumbled ‘Anne Frank’ to the bouncer who then nonchalantly ushered us in. If you’ve ever wondered what lies behind the back wall of a phone booth, I now know! Leaning against the cubicle’s edge opened up a sultry and glamorous haven of chandeliers, strong cocktails and sexy bar men (apparently that last being what they’re known for!) Admittedly it wasn’t all that complex to get in, being that we had some severely underdressed tagalongs join us without issue. But it still felt like we had been let in on a secret world, distinctly miles away from the grotty hostel lifestyle to which I am now so accustomed.

Unable to afford many of the mixologists’ finest concoctions, we directed a taxi towards the nearest ‘mejor fiesta’ and found ourselves, yet again, in Kika- a club that is always full, somewhat overpriced and overwhelmingly exudes pheromones! Back in the Latino swing of things, the Cumbia beats blared and, along with our new Guatemalan companions, I danced away my last night in my favourite city.

Three hours late for checkout, but awarded a grace period due to my long term hostel residency, it was leaving day! I just managed to squeeze in one last trip to Burger Joint and an all too brief reunion with my travel-buddy/ pen-pal Joseph (from many moons ago in Bogota) before rushing to the bus station. Entirely jealous that Cass was embarking on a month long ‘real life’ stay in Buenos Aires, sad to leave her behind and already missing this bustling city, I needed to get to Iguazu. I waved goodbye to the ubiquitous subway D-line keyboard playing busker and jumped on my first 18 hour bus in weeks.

Puerto Iguazu is a relatively quiet little town, yet still I arrived almost famous: ‘You must be Sacha?!’ Sadly, my newfound inability to plan ahead or stick to a schedule meant I missed catching up with Flora and Haydn (this was due to be a whole week of travel buddy reunions) but they had clearly left a good review of me on those hostel-dwellers I met.

A free welcome drink, an early night and I was ready to take on a natural wonder! Arriving in the national park, there was sprawling jungle, thieving coaties (essentially raccoons) and the odd capuchin monkey jumping between branches; what wasn’t immediately obviously however, was any sign of nearby water! Yet, this delayed gratification came to fruition about half way around our first trail through the undergrowth, as the awe inspiring waterfalls were revealed up ahead.

It’s a rare phenomenon, but words almost fail me. Hundreds of impressively tall, impossibly powerful waterfalls combine to form a rainbow-framed horseshoe around the river. Numerous, easily-navigated trails allow you to witness all of the falls from every angle imaginable. At times, the walks take you via some smaller, stand-alone falls, which, unfortunately, faded into insignificance by comparison. Other times, such as crossing the kilometre long bridge over the seemingly tranquil river, you forget the natural force that lies just moments away.

We explored the park from top to bottom, from a plinth hanging over the lip of ‘Garganta del Diablo’ (or ‘Devil’s Throat) to a slippery, rocky path at the foot of the entire panorama, this is a view that one could never tire of. (What can get a little tiring are the crowds that descent upon the park in the afternoons, so I can recommend striving for an early start and a smug feeling of having the entire paradise to yourself.)

Having got up close to one of the falls earlier in the day, the mist alone was plenty dampening. Yet the boat ride underneath the falls was an entirely different matter! I treated myself to an expensive, yet exhilarating speedboat trip into the crashing waves. As our captain battled the rapids, we were tossed around like rag dolls and entirely blinded by the spray. My trousers were soaked through to my knickers, yet I was remarkably safe and dry within my raincoat and walking boots; thank you Mr Peter Storm, may I suggest your next ad campaign includes ‘Iguazu-proof’

Not wanting to overdo it, I skipped the Brasilian side of the falls, having heard that they offer a much more tranquil, panoramic view from a distance. Instead I found a super cheap flight to Rio (cheaper than any of the 24 hour buses!) and crossed the border at last.

Not even having touched down amongst the “dangers” of Brasil and I have already experienced my first hostel theft! Missing: A bag containing half a bag of pasta, my prized spice collection and a single chewy sweet. I was distraught and my faith in humanity was shot. Luckily travelling tends to have a way of reaffirming that faith almost hourly. Bring on the joys that await in Rio- even if I won’t understand, because it’ll all be in Portuguese!

Week Nineteen: back and forth to BA

Alongside yet more foodie hotspots around Palermo, I also indulged in a few (admittedly, not all that many) cultural pursuits this week. The first of these was a trip to the MALBA: the Museum of Latin-American Art. The name led me to expect all sorts of indigenous, Andean colours and handicrafts; so, imagine my surprise when confronted by a series of VERY modern exhibits. For an idea of quite how modern I mean, allow me to elaborate: my favourite piece was a smashed up room, completely empty, but for a disco ball. I was sold; many wouldn’t be.

Even our nighttime activities took a turn for the cultural as we ventured to a milonga. La Catedral, far from its religious name, is a dimly lit, cavernous and slightly dilapidated old building, where locals flock to dance tango. Whilst it was a little underpopulated on the night we went, the vibe was still distinctly sultry and we were treated to some live music. After such a struggle with dancing salsa in Colombia, I relegated myself to purely spectating this time around. (Plus I’m not sure I’d be allowed to take to the floor in Converse!)

Getting back into the tourist swing of things, I decided my passport was in desperate need of some more stamps. Having been reunited by serendipity with some of my long-term, on-and-off travel pals, and despite a few reservations (mainly because my Uruguayan hostel family said ‘don’t go, it’s cold’), we hopped, skipped and ferried across the Rio de la Plata for a girl’s weekend away in Uruguay.

First stop, just an hour outside of BA, was Colonia del Sacramento. This won the battle of the quaint, tree-lined towns by having the most unsettlingly wonky cobbled streets I’ve ever navigated.

Back on the straight and narrow roads, I can highly recommend renting bikes and enjoying a scenic cycle. We journeyed aimlessly along the coastline, on some rather unhealthy sounding bikes. I can see how spectacular the ride would be in the blazing sunshine, but, even through the wintry clouds and cold breeze, the sunset over the totally placid water was a lovely backdrop to distract me from the exercise!

I had been warned that Uruguayos do things even later than in BA; my disbelief was allayed when I saw texts to prove the fact, asking what the plan for the evening was, sent at 3am! I’m not sure whether it was owing to this nocturnal national identity, or whether Colonia really is just the sleepiest town in the world, but the charmingly fire-warmed and fairy-lit restaurants weren’t exactly hopping. Nonetheless, dinner provided red meat, red wine and the chance to get our heads around yet another currency.

Having pretty much exhausted Colonia’s offerings in an afternoon, we were off to Montevideo. Pretty much a smaller, quieter version of Buenos Aires. Despite uncanny similarities, such as purposefully partnered buildings and matching monuments, I couldn’t help but see this country’s capital as the overlooked middle-child of the Rio de la Plata.

Due to the city’s relatively small sprawl, one can experience drastically different vibes and neighbourhoods without actually venturing too far. At times the completely empty streets, furnished with the odd burnt out car, gave a disconcerting ‘trapped in Prussia’ atmosphere. Down by the waterfront, crowds swarm to watch children play football (which explained the surrounding streets being empty, rather than putting it down to an atomic aftermath!) And finally, the old town plays host to some lovely squares and roadside tango sessions for the excitable elderly! Totally charmed by stumbling upon this moment of Latino authenticity, my bubble was burst shortly after, when we noticed the glamorous red flags flanking the avenue were all McDonald’s adverts. M for Montevideo.

Upon a recommendation from the aforementioned locals, we resided in the trendy Parque Rodo neighbourhood. Our proximity to bars, clubs and restaurants of all varieties was inconceivably close. These ranged from rowdy dance joints, to casual cervecerias and everything in between; namely, a bar serving pizzas at 2am and a burger joint that allowed me to combine my love of both chips and fernet! (Note to self: You don’t actually “love” fernet- don’t fool yourself into thinking it’s a good idea again!)

A disappointingly closed (and somewhat dodgy looking) funfair, several men in inexplicable pink tutus and a market selling all ones heart could desire, and we had pretty much seen all of Uruguay. We aimed to get back to BA and warm ourselves up at long last! That was until we arrived at the eerily empty ferry port…

Turns out, SeaCat (the cheap way to cross the border) force you to get a bus back to Colonia, before jumping on board to cross the river; thus they leave from the bus station, NOT the port. This was a fact we learnt a mere quarter of an hour before our boat/bus was due to depart. Luckily, the taxi driver we flagged down seemed sympathetic to our plight and more than happy to break all sorts of laws to get us across town in record time! Very nearly crashed, scraped and died several times, but the clock was ticking and the adrenaline surging! One last whip around the city and we really had seen it all- and with five minutes to spare!

In accordance with my new nickname as the ‘hostel parasite’, the girl who postpones check out every single day, we headed home to the same hostel. Beyond repeating my living arrangements, I also began to repeat activities. Another Monday night meant another trip to Bomba de Tiempo.

If anyone had suspicions regarding the ‘entirely improvised’ nature of the performance, I can confirm that it was an entirely different show this time around. Whilst the main premise of heavy percussion and jumping around remained, this week they welcomed some slap bass and hundreds of new exciting beats. Add in a different crowd, complete with slightly sinister morphsuit wearers and plentiful Latino flirtation, it felt like just being at a very cool bar, more so than everyone staring at the stage show. If I could go every week, I would.

Back in the daylight hours, I also explored San Telmo, the historic downtown neighbourhood, famous for its markets. Having moseyed through the indoor stalls selling fresh fruit and disorganised piles of ‘antiques’, I settled for purchasing nothing more than some delicious looking cheese and jamón. I’ve heard tell the markets are out of control on Sundays, so watch this space, I’ll be heading back for more!

Other than all of that, my comfort levels in BA are perpetually rising, thus I’m enjoying just living, without pushing myself into achieving too much. Unfortunately, some of that ‘real life’ has come with harsh realities, such as finding I’d been duped with several fake bank notes and trusting a very dodgy looking man to wash my clothes (when perhaps he should focus more on washing himself.) But other than that, I adore it here. Maybe I’ll move on before my next blog deadline… Maybe.

Week Eighteen: severe body clock jet lag in BA

Staying in the hip and stylish Palermo neighbourhood, much of my last week has revolved around exploring the shops, cafes and bars on offer. Working my way through a list from my friend Sophia (and honorary local) I’ve been eating extravagantly and multi-culturally for just about every meal; the budgeting and dieting can wait! On top of gastronomical extravagance, as in any big city, has been a lot of alcoholic indulgence. Porteños party hard; so, when in Rome!

Owing to the lateness of all evening activities, our entire hostel became nocturnal. 7pm saw everyone surface from their slumber, debrief what had happened the night before, have some food and start all over again; the red wine flowed, the fernet stung the back of your throat and we didn’t head out to a club until 2am, at the earliest! However, I was repeatedly woken up in the mornings by the housekeeping staff, nudging me and reminding me to check out. I began to live in a perpetual state of ‘uno noche mas’; one more couldn’t hurt right?!

Thus I was determined, despite heading to bed around 8am, to make the most of those days I was “gifted” by my wake-up call. However, too fragile to achieve anything of substance, we did a lot of aimless wander-exploring around Palermo. There are multiple parks, each one with a glamorous landscaping theme: the rose garden, sheltered under pergolas and between fountains, and the Japanese gardens, walled in behind a 70 peso entrance-way (that we refused to pay on principle.) Unfortunately, they fail to create any kind of ‘inner city oasis’ vibe, owing to the impossibly wide avenues that surround; perfect for drag racing I’d imagine, not so good for pedestrian crossings!

Wandering around made me realise pretty quickly how comfortably I could live here. The nocturnalness aside, I like the rhythm and the combination of South American and western styles; like Paris, but with more attitude.

The city further won me over with a visit to El Ateneo, the world’s most glorious book shop. Housed in a glamorous ex-theatre, it is a shiny beacon to celebrate the arts. Everywhere there is space, you’ll find someone perched with their head in a book; so, naturally, I followed suit and attempted to teach myself some Spanish!

I then tried to jump on the subway home, but instead found myself caught up in one of the biggest, most raucous protest marches I’ve ever witnessed. Whilst they do take any excuse for a strike or political action, this one seemed to have a legitimate point; as far as I could fathom, amongst waving flags and pounding drums, they were rallying against the privatisation of eduction: “no vende, se defiende!”

Branching out beyond the comfortable local realms, our gringo group jumped on a bus to the opposite side of town, to check out the famous La Boca caminito. Arriving in the shithole neighbourhood at the mouth of the river, we were immediately ushered towards the tourist bubble. Just a few square blocks in size, suddenly we were transported back in time and into the mind of a colourful (and sometimes slightly grotesque) artist. What had clearly once been a particularly run down, dodgy area had been entirely transformed: with several licks of paint, scary alleyways now populated with accordionists and mystery staircases to quaint art galleries, they had created a ready-made tourist hotspot. In order to exploit this newfound gringo clientele, the bunting-lined streets were filled with an abundance of tacky souvenir shops and infinite numbers of average restaurants; each with tango dancers performing uncomfortably close to the tables!

Somewhat bizarrely, another huge tourist draw is the Recoleta cemetery; the size of an entire neighbourhood, solely housing the deceased. Labyrinthine pathways are lined with mausoleums, ranging from ancient, dilapidated ones to super sleek modern marble ones, that bear an unsettling resemblance to a designer shop front. Huge gothic monstrosities are larger and more ornate than some churches I’ve seen on my trip (and I’ve seen a LOT of churches!) I got lost amidst the morbidity for a long time and never saw the same thing twice. However, what did strike me was the lack of flowers, not a petal anywhere; that was until I found Eva Peron’s family tomb, which had been heavily florally adorned by tourists and fans alike. Perhaps not for everyone, but for someone writing their thesis on death, I thoroughly enjoyed being surrounded by the looming tombs.

In order to make my wandering somewhat less aimless, my first sojourn into the historic downtown was with the guidance of a free walking tour. Our guide enthused about the history of the country and how it contributed to the mixing pot of architecture visible in the city. Classical French juxtaposes ugly 1970s spacesavers, and some older buildings are simply cut in half, to make way for the ridiculously wide roads (so wide, they warrant two mentions in one blog post!) We explored from the fantastically columned Congress building, down past Evita’s memorial and all the way to the hot pink governmental building, complete with tacky night lights. The history lesson was interrupted by some pomp and ceremony from the grenadier guards; I was particularly amused when, despite all their synchronised movements and somber attitude, they lowered the flag and simply bundled it up like dirty washing to take it back indoors. A strange custom indeed.

I feel it would be an unfair testament to this wild city if I didn’t attempt to illustrate at least one night out. Luckily, it’s not all just beers and Bieber; the most authentic, memorable night out came unexpectedly on a Monday. La Bomba de Tiempo is a hugely popular, and entirely improvised, drumming and percussion performance, in a trendy warehouse space filled with tourists and locals alike. Boundless energy exuded from the twenty-odd musicians (in matching dorky red tracksuits) and permeated through the crowd. So much vigorous dancing to adrenaline-fuelled melodic surprises. Even the neglected percussion instruments, like the “cheese grater” or “ball wrapped in beads” got the party going.

When no one was ready for the party to end, the drumming flowed out into the streets. Hemmed in by street vendors and ferried by the moving musicians, we found ourselves in part of a procession to a night club- hopeless to resist this most genius marketing tactic! So, the moral of the story: in BA, whether you’re indoors or on a street corner, on a Monday through Sunday, there’s always a fiesta to explore! Hence, I’m staying put…

Week Seventeen: student vibes and skydives

Within ten minutes of arriving in my hostel in Córdoba, I had made a new friend and convinced her to sign up for skydiving with me; I knew I was going to like this town!

First point of business in any new city is to navigate your way around a free walking tour; soaking up titbits of trivia, but mostly figuring out where you live on a map. Thus, Vivian (my new Dutch other half) and I joined an eager group of gringos in the main square.

Córdoba, amongst its chaotic streets and far too numerous lingerie shops, has some truly lovely architecture to boast of. The main cathedral displays a combination of styles, from the two hundred years it took to complete. The city as a whole follows this hybridity, from the ancient looking Jesuit block, to the more glamorous French adornments elsewhere. My personal favourite was a building that defied planning permission, by stretching just four metres back from its decadent façade; a well-dressed slither. What brings all these styles together is the way that all important buildings have their silhouette marked out on the pavement at their feet; a little reminder as you plod the city streets to always look up, in case you’re missing something spectacular. Add in an inexplicable, modernist lighthouse (in the centre of the country) and a giant park, where we lunched, and that was pretty much all of Córdoba.

Quickly saturated by the city at ground level, we took to the skies. Having always wanted to skydive, it seemed almost too good to be true when we heard the (comparatively) bargain price. Whilst we did hold a few reservations about where the savings were being made (turns out we didn’t get any kind of protective clothing, and the briefing was in Spanish), we anxiously and excitedly bounced around an empty aircraft hanger in the city’s outskirts.

Vivian went first, leaving me all alone, fizzing inside, until I heard her screams from above; this was possibly the longest twenty minute wait of my life! Seeing her exuding adrenaline, even after hitting the ground, I was all the more pumped to get harnessed up and try my hand at flying.

The plane was minute; just myself, my instructor and a pilot. The sprawling views over the cityscape distracted me from what was coming and chilled out some of the nervous giggling. I felt nothing but excitement, until the door opened… The photos make it quite clear how many expletives I uttered at this point! Hanging in the doorway was the point when I began to question myself; I was willing him to put my mind at rest, simply by pushing me out already!

Then came free fall. Easily one of the most exhilarating experiences on Earth. The surprise backflip he threw in, intense wind and oodles of adrenaline, made me completely forget my moves and flail around like a maniac. I was swearing, laughing, leaking and trying to close my incredibly dry mouth, all whilst soaking in the views and the feeling of utter amazement. The ultimate multitasking. Things slowed down once the parachute was up. Or they did until he handed me the reigns and let me spin us, quickly and horizontally.

Even once on the ground, Vivian and I were flying high for hours. We laughed achingly upon watching our skydive videos (in a subdued Internet cafe) and hit the town to celebrate.

With Ashleigh (another travel buddy) and several perritos (or local street dogs) in tow, we painted the town red; quite literally, as we bounced between hip, trendy bars, gorging ourselves on the local delicacies of Picada (piles of salami and cheese) and at least five bottles of red wine. It became clear that Córdoba is a student city, as the bars were filled with fairy lights and the clubs were raring to go, on a Wednesday night!

In stark contrast to the elation of the previous day, we then indulged in a truly ‘student city’ hangover day. Our hostel hosts judged us ruthlessly for not only ordering a pizza, but for getting it delivered from one block away! The only time I did venture out that day was to buy a phone charger; this resulted in a series of returns to the same dodgy shop, each time with faulty merchandise, and the acceptance of that fact that today was not a day for attempting to achieve anything.

Once back on top form, we went day-tripping! More specifically, we visited the small town of Alta Gracia. Notable solely for its former residents, we visited Che Guevara’s humble beginnings. His house, now a museum, is pretty much just a walk-in photo album; but I did learn about his early life and, most shockingly, what he looked like before the rebellious hair took over!

Uncertain of the difference between a Jesuit ‘estancia’ and a plain old ‘church’ (and not willing to pay the entry fee to find out) we instead settled for some spectacular plaza-side cake, before heading back to the city for happy hour. Alta Gracia was nice enough, but couldn’t compete with craft beers at bargain prices!

The rest of our time in Córdoba was spent desperately attempting to buy Vivian a new birthday outfit. Unfortunately, the streets at the weekend are largely uninhabited. I’ve learnt that Argentinians are serious about two things: siestas and shoes. At such times when all shops are closed, we were left with nothing to do but people watch. Thus noticing that anyone who’s anyone adds at least three inches in platform height to the soles of their feet.

It turns out, these outlandish shoes could be purchased in the palatial shopping mall, the one place still open on a Saturday. Unfortunately for us, we couldn’t afford anything here; other than a trip to the arcade on the top floor and some playtime in the photo booth. There seems to be no happy medium between designer-level prices inside and the truly tacky and terrible shops that line the surrounding streets.

Unsatisfied by a market populated my the ubiquitous piles of socks, alongside everything you could want in leopard print, we headed to the bohemian Barrio Güemes for something more artisanal. On weekend evenings, the streets here transform into a hipster haven; fairy lights are the only thing to guide your way between the unattached, half-built walls that house a labyrinth of colourful, stalls. I was far more impressed with the offerings here: from Rastas making macramé jewellery, to piles of “antique” crap and everything in between (including thousands of maté cups, carved spoons and toys made from dish sponges.)

One final day in Córdoba and we repeated our favourite tropes of people watching, picada and happy hour. Then it was time for Vivian and I to part ways; she had a big birthday planned on the other side of the country and I couldn’t face paying for a bus to go back on myself.

Thus I headed up into the Sierra Chica mountains, to the beautifully bizarre town of Capilla del Monte. A cross between the ghost-town, low season qualities of Valle Fertil and the bohemian, street-art vibes of Valparaiso. Other than a lot of hippy shops, offering spiritual healing and/or all the alien memorabilia you could ever want, the main draw of the town is in the surrounding mountains.

I challenged myself to scale Cerro Uriturco, the highest peak in this central mountain range (the poor man’s Andes!) The path was just wide enough for myself and my two canine companions to walk single file, and for spiders webs to regularly block the way. Whilst the climb involved a lot more rocky scrambling than I had anticipated, I let the dogs lead the way and we reached the summit in just under two hours (exactly half the estimated time quoted by the snooty man at the base, who had made me doubt myself.)

In classic accordance with my weather-based luck, the view was shrouded in clouds. Dramatic and impressive when glimpsed in between, but largely grey. As the impossibly large condors began circling dangerously low, we headed back down.

I ached, it started to rain and I had to get the hell out of this extra-terrestrial town. I bussed back to the city and, finding myself with a couple of hours to kill, on a rainy ‘free museum Wednesday’, I thought my luck was in. That was until the municipality of Córdoba had decided that today was the perfect day to close all of the museums (or at least both the art gallery and the intriguingly named ‘Museum of Women’, after which I gave up searching.) Instead, I took a perch in the old-fashioned, and only partially functioning, tiled hall at the train station.

All aboard and on my way to Buenos Aires.

Week Sixteen: bizarre goings on in ghost towns

My initial moments in Valle Fertil were quite alien; rather than tramping the streets in search of a hostel with any space, I was in search of a hostel with any guests at all! Evidently, I was in luck, as I managed to source the only other tourists in town: we were three. Even fewer than the number of tourists was the number of open restaurants. Just the one. It came complete with a full sized T-Rex skeleton, to menace you as you ate, and it considered fish and chicken as synonymous on its menu.

What the tiny town was in no means lacking were dogs. Having used surrogate pets as a coping mechanism for missing my dog back home, I was initially pleased. That was until I realised quite how much trouble these adorable pests could cause me! In short, the neighbours’ dog decided to accompany my on my tour of the town. She attempted to enter the supermarket; outweighing my desperate attempts to restrain her, I called upon the help of a local to tie her up outside. Chaos ensued and a lot of ‘Who’s dog is that?!’ I sheepishly did my shopping, untied her and ran away… Only to be chased by all said dog’s local enemies. Cowardly, she placed me amidst the fight and solidified my decision to only leave the house on accompanied excursions from then on.

Luckily for me, daily excursions to the nearby reserves of Talampaya and Ischigualasto were in full swing, despite dwindling tourist presence.

All aboard the cramped retirement bus and we found herself giggling our way through a ‘that’s where something used to exist’ tour of Talampaya. Things began looking up (no pun intended) when we reached the dauntingly high, bright red canyon. A small selection of rock paintings showed a man and his llamas; no prizes for what this taught us about ancient civilisation! Beyond that, an almost impossibly verdant garden lay in the centre of the arid canyon. Ancient, gnarled trees played host to various small animals, as well as a table serving us wine. I have a suspicion it was just intended to loosen people up for shouting, thus showcasing the impressive number of times an echo would reverberate down through the canyon. The rocky “cathedral” had spires carved out, opposing the otherwise horizontal stripes of the rocks and thus creating a pretty spectacular spot (my cynicism subsided as the day went on.) One final vista out across the desert-like landscape, to the snowy, glacial mountains beyond and we were done with nature for the day. That is a of course except for a quick spin around the dilapidated dinosaur models in the park and then again to our favourite dino-restaurant.

Dubious about how many more rocks I needed to see, I was somehow convinced to visit Ischigualasto, or Valle de la Luna, the following day. I was adopted as an honorary Argentinian for the day, in order the escape the blatantly discriminatory pricing against foreigners at all National Park entrances. I didn’t however adopt the Argentine custom of cooing ‘Que lindo’ at just about every animal or rock we saw in passing.

Yet, that is not to say that I wasn’t suitably impressed by the Moon Valley. Living up to its adopted name, the landscape was truly other-worldly. Driving through the cacti-strewn Wild West, we stopped off at giant cut-out mushroom shapes and perfectly spherical balls of rock, that looked to me like the love trolls from Disney’s Frozen. The highlight for me was ‘the painted valley’; an undulating stream of coloured, striped mounds, viewed with a God-like perspective from above. Otherwise, there were some impressive dinosaur fossils unearthed here and on show in a small museum built entirely to shelter said archeological site.

Other than some uninspiring postcards of rocks and an artisanal market selling some of the world’s worst souvenirs (I wonder if they have ever sold a rock with a spring glued on top, that reads ‘Valle de la Luna’ scrawled in biro?!) I had sampled everything in this region. Irritatingly enough, the only bus northwards out of town left at 3am and only went as far as La Rioja (the next region’s capital.) I decided to make lemonade of the hand I had been dealt and thus treated my layover in La Rioja as a fun day trip.

Whilst the town doesn’t warrant a shout out in The Rough Guide, I had had the chance to briefly peruse a fellow tourist’s Lonely Planet and thus made a beeline for the Inca Huasi Museum. I should have perhaps guessed from the fifty pence entrance fee that it was going to be small; what I couldn’t have anticipated was the sheer volume of rocks they managed to squeeze in. Amused by the abundance of ancient drug paraphernalia, I was saturated within half an hour and headed back into the daylight.

As with anywhere in South America, if in doubt, head for a sit in the main square. Beyond just people watching, there is always bound to be something afoot. This particular day was a prime example, as a protest gained momentum on one side of the square, a festival-like celebration in honour of the International Day of Dance raved on the other. From overly sexualised young girls belly dancing, to folkloric courting dances and, of course, the ubiquitous tango, there were a variety of performances, punctuated by chances to get involved. I remained a silent participant, but thoroughly enjoyed the spectacle.

Other than this (and a totally bizarre dog show, wherein young children dragged ill-behaved dogs across a stage in a supermarket car park) La Rioja entirely shut down for the afternoon siesta. I was once again in a ghost town.

One more night bus later and I was in Salta. Having already tasted the delights of rocky landscapes at Ischigualasto, salt flats in Uyuni and the wine region around Mendoza, the excursions on offer from Salta fell a little to waste on me. Thus I dedicated my exploring solely to the regional capital itself. Initial thoughts: if you were to cut Mendoza in half, you would come close to the vertically challenged, yet still tree-lined, promenades of Salta. It is essentially a more colourful and vibrant version of Cuenca, Ecuador, but with a similar ‘what do I do here?’ vibe.

The churches and cathedrals are plentiful and look straight out of a Disney storybook. With brightly coloured outsides, swirly patterns aplenty and insides covered in perhaps a little too much gold, they certainly don’t do worshipping by halves! The only drawback is the monophonic, ringtone style church bells played on the hour, somewhat diminishing the glory.

Salta has several small, but charming museums to pass the grey, cloudy days. The first, the Museum of High Altitude Archaeology, showcases decrepit mummies of sacrificed Incan children- not for the faint hearted. The second, the Museo Pajcha, a private collection, proudly displays art, handicrafts and religious imagery from across Latin America. Diego, the guide and vice-curator, exudes enthusiasm and he alone is worth the £3 entrance fee; well-kept, with a cravat and a combover that couldn’t fool anyone, he excitedly presented the collection, room by room, as if each were a grand surprise! My personal highlights were the controversial paintings of angels with firearms and Christ being crucified in a skirt. The only explanation Diego had to offer was ‘¿porque no?’ (Clearly he shared my mantra; I knew I liked him!)

Slightly beyond the city limits looms Cerro San Bernardo. A mere 1021 steps lead to the top, via occasional glimpses of city views through the thick canopy. Following the stations of the cross along the path was a good way of measuring distance, but was hardly uplifting or motivational! At the top lie some nice gardens, the former glories of a water feature and, of course, a statue of Christ, overlooking the sprawling regional capital. A lovely spot for a sit (and to escape the madness below- on a day when there appeared to be city-wide bike race, for which the roads were only partially closed, thus taxis raced across the finish line as people threw firecrackers!)

I mostly used my time in Salta to recuperate from a cold I caught on one of several night buses. Having befriended a guy in my hostel from South Korea, I was treated to some delicious home cooked Asian meals almost every evening. When in Rome!

Done with the north and done with nature for a while, I headed to Córdoba- the rough and ready second city, at the geographical heart of the country. Stay tuned…

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!

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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