Sunday, April 29, 2007

Potasi - April 28 and 29

On Saturday, April 28, we had another stunning drive over 212 km from Uyuni to Potasi. We left at 8 a.m and pulled into Potosi around 4 p.m. Once again, the drive took us through the bleak but stunning moss-green coloured Andes Mountains on a narrow two-lane, dirt road. We climbed high up into the Andes zig-zagging around hundreds of treacherous hair pin bends, passing spectacular rock formations, and llamas, sheep, cattle and donkeys grazing on the arid, wheaten-coloured, straw grass. We drove across the bleak but beautiful Altiplano at heights of over 3500 feet. Along the way we met numerous lorries, small coaches, expedition jeeps, and cars which gave the standard Bolivian honk and a wave on passing. Struggling up one hairpin bend we met a Bolivian lady in traditional dress, herding a sheep and its lamb by throwing stones at them to encourage them to move out of the way of the Truck. We ate our lunch by the side of a small stream in a narrow mountain valley watched over by a group of llamas and a donkey. Beside us a Bolivian couple had also stopped for lunch and the woman was washing their clothes in the river and spreading them out to dry in the sun on the smooth granite rock. Apparently this is a weekend custom for Bolivians living in small towns. We drove through numerous small settlements of mud caked adobe houses with thatched or tin rooves, often built like missions to allow the cattle to graze within the mud walls of the courtyard.

Arriving in Potosi around 4 p.m. we parked the truck in a truck park and took a small tourist bus through the narrow streets to the Hostal San Marcos where we stayed two nights.

Potosi is a sad town. It was formally established in 1545 by the Spanish and due to its silver mines founded in Cerro Rico, it became the largest & wealthest city in the Americas and was rivalled only by London, Paris, and Seville. In Inca times the mountain was considered to be sacred & was not to be touched but the Spainish changed all that. It was also the single source of silver in the world. Times were good, and the population peaked at around 150,000. The city suffered some decline between 1650 and 1730 when silver production picked up again.

The result is that all of the riches of the past are gone, leaving a city full of poverty, unfinished buildings, and decay. Some of the Colonial buildings remain, and some have been renovated to perfection, such as the Convento-Museo Santa Teresa, a wonderful colonial church and convent with a fine collection of colonial religions paintings and sculptures and insight into the life of the nuns in the colonial era. Due to the rich architecture, the city was declared a UNESCO site in 1987.

The City is built around Cerro Rico which is rich in minerals such as tin, zinc, lead, antimony. But as we discovered when we took a tour of one of the mines, mining methods have not changed since Colonial times. Since the government privatized the mining in 1985, about 50 cooperatives & about 200 private operators are set up to collect the minerals mined by the individual mining families & to then sell them either to the cooperatives or the smelters who there are many. The individual families have the mining rights to their own part of the hill. Men, as young as 13, (and yes, they are supposed to be in school, but no-one polices the mines) enter into the mine with a chisel and hammar & mine the minerals which they push out in brightly coloured wheel barrows to be collected by jeeps and taken to the co-op. The average number of years in a mine is 15, and age expectation is around 35. The men die from silicosis. They are paid for what they individually mine - and this is hardly subsistence. In order to maintain the energy to sustain themselves through the 9 - 10 hours, 7 days a week, under arduous conditions crouched in narrow passage ways with the miners (except the children) they chew coca leaves and drink the 96% alcohol that we saw in the miner´s shop. They also smoke cigarettes, probably like marijuana, which are readily available in the market. Needless to say many of the miners work "drunk". But they are proud to be mining families.

It is said that the amount of silver taken out of Cerro Rico by the Spanish could build a bridge from Potosi to Madrid. The veins were so rich it was almost unbelievable. Although the main veins have been taken there is always still the hope by each of the miners that they will by some luck hit a rich vein & achieve financial security. Under the Spanish rule the total number of miners both Native & African slaves who died mining for the Spanish is estimated at 8 or 9 millon an ubelievable toll.

Potosi is supposed to be the highest in (altitude) city in the world and it stands at 4070 meters & one really notices this altitude when you visit there. We did a mine tour & were equipped with waterproof gear, rubber boots & miner´s lamp. We were all geared out in town & then proceeded to drive up to the mine entrance which is up the mountain. When we entered the gate we were at 4,670 meters over 15,000 feet above sea level. We continued up I would say maybe another 100 to 150 meters to a chapel on the mountain for the miners & then up maybe another 50 to 100 meters to the tunnel entrance. It is custom for tours to purchase numerous supplies for the miners coca leaves, 96 proof cane spirits, dynamite, wicks, cigarettes & blasting caps as well as biscuits etc. Our group entered the mine & everything was OK until I was about 300 to 400 meters in & felt a great lack of breathing ability, I took off my mask thinking that it was restricting my breathing & when that didn¨t help I had a compulsion to turn around which I did & Elizabeth came with me as well as one of the guides. I have never experienced anything like this in my life & I am not certain if it was the altitude or maybe a claustrophobic reaction. I turned & said I was not able to do it & that I was out of there.

Currently, the government is considering ways of modernizing the mining since the hill is still very rich in silver and other minerals. The method proposed by the government is to cut the top off the mountain and have open seam mining. However, the inhabitants of Potosi and UNESCO are against this as it will spoil the beauty and culture of the city. UNESCO favours a more expensive method of drilling a new main shaft and moderning the underground mining methods. Most of the residents & miners of Potosi favour the UNESCO proposal as it would take maybe 200 years to finally run out the mine & not destroy its beauty which I must admit I wasn¨t able to really see. The government¨s method would probably only last for 20 years & there is a great mistrust by the miners of the government as they have been let down as in 1985. Our guide indicated that there are currently about 18,000 involved in the mining & there are 20,000 shafts cut into the mountain.

Our group who continued on the tour related some of the rituals that the miners have in their quest to strike it rich or merely survive on the income they can create by subjecting themselves to such horrendous conditions & decreased live span which is most likely. Being Catholic but when it comes to mining they have a ritual in each of the shafts where they have a depiction of the devil or some replica who they don¨t worship but pay respect to each week by putting smokes some food at the statue as well as a deposit of 96 proof on its eyes, forehead, penis etc. They do this as their view is that it is Satin who is giving up the minerals which they mine & take from the mountain.

Whatever the answer ends up being, it is clear that current conditions are dangerous and inhuman and something needs to be done to improve the quality of life for the mining families & the residents of Potosi. There is very much a hatred towards the Spanish for what they did in taking what they did & there is also a enormous hatred conveyed towards Bush. One of our guides had great delight when demonstrating how to set off the dynamite by using a pawpaw by installing the dynamite & fertilizer in the fruit & then carving GW¨s face in it before lighting it & handing it around to those who dared hold it (3.5 minute wick) before placing it a safe distance away & watching it explode. I am not sure that I will want to return to Potosi anytime in the future.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Uyuni - April 26 and 27

We were wakened up early on Thursday morning by the sound of a truck and loud voices which to me sounded very threatening. Apparently, according to Carly who is fluent in Spanish, there were three men on the bridge overlooking our camp site. They were arguing over whether or not to rob us. One of the men thought it was too risky, even though they were armed. Carly was quite scared and immediately woke up Tony our driver who put on all the truck lights and they started getting breakfast ready as loudly as possible. I guess this scared the men off as they had lost the element of surprise. It was a little scary, but the good thing was that we were able to leave half an hour earlier than planned for our drive to Uyuni.

The 200 km drive was the most spectacular yet. We climbed up to about 4115 meters above sea level on a narrow dirt road, executing hundreds of hair pin bends, through vast mountain ranges, under bright blue cloudless skies. At the top we drove along the narrow mountain-top ridge and then into the Altiplano. We also drove 25 kms through a dry river bed. You can imagine how we were all shaken round in the back of the Truck!! Only about 5% of the roads in Bolivia are paved and only 20% of all roads are passable all year round.

We were fortunate to arrive in Uyuni on market day and spent an hour in the evening just wandering around the many stalls which sold everything you can imagine and taking in the Bolivian peoples, and the various activities around us.

On Friday, we spent the day on the Salar de Uyuni, or the salt flats. The flats are 20 km outside Uyuni and stretch for about 10,582 sq. km. 25,000 tons of salt is removed each year and they say the flats contain about 10 billion tons of salt. They are about 3,650 meters above sea level.

We saw how the salt was taken off the flats by the local people with a pick and a shovel, stacked in triangular piles on the Salar, taken to a small family factory in trucks, crushed, dried, iodized, and packed in plastic bags for sale mainly in Bolivia. We visited a hotel on the Salar made entirely out of salt, except for the roof, but including all the furniture. We walked over Isla Pescado (Fish Island) an 80 km bus ride across the Salar from the salt hotel. The island is covered in cacti including one about 1200 years old, and offered stunning views over the Salar and the snow-capped mountains and the Tunipa volcanoe in the background. It was incredible to look around and see nothing but white salt, and so odd to touch the salt and not to find snow or ice.

We also visited the train cemetry in Uyuni where now derilict and decaying train bodies, orginally purchased from Britain in the 1800s, had been stored when Chile bought over the railways in 1977 and modernized the railways and the trains.

Uyuni, founded in 1889-90 is another pleasant small town set on the bleak southern Altiplano in Bolivia. The population is around 10,000. It was a trading town, but now it is mainly a railway town and a tourist gateway for tours to El Salar de Uyuni and Reserva de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa. It is situated at 3,670 meters above sea level, and the altitude was still affecting some of the group. The altitude sickness doesn´t seem to last all the time, but comes on at different times, depending on the amount of energy expended - it makes you feel sick, headachy, or just lifeless.

In Uyuni we stayed at the Tonito Hotel which was fabulous, had our own room, very clean, full of character. The restaurant serves the best pizza I have had in a long time (Minute Man Pizza). On our second evening a small group of us ate at El Loco, but although the atmosphere was good, the food was variable.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Tupiza, Bolivia - April 24 and 25

Tuesday April 24, around 7 a.m. we left Salta to drive to Tupiza in Bolivia. The drive was stunning. We drove through the valley bottom and varied scenery including stunning rock formations which in parts looked like the pipes of a church organ and in other parts like a large leopard´s paws, and up to the beautiful multi-coloured Gorge of the Quebrada de Humahuaca, then on to the bleak but beautiful Altiplano landscapes to La Quiaca where we crossed the border into Bolivia. One of the other tour companies drove through the border while we were waiting for clearance and was attacked by an unasuming little Bolivian man who pounded on the sides of the Truck, screaming something in Spanish, as the Truck drove off from the control point. Even before leaving the border, we noticed a huge difference in the people, culture, and poverty levels and felt that we would see more people like this little due to the lack of available medical services. The people became much more indigenous - Quechua 30%, Mestizo (mixed white and Amerindian ancestry 30%, Aymara 25%, and white 15%. Many of the Aymara woman still wear the traditional dress of bowler hat, full brightly coloured skirts, and a shawl with thick stockings and sandals. The little villages we passed had houses built out of mud bricks and thatched or tin rooves. It felt as if we had travelled back in time about 60 years.

We arrived in Tupiza late in the day and took a bumpy, narrow, and windy dirt road up to El Toroyoj where we pitched our tents in the dark and had a camp fire and dinner. Arriving in the dark we did not appreciate the beauty of the site, but the next morning we woke up to a stunning view of knife shaped rock formations towering around the grassy valley where we had pitched our tents by the side of a river. Due to the altitude - we were at 2990 plus meters above sea level - many of us were suffering a little from altitude sickness - i.e. mild headache, dizziness or light headedness, slightly nautious, and very out of breath with any form of activity. So, it was an early night and not much drinking!

The next day, Ray, Robin, Nikki, Amelia, Shannon, and I set off on a ¨triatlon¨which combined bikes, jeeps and a horse ride to tour the impressive sites around Tupiza. I cannot find words to express the beauty of the desert like landscape with its mountains of red, brown, grey and green, the spectacular rock formations, canyons, and at this time of the year, dried river beds. We first drove in a jeep up a steep mountain on a narrow gravel road to El Sillar, a saddle between two mountains, overlooking the Valley of the Moon. At the top, we abandoned the jeep and rode down the steep mountaineous dirt road on mountain bikes. This gave us an opportunity to see the spectacular scenery, and feel its immenseness as we struggled to control our speed, and prevent our bikes from slipping off the edge to the valley below. Next, we had lunch under a tree beside some farm fields. Its amazing that even in this dry, arid area, farmers are able to produce a variety of vegetables which are stacked in sacks at the side of the road and picked up by small trucks to be taken to the market in Tupiza. Our next activity included a horseback ride in the Quebrada de Palmira and the Valle de los Machos. We rode up a dry river bed passing the Puerta del Diablo, a large vertical slab of rock known as the Devil´s Door, to the Valley of the Males with its huge pinnacles of rock resembling phallic symbols. At the end of this valley, we came to the Inca Canyon which was apparently an Inca Cemetry hundreds of years ago. Then it was back to town around 5 p.m. and a visit to the local market in Tupiza to buy food for dinner. Ray was on Cook Group and he did most of the buying along with Claire and Shannon - but it was quite an experience visiting the market and conversing with the sellers to buy llama, or steak, or chicken and vegetables for 24 people.

Tupiza, population about 20,000, lies in a fertile valley of the Rio Tupiza and had a really nice atmosphere and was very pleasant. The area surrounding Tupiza is part of the territory travelled by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and where they were killed and buried.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Salta - April 21, 22, 23

On Saturday morning we left our campsite in Cafayate to drive to Salta Rafting where we were hoping to do a canopy tour or some rafting. We had an hour's reprieve, and didn't leave until 8 a.m. The drive was the most outstanding yet. We drove out of Cafayate and into a lush green valley flanked with red sandstone rocks naturally carved into the most interesting shapes, and steep mountain faces rising straight out of the valley. Probably the closest resemblance is Sedona in Arizona, but the sheer vastness of the mountain ranges in the background is much more grand. Then we were back into the jagged peaked, snow capped, granite mountain ranges of the Andes. We were travelling down the side of a huge lake with sheer rock on the opposite side of the road when we came around the corner and came to an abrupt halt because of a rock slide. It had just happened, and one rock was perched precariously above us, looking as if it would roll down on to the road any minute. So we had to turn around, change our plans and drive straight to Salta. This meant a stop in a typical restaurant in a small village en route. The restaurant was actually someone's house and they had a limited menu which they offered to the public. None the less the food was quite good. We also saw all the rally cars drive past us as we sat on the road-side verandah eating - no doubt they had to turn around too. Two hours later, without further mishap, we arrived in the town of Salta.

Salta is the capital of Salta Province and was founded by the Spanish in the late 1500s. It has about 600,000 population. You may have heard Ray and I talk about Salta. We read in the International Living magazine how beautiful Salta was and what a good place it was to live in. When we arrived we were a little disappointed but after today I realize that the location of the rather boring camp site is not the best. The town has retained its colonial appearance and we have visited many of the old buildings, including Casa de Arias Rengel, Casa de Hernandez, Iglesia San Francisco, Convento San Bernardo, Catedral Basilica, Palacio Legislativo, and the Museo de Arqueologia de Alta Montana. We also took the gondola up the mountain for a fabulous view over the city. There was supposed to be a train which took you 400 km up into the clouds, however, this is not running due to problems with the structure of the railway.

Most of the buildings around the Plaza 9 de Julio (the main square) have beeen fixed up and look lovely, however, the Palacio Legislativo is a little walk from the centre. It is a fine building, probably the finest, but sadly, it is in very bad repair. I suspect this is due to the hard economic times Argentina has suffered, and hopefully, now that their economy is starting to pick up, they will find the money to restore this and other beautiful old buildings. In the Museo de Arqueologia we read the story of La Reina del Cerro - The Queen of the Mountain - and saw the mummy of the child. The Incas had a ritual called Capacocha. Offerings were made by the four Inca provinces and taken to Cuzco, which was the centre of the Inca Empire. After days of preparation there was a pilgrimage back to the sacred site in the various provinces from which the offerings came. In some cases, the offerings included chosen children. When the children arrived back at the sacred site in their province, they were drugged, and then offered to the deities. There are apparently some 27 or 28 sites in Argentina where children were sacrificed and La Reina del Cerro is one of these. It is not known exactly when she was sacrificed, but it is said to be somewhere between 1400 and 1532. Here body was discovered at 5,175 metres in 1920 -1922, and in 1924 it was bought by a collector from Buenos Aires and taken to that province. In 2001, the CEPPA Foundation acquired the body and in 2006 the body was recovered by the City of Salta. It sent chills up my spine to look at the 12 year old girl, in a kneeling position, mummified. By the expression on her face, I can´t think that her death was pleasant. This is something I would love to explore further when I return from the trip, as 3 other little girls' bodies have also been found and are being prepared to go on exhibition. It seems to me, this has a loose connection to Body World. I may not have the whole story properly told here, since once again language and translation is a problem. Anyway, here is the web site for the museum for those who are interested: (Note: my Spanish is not good enough to figure out how to do a link).

Last night after supper, a number of us went to the Cinema. It cost 11 pesos ($4 or $5 Cdn). It was in a very modern shopping mall and was very clean and comfortable. I was surprised to see that most of the films were in English with Spanish sub-titles. Could have been in Canada. The film we saw was 300. Certainly not the best film I have seen, but it was fun to have a night out at the flics.

Today, Ray went on a canopy tour back to Salta Rafting. I have had a lovely day just walking around Salta with Robin. We have seen all kinds of places, walked around a school, a Spanish community centre, went into a 5-Star hotel to use the loo, visited the station, the Procurator Fiscal's office, and generally done things not on the tourist map. We also went shopping and Robin bought a lovely pant-suit and top for about $120 Cdn. Its great quality and an ideal business outfit.

Prices here in Argentina are reasonable. Taxi rides are about 5 pesos - $2.00; a small bottle of water is about 1.5 pesos. So far as clothes go, we think that the better clothes are not much different than in England, but the cheaper clothes are much more stylish than what you can buy in either England or Canada. We have priced TVS, computers, stoves, fridges, etc. and all are quite a bit cheaper than Canada. Food from the supermarkets is very cheap. We can only conclude without doing too much of an in depth survey, that living in Argentina would be considerably less than living in Canada.

Sadly, today is our last day in Argentina. Tomorrow morning at 7.00 a.m. we set off for Tupiza in Bolivia. I think things will change drastically there. It will be less developed, no more supermarkets, good loos, good food, etc. Tonight, we are going to seek out a local restaurant with folk music. Its a bit of a flyer so we'll let you know how it goes.

We will keep you posted!

Zip Lining at Salta Rafting - Monday April 23

Salta Rafting was an experience not to be missed! We were originally on our way to Salta Rafting however a rock slide across the road on Sunday prevented us from going there to camp and we had to go on to Salta directly & be transported back on Monday for the zip lining. The zip lining was between two mountains and consisted of nine lines or cables the largest being around 300 meters long and about 150 to 175 meters above the surface.

We arived at Salta Rafting around 10.30 a.m. and were fitted out, signed the waiver, etc. and were then driven in an old ricketty bus about 5 kms from the base. At a point on the road the bus stopped and we all got out. I jokingly said to John in our group that we had to climb straight up the mountain side. Well, surprise, because that was exactly what was required. We climbed up the face for about 500 to 600 meters to the first line. This was a relatively short one which followed the side of the mountain we had just climbed. Before we were able to depart, Frank who was a German & I believe the owner, spelled out very clearly what we could & should not do when on the zip lines. Our group, consisting of 14 with Frank & three other guides, started across about 50 meters to an outcropping of rock one at a time, lead by two guides. Line 2 took us across the valley about 200 meters and 100 to 150 meters bove the river. You sit, or should I say lay, in the harness with your legs crossed and one thick leather glove on top of the line for control with the other hand on the shackle which suspends you below the wire. Once at the end of line two, you then proceed to climb for about 400 or 500 meters to the start of line 3. Line 3 then takes you back across the valley for about 200 plus or minus meters, about 100 to 150 meters up once again above the river. For the start of Line 4, you again have to climb to about 200 plus or minus meters then off you go about 200 plus meters across a control dam in the river maybe 150 to 200 meters up. Up to this point, the lines haven't been too steep so you are not travelling too fast. Your lower hand which is behind your shackle at all times is your speed control and brake but if necessary both gloved hands may be required if you have too fast a speed for landing at the end. Lines 5 and 6 stayed on the opposite side of the valley to the base with short climbs in between they are the steep lines, shorter than across the valley, but are much faster if you wish. Line 7 is the longest and highest probably 300 to 400 meters long and maybe 200 - 250 meters up above the river-valley floor. Line 8 is slightly shorter with little climbing and back across the valley. Line 9 takes you once again back across the valley to the base and back safely on the ground.

We arrived back from the zip lining at around 2:30 p.m. for a barbequeue and some cold beers or wine (very much required!). I must admit that Frank and his guides were incredibly safety aware. We were never allowed to attach our own shakles or safety harness to the lines. The day certainly was a rush & it was amazing to glide across a valley between two mountains at those heights. I was wondering how deep the river was and how much of a splash you would make from 300 meters up, one heck of a cannon ball splash, I'd say!

Elizabeth chose to miss this activity as she was nervous about the height without being able to see it first. In hind sight, it was a good decision for her. I think she would have struggled with the strength to slow herself on the line with the leather gloves. But for me, this was definitely a high!

Friday, April 20, 2007

Cafayate - April 18, 19, 20

It took us 2 days to drive from Mendoza to Cafatate. Once again the drive was spectacular. On Wednesday we were driving through flat steppeland, much like the scenery driving down to Puerto Madryn from Buenos Aires. By the end of the day, we were back to accacia forests and in fact rough-camped in one of them on Thursday night, by the side of the road. The ground was very dry, sandy soil but the rough camp was fun - also warmer than our last camping experiences. You just had to be careful not to get the accacia branches stuck in your pants as the leaves have sharp thorns on them!

On Thursday, the scenery changed not just once but about 3 times. We went from arid steppe to lush, sub tropical forest, flat plains and valleys, sheer mountain rock and back to arid steppe in Cafayate. We climbed up a mountain pass and on the way stopped to admire the spectacular scenery. I had just walked over to the cliff edge, when I heard a shout that someone had fallen off the Truck and turned to see our driver Tony and leader, Diana running back to it. The steps off the Truck are fold away metal steps and unfortunately John, one of the new people who joined us in Santiago had slipped off the top step and landed on the ground. He must have hit a rock because he was definitely knocked out for a few seconds, and there was blood pouring down his face. Ray was right in front of him and tried to stop him, but just wasn´t quick enough. Tony and Diana administered first aid to John, and after he had started to come to, we set off again. He was definitely dis-oriented and when we arrived in Cafayate we drove straight to the Drs. where we left him with Di while we drove to the campsite to check in. John arrived back in the camp later after having been to the hospital for an x-ray on the wrist. He was very lucky. Apart from a mild concussion, severe bruising on the forehead and eye, and sore wrists, there was nothing seriously damaged.

Cafayate is a small town, about 12,000 people situated in the Valles Calchquies, in the Province of Salta. It is very laid back, colonial in atmosphere, and is known for its wine cellars and as a tourist centre to explore the surrounding valleys. It is 1683 metres above sea level and I think was founded in 1840 - or thereabouts. We spent the day investigating the town centre, lazing in the cafes, and visiting some of the old colonial buildings. The main activity while we were there was the Salta Rally - a 500 mile rally in Salta Province of what appeared to be classic cars - including mercedes, bmws, austin mini, 1956 Corvette, Austin Healey, E-type Jag - etc. We met the owner of the 1956 Corvette in Salta on Sunday and apparently he bought the car from Canada. Small world!

In my last post I praised the medical facilities in Argentina. Maybe I should take that back! Robin and Duncan ended up going to the hospital in Cafayate to visit an orthopaedic specialist. Apparently he was so rude, brutal, and incompetent, that our tour leader is going to report him. However, Duncan then went to the Dr. in Salta, and had a very positive experience. So, go figure!

On the whole we enjoyed Cafayate, but are noticing quite a change in the people, who we are not finding as friendly as in orther parts of Argentina.

On Saturday, its up early and a four hour drive to Salta Rafting.
Pictures Added May 7th.
Museum Flowers in courtyard
Car Rally - Regional Museum

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Mendoza, Argentina - April 15, 16, 17

The drive from Santiago to Mendoza on Sunday (approximately 12 hours) was spectacular. We executed about 100 hair-pin bends to climb up about 3500 metres into the jagged-peaked, snow-capped, Andes through mountain walls of grey, red, yellow and black rock. In some areas, the rock face was sheer cliff, in others it looked like a smooth volcanic beach, and in others there were huge bolders which looked poised to tip over any minute on to the road below. There was no vegetation to speak of although in the distance we saw one or two unexplained patches of bright green. A dis-used railway ran along the side of the road and we passed several hostels or small hotels which formed primitive ski-resorts. Other than the trucks and a few cars, we were pretty isolated.

Amidst this panorama of mountain views and and breathtaking scenery, we had our first introduction to altitude.A few in the Truck were not affected, but most suffered varying degrees of nausea, headache, and weakness. Apparently altitude sickness does not differentiate between age groups,sex, or fitness levels. I just felt light headed, a little squeamish, and a very slight headache. Expending any energy, such as walking behind a rock to pee, was a mini-chore. There are 3 levels of sickness - accute, moderate, and severe, and then various more- severe forms of altitude illnesses.The main goal is to become properly acclimatized which is going to be hard when driving. We only reached "high" (i.e. 8,000 to 10,000 feet) on the altitude scale. We still have to experience "very high" (i.e. 12,000 to 18,000 feet), and I remain quite concerned about handling this.

Once in Mendoza we stayed at the hostel Itaka on Aristides Villanueva. A respectable hostel with a restaurant-bar patio facing the street (, but we found the organisation at this hostel poor compared to others we visited in Argentina. For example, the breakfast was not laid out at the times advertized apparently because the lady who organizes it didn't turn up, we waited at least one and a half hours for a pizza one night - no idea why, they ran out of hot water, then the night before we left there was no water at all. On top of all of this, there was a robbery. The story is that the person on the desk let 4 people in then became suspicious of them, but his story is that he couldn't leave the front desk to go and check, so he kept calling them; eventually, they ran down the stairs and out the door. At least 3 of our group had stuff stolen including camera flash cards, a portable hard drive, and an I-pod. Fortunately, we had all our valuables locked in the locker.

Mendoza (population about 1 million) is a base for mountain climbing and wine tours. It is situated in an arid valley .... and is subject to earthquakes and tremours. There was a major quake in 1881which destroyed the city so most of the buildings have been built since then. Our guide told us of the most recent tremours which varied between 6 to 7 1-2 on the Richter scale.

The city of Mendoza has a good feel.It is modern, pretty, and very laid back. Ray and I did a walking tour around the city centre and visited, among other places, Independencia Square, the Legislature building, and of course the central market. The market was fun, a little like the St. Lawrence market in Toronto but much more uncontrolled. Meat products, cheese, fruit, dried fruit, spices, nuts,etc.etc. all lay out uncovered as local people buzzed around picking up their provisions. The streets of Mendoza are lined with trees and cafes, and the bougainvillea is still flowering. The temperature is probably Mediterranean and we were able to walk around during the day in short sleeves with a jersey for the evening. We are so happy to be getting back into the warmer climes.

The area around the city of Mendoza, in the Region of Mendoza, is one of the largest wine growing areas in Argentina; so, of course, we did a wine tour - on bicycles. It was a full day, but becauseof problems with the bikes,such as the pedals falling off,three flat tyres, seats coming loose,and the bus driver not knowing whereto drop us off, we werelate starting and only managed to cover two wineries, an olive oil factory,and a liqueur and chocolate factory. To reach all of these, we rode down the "second most dangerous road" in Argentina (the most dangerous is still to come!) without helmuts, between articulated trucks, local buses, tourist coaches, and mad drivers - but we survived. The two wineries we visited were very special.The first was Carinae one of the top 20 wineries to visit in the area ( This is a small boutique winery in Maipu. It is owned by a French man with a love not only of wine but also the stars - hence the name "Carina" which is a star constellation in the Milky Way which shines brightly in the grape picking season - i.e. end of March and April. Carinae is sold in Quebec through an agent and we thought it might be fun to import a case - however, the wine tasting didn't introduce us to anything we enjoyed drinking. The second winery "Familia di Tomasso" is the oldest winery in Argentina, and we toured the old wine cellars and tasted about five varieties of wine, but once again didn't find anything we really enjoyed. That was disappointing because Argentina produces many good wines - many of which we have already tasted - at 14 pesos ($5.00 Cdn) its hard not to!

Mendoza brought bad luck to another member of our group - Robin went para-gliding and her guide (there are two up together) got caught in a thermal down draft which pushed them into the side of the mountain. Robin was litterally smashed against the rock face and ended up being supported by the guide on a precautious ledge.A helicopter tried to get them off but because the cliff face was too steep to get the cable close enough, two rescue guys ended up rapelling down the cliff and brought her up on a stretcher. She has handled it all very well emotionally,still wants to paraglide again, and apart from sprained neck muscles, and one or two bruises, seems to be otherwise OK. The downside was that once off the cliff, she spent a considerable time in the hospital, being examined, getting x-rays, etc.

This is the second time one of our group have been to the Dr. Emma, sprained her ankle in El Calafate. She too ended up in hospital being examined and having x-rays. The medical system so far has been great. For Argentinians it is free although there are private hospitals and doctors too and the locals tell us you get better service there. Robin had a follow up visit in Cafayate to check out her neck and also to check her knees which have been bothering her since Ushuaia. The consultation fee was 14 pesos and the drugs about 5 pesos! I don't believe Emma paid anything for her hospital visit which included x-rays and analysis of sprained ankle.

So, Mendoza, although a sleepy town,proivded some dramatics.

Wednesday morning we were up bright and early and set off for Cafayate - after Cafayate it is Salta - all camping.- stay tuned for further excitement!
Pictures Added May 7th.
Famila di Tamasso - Carinae Winery
Hairpin Bends - Market and street cafe

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Santiago de Chile - Saturday, April 14

We had one day in which to visit Santiago where we stayed at the Casa Roja Hostel, owned by an Australian chap called Simon. The hostel was an old home probably built in the 1870s, which Simon bought as derelict and was slowly renovating in its original style. The ceilings must have been 16 feet high, and there was plenty of room in the bedrooms. We asked Simon what we should see, and followed his instructions, which turned out to be perfect for one day.

We started by visiting the Palacio Cousino, originally built by the Cousino family in 1870 to 1878. The building had been preserved in pretty much its original state, and the attention to detail in the positioning of the mirrors and glass windows in order to make it look bigger was an exciting feature to see. The contents of the house came from all around the world including, Moorish, Chinese, European, but largely French. The Palacio was not listed in our guide books, but it was a gem.

Next we went through the courtyard of the Gov. Moneda Palace where Allende killed himself. A couple of the green uniformed, handsome, policemen offered that Ray could take my picture with them, which we did. We found the people in Santiago to be very friendly. For example, we were sitting eating a hot dog in the pedestrian mall Nueva York, and a chap from Santiago started up a conversation with us; as we stepped off the Truck on arrival, a chap from the gas station beside which we parked came out and welcomed us to Santiago.

We walked through the Plaza de Armas and noted the cathedral, the law courts, and the governor´s palace. All distances in Chile are measured from this point. Next, we caught the spotless metro to Baquedano and took the funicular railway up Cerro San Cristobal. At the top, there is a beautiful, white statue of the Virgin Mary and although you might want to compare this to the Statue of Christ in Rio, it is very different. There is small chapel at the bottom of the statue where people go to pray. Soft music is playing in the background, and the effect is one of absolute peace. All the fight is taken out of you. You could sit for hours daydreaming in the tranquility. Another area allows you to light candles for loved ones, and there are pictures, letters, and cards, drawings, poetry, and even a pair of baby socks, as people thank the Virgin Mary for looking after their beloved who have died. It is all too sad. Once we collected ourselves, we then took the gondola across another part of the mountain to a residential area. We looked around some of the beautiful homes then retraced our steps to the bottom of the funicular and the Barrio Bellavista. This is a funky area full of brightly coloured discos, restaurants, and pubs. Its a bit of a Bohemian area as the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda apparently lived there. Then it was time to catch the metro back to the Hostel.

We had a couple of group dinners in Santiago one of which at the Fracas Gordas (?)(Fat Cow) was excellent. This was our farewell dinner to the 7 members of the group who were leaving and to some of the new members who were joining us. We then had a birthday celebration the following night at a Chinese restaurant and all the new group members joined us.

For us, Santiago is not one of the more beautiful cities, nor does it have a lot to see. What it does have is simplicity in its buildings and parks, and a peacefulness that seems to extend from the Statue of the Virgin Mary throughout the city.
Pictures posted May7th.
Palcio Cousino - Cerro San Cristobal
Gov. Moneda Palace -

Friday, April 13, 2007

Pucon, Chile - Thermal Hot Springs, Canopy Tour..... and the Fire - April 10, 11, 12

Our drive from Bariloche to Pucon went through some pretty, forested, landscape. The first part was on a dirt road which is always fun in the Truck. The five people in the back seat bounce up and down like a group of five year olds on a trampoline, while the groups of 6 and 4 people on either side of the Truck are jetisoned across the aisle like scud missiles as the Truck lurches through the potholes on the road. In the midst of the prettiest, most deserted part of the forested road, we rounded a corner and were abruptly stopped by a back-hoe sitting across the road clearing up some of the fallen timber whch had blocked the road. Ironically, the back-hoe had run out of diesel and was unable to move. So, traffic in both directions (only a couple of small cars and our Truck) was unable to pass. We were assured that someone had been dispatched for diesel, but we couldn´t imagine where they might go to get it. Tony, our ever resourceful driver was all set to syphon some diesel out of the Truck´s tank. Miraculously, two guys appeared from nowhere with a supply but the young back-hoe driver didn´t know how to bleed the air out of the fuel system to start the backhoe. Once again, luck was with us as one of the motorists in the patiently waiting cars was able to assist and soon we were on our way.

We arrived in Pucon in the rain, and it rained most of the time we were there. The temperature probably ranged from about 5C to 10C - so it was pretty damp and cold. Pucon, in the Chilean Lake District, is an outdoor adventure centre and the main attraction is the climb up the Villaricca Volcano which we were anxious to do. The town has no special features, just a main street lined with restaurants and tourist agencies but it is quite pretty, young, and friendly. It is situated in a small bay on Lago Villarrica and our camp site, Camp La Poza, was right opposite the Lake. Camping in the rain is not much fun, but our tents are very waterproof - actually they seem to be everything proof having withstood all the ferocious Patagonian winds - and the camp site had a wooden refugio with a lovely wood fire where we could cook our evening meals and huddle around the fire to warm up.

Dogs wander the streets in all South American towns, but in Pucon, they seemed to appear in larger numbers, and were more vicious. It is almost as if they act as sentries, taking you safely through their zone, then passing you on to the next sentry in the neighbouring zone. On the campsite, they were incredibly annoying, always following you about, and trying to get into our cook tent, or our sleeping tents out of the cold and wet. You couldn´t really blame them, but they are not like our dogs; they have no loyalty and no expression, so you soon come to see them as an annoyance as opposed to a pet to be coddled.

For the second time on our trip, the weather did not cooperate and we were unable to climb the volcano. Instead we filled our two days by regenerating our souls and pumping natural adrenaline into our bodies! The visit to the natural hot springs was an unforgettable experience. We were driven in a small van out of Pucon, through Villarrca, Liken Ray, Canaripe for about 1 1-2 hours the last part of which was on a one track road up the mountain, through the lush green lake district vegetation, with the snow capped mountain peaks looming in the distance. At times the road was no wider than some of the mountain paths we hiked. The thermal springs were constructed in a fissure, or crevice of the mountain side varying in width from about 10 feet to maybe 30 feet, and over the water fall tumbling down the mountain side through the crack. The lush green vegatation growing on the rocky sides of the crevice was like a rain forest, with huge shamrock shaped leaves, and enormous pointed fern leaves. We walked over the waterfall and up the mountain on a wooden board walk on either side of which the 17 hot thermal pools, 3 cold pools, and 2 showers were constructed. Dotted throughout were change rooms in wooden cabinas with grass topped rooves. The steam from the hot springs rose slowly from the water like the mist in a Scottish Glen. It was like a movie scene. Because it is the off season here, we (Ray, Robin, and myself) only met 4 other people in the 3 1-2 hours we were there, so we pretty much had the entire place to ourselves. The at times heavy rain falling only added to the atmosphere and we were able to each find our own space, heat-comfort zone, and relaxation. After taking the baths, we warmed up in the small cafe in front of a roaring wood fire, with a cup of hot chocolate. An outstanding setting in which to relax and regenerate the soul.

The next day, after another unsuccessful attempt to climb Villaricca Volcano, we decided to go on a canopy tour in the afternoon. We "flew" and "walked" through the air from tree top to tree top by way of a suspension bridge, a footbridge made of 2 wires - one you walked on and the other you held on to above your head, stairs, and finally by zip-line literally "flying" over the Trancura river. We were all harnessed to the various cables that hung throughout the forest, but none the less, we all had our challenges with different parts of the course. I don´t think the course would have been enough of an adrenaline rush for an experienced zip liner, but for me, it was certainly a new experience. It was as if my body was separated from my mind. I knew in my mind, that it was safe, but none the less over the suspension bridge and the footbridge, my legs were shaking so hard I could hardly balance myself. But my courage increased, and by the time I got to the zip lining, I was quite relaxed, jumped off without hesitation and flew through the air even managing a wave to the group on the other side of the river. I would say maximum height was around 80 feet. I hear that the zip lining in Salta goes over a canyon. Mmmm, not sure I am up for that one!

The night of the canopy tour, I got to bed in my tent around 12.30 - on Friday, April 13! Around 1.15 am we were wakened by our group leader shouting "fire, get out of your tents immediately", which we reluctantly did. As we did, the strong smell of burning wood hit us. Immediately behind the truck and our tents, the wooden refugio where we had warmed ourselves earlier in the evening by the side of the fire, was ablaze. We huddled together in a group watching the bright orange, red and yellow flames, leap into the black sky with the unmistaken crackling sound of a wood fire. We were conscious of the gas cooker in the refugio which could explode at any minute, and of the fact that a spark could land on any one of our tents quickly spreading the fire. Soon two fire engines arrived and after about half an hour, the fire was put out. We were lucky. Duncan, one of our group, heard the crackling of the fire, and not really beliving what he thought he was hearing got up, saw the flames, and woke our group leaders who alerted the owner, and the rest of the group. Thanks to Duncan, the fire was quickly brought under control without any further damage or injuries. As we drove out of the camp site around 7.30 a.m., I saw a very dejected young man inspecting the results of the night´s disaster. Who knows, maybe he was the owner´s son, or maybe just an employee.
Pictures of Canopy tour and Pucon area - will add pictures of the Springs when available

Monday, April 9, 2007

Bariloche, Argentina - April 7, 8, 9

At 7:00 a.m., early morning on Thursday April 6, we drove out of El Chalten on our 1300 kilometre drive from El Chalten to Bariloche. It took us two full days of driving with one rough camp beside the river in Rio Mayo. See the post "Life in the Truck" for an account of our daily activities - not much was different other than we didn´t camp on the beach, and nobody had a birthday to celebrate.

On our journey, we passed through the typical Patagonian Steppe scenery for miles, and miles, and miles. Its amazing just how many miles there are of flat land. Then on our second day around mid-day we started to see hills, then mountains, then trees and then lakes. The Argentinian road system is well established and roads are generally paved and well marked. However, roads off the main routes are still unpaved. Its all very civilized, and my fears of being hijacked by bandits in Argentina have been long abandoned. In fact, I would feel quite safe renting a car and driving through any of the areas we have been to so far.

We passed through El Bolson, which is a recently founded (1970s) small hippie town with a unique personality located about 120 kilometres south of Bariloche. We didn´t stop there, but it looked quite interesting as we drove through.

Bariloche (population about 120,000), the ski capital of South America, is situated in the foothills of the Andes surrounded by lakes and mountains such Nahuel Huapi, Gutiemez, Moreno, and Mascardi Lakes, and Cerro Catedral, Lopez and Tronador. It is known as the "American Switzerland" and Swiss influences are obvious, such as in the architecture of its stone and wood buildings, its chocolate factories and shops, its numerous St. Bernard dogs and in the local food. Its odd to see photographers in the square around the Civic Center approaching tourists to take their pictures with overgrown St. Bernards dogs and their lazy puppies. I guess in some places its snakes, some places camels, and in Bariloche, its St. Bernards! I am still trying to get my mind around the phenomonem of the Swiss culture in the middle of Argentina, a country that has such a rich culture of its own.

On our discovery walking tour of Bariloche, we came across a skating arena perched on top of a terminal for catamaran trips in the lakes and looking out across Lake Hahuel Huapi to Chile. The ice didn´t look quite what we would be used to in Canada, but the skaters were having a wild time, and that is what counts.

Bariloche is a tourist centre and whereas it is best known for its skiing (Tronador and Catedral) there are a variety of other activities such as kayaking on the lakes, rafting, para-gliding, mountain biking, and of course, horseback riding. Consistently, I chose a full day on horseback riding with the Family Haneck who have owned their estancia in the Steppes over 150 years. The riding itself was fun but the pace could have been a little faster. The horses were lovely, and my skewbald criollo horse was so sensitive I only had to move my leg a quarter of an inch and he moved on, and he responded immediately to the slightest motion of my hand asking him to go forward, to the left, to the right, and to stop. They told me I was honoured to ride him because ususally he was one of the guide's horses.

The special part of the day, was the warmth and hospitality of the family. We (6 of our group and two others) were greeted with the traditional Argentian kiss on the cheek, and warmly welcomed into their home. The father took us riding in the morning and the son in the afternoon. The mother prepared a delicious traditional meal and the brother prepared the traditional barbequeue of beef, lamb, and chorizzo sauseage over a wood fire . Desert was baked custard (i.e. creme caramel) one of my favourite deserts. Too bad for my body weight that this is so popular here in Argentina. Maybe I will eat my fill soon!

We rode through a meadow, and a forest of mixed local trees with autumnal yellow and orange leaves, then climbed up a ridge and had an outstanding view of the Patagonian steppe countryside, and the mountain ranges of Las Buiteras and Carbon. Riding the trails was so dusty as the arid soil of the steppe blew around us disturbed by the horses hooves. Our clothes and faces were quite black when we returned. We were very fortunate in the weather. The sky was absolutely blue and cloudless, and it was warm enough to ride without a jacket and just in jeans.

Ray in the meantime investigated the outskirts of Bariloche and took a ski-lift up Cerro Campanario and saw some spectacular views over the mountains and lakes. He also took a bus around the Circuito Chico, visited a beautiful golf course and came back with hopes of a golf game today, Monday. Unfortunately this has not materialized as there has been a steady drizzle all day. Its also a little damp and much colder. Monday therefore, has been a much needed rest day, lazing in the hostel, attending to administrative stuff, and now at the Internet in town. Our days are generally very busy, with little downtime, and the odd day like today is a necessity. We all feel it - and it is so much easier to relax in the hostels than at the camp sites. The hostels we have stayed in have been full of character, spotlessly clean and great amenities.

We celebrated Easter day with a group (all 25 of us including Diana and Tony) dinner at the restaurant "Bonito" just outside of town where we feasted on a cheese fondue and exchanged Easter eggs. Once back at the hostel, some of the group partied noisily late into the early hours of the morning, while the more sedate of the group, ourselves included, went off to bed around 1 a.m.

The Argentianians we have met have all been lovely. They are very warm and hospitable, have wonderful open smiles, are very courteous, reserved and cultured. They are also very social people and you can see this when you watch the way they interact among themselves. There are always hearty greetings, intense conversations, and lots of smiles and energy.

Tomorrow, we leave for Pucon in Chile and 3 nights camping before arriving in Santiago on Friday. In Santiago, eight of the current group leave us and seven new people come aboard. It will be quite interesting to see how the dynamics of the group change.

Hasta luego!

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

El Chalten - April 2, 3, 4

Monday morning around 8 a.m. we piled into the Truck and drove through the steppe-like hills to El Chalten. The approach to El Chalten was like driving into the Rockies from Calgary. You see this massive, snowy, jagged mountain range in front of you which gradually comes nearer and nearer. We must have a hundred photos because every view seems so much better than the previous shot. Finally we arrived in town. El Chalten is a small tourist town that is apparently growing, and some may say, haphazardly. If you imagine a couple of cowboys in a western movie riding slowly, and tired down the dirt main street of a ghost town, with the tumble weed blowing ahead of them, and not a soul to be seen - you might begin to understnad our first impressions of El Chalten. The gale force wind never stops. The dirt from the roads whirls through the air and is made worse by any car that drives past you - the low level buildings are built randomly with no apparent planning, and the people hurry as fast as the wind will let them past you, heads down - intent on reaching their destination. After we checked into the hostel - which is once again outstanding - clean, lots of atmosphere, good food, clean beds - no bed bugs - although we did meet someone in El Calafate who had gotten bed bugs in another hostel in El Chalten - Ray and I walked down the windy, dirt, main drag, across the Fitz Roy River to the Tourist Information office. There we learned all kinds of information about the various mountain climbs, who did them, when, and which mountain. We learned about a forest fire in 1911 which totally devastated the area and from which many parts still have not recovered. As we walked back, I began to feel a little more connected to this town and now that I have spent another day here, I am beginning to appreciate its unique character, its smallness, and friendly atmosphere. It is actually, the trekking capital of South America and a place where many come to climb the mountains such as Cerro Torre (3102 metres) and Cerro Fitz Roy (3405 metres). You might wonder about all this hiking, all I can say is it is training for the 4 day Macchu Picchu trek still ahead of us.

Today, Tuesday, Ray and I did a walk up to Laguna Torre which gave us terrific views of the Cerro Torree range. The actual walk was much easier than our previous walks in the Ushuaia and Torres del Paine and the walk itself took us about 5 hrs 20 mins and we spent an hour at the Lake eating. It ws a pretty amazing dining room with lots of cloud activity over the Torree Range and the Glaciar.

Tomorrow, I am going on a 6 hour horse ride up into the mountains and Ray is going to hike up to see Poincenot and Fitz Roy. Right now, we are staying in the hostel to eat and mingle with the rest of our group and other hikers. When we leave here the day after tomorrow, we have 22 hours of driving to reach Bariloche on the 7th.

If I don´t get to do any more posts before Easter - I hope you all have a very happy Easter, and hope you will have your families close to celebrate. We are really missing Alanna and being close to her, so we will have our celebrations when we return in June. Howerver, I do believe we are arranging some Easter celebrations on the Truck. Happy Easter!

I am really sorry about the lack of pictures - but the Internet is so slow, we do not seem to be able to upload. I will do so as soon as we can - maybe from Bariloche - so keep checking previous posts.