Currently sitting in a battered 'internet café' which is effectively the backroom of a small rundown newsagent in an industrial part of Tucuman, Argentina, where the weather's sh*te and the girls aren't as pretty. The lights don't work, the toilet stinks and the clunking fan above sounds as though it may fall on me any minute. Didn't plan to stop in Tucuman but there was no bus for hours to Cafayate where I'll eventually get to later today. To make matters worse, I've just seen on the net that Stevie Wonder closing the Pyramid stage is likely to clash with Orbital closing the Other stage at Glastonbury. So anyway, here's how South America has been so far…
Arrived in Santiago on the 18th Feb following a 12ish hour flight, where I arrived in Chile four hours before I took off from NZ… Met a girl in Koh Phi Phi who recommended hostel La Casa Roja in the Barrio Brasil area of Santiago so I made my way there. The place didn't disappoint, grand old former mansion that had been turned into a backpackers hostel - great atmosphere, wicked staff, nice garden with swimming pool, a bar - even cricket nets! Met some great travelers there. Spent a day walking round the city with another English lad, climbing a couple of hills that afforded spectacular views of the city. The second hill, the larger of the two, had a huge white statue of the Virgin Mary looking out over the vast city that goes on for miles and miles….Santiago is massive. From our viewpoint we could also see the snowcapped Andes on the horizon. Went out on a big night in town on Fri 19th, before leaving for Valparaiso on Sat 20th.
It was great being on a new continent again with the different sights and experiences it brings. After the relatively modern Oz & NZ, it was good being amongst some grand old architecture that seems to give the place more soul and feeling than where I'd come from. Catholicism is prevalent in S.America, most places I've been to have a number of spectacular churches and cathedrals. Religion also perhaps explains why S.America on a Sunday can feel a bit like England 15-20 years ago before trading laws were relaxed - most shops and businesses are closed here and Sundays are very quiet. One of the difficulties of this new continent, though, was the language - most other countries I've been to you can get by in English, signs and menus etc are mostly written in English alongside the native language. But not in S.America…which made ordering food and arranging transport a right mission until I learned a bit more Espana!
Negotiated my way to Valparaiso via the colourful Santiago underground followed by a 2 hour bus. The city is one of the most visually spectacular places I've been to in my life, particularly in the hilly areas of Cerro Alegre and Cerro Concepcion. The houses and buildings arranged up the winding hills are painted in a wide range of different colours, and yet more impressive was the wall art. Murals and intricate graffiti adorn many of the city's walls on all sorts of different themes - political, cultural and also simply art for art's sake. The coloured houses, street artwork and art galleries dotted about the place created a very bohemian, relaxed atmosphere. Just two nights in Valparaiso though before leaving for Pucon on Mon 22nd Jan.
My first experience of long distance S.American buses on a 12-13 hour overnight journey down to Pucon was a pleasant one - big, comfortable seats and staff coming round to bring you food and drink, wipe the windows, give you a pillow and blanket etc. On the good ones, S.American buses can feel like being on a plane. As the bus approached Pucon I caught sight of the massive volcano that I'd heard about, and was pretty amazed to see a smoking, smoldering volcano for the first time.
Pucon initially seemed to be a very quiet place, low, wooden buildings giving it the feel of an alpine resort in the summer. I found out later though that the town only really started to come alive around 2 or 3pm, when people would hit the shops and bars or sunbathe on the rather weird looking black-sanded beach (due to the volanic activity) by the lake. Spent three nights there, the highlight of my time being an ascent of the Volcano.
Made my way through the dark and deserted streets to be at the tourist office at the ungodly hour of 6 hour, before a comprehensive run through and safety explanation - all in Spanish! - and we were off in a van to the foot of the volcano. Light was just starting to enter the sky as we started the climb and it was awesome seeing the sun rise slowly in the cloudless sky over Pucon and the surrounding area, getting increasingly smaller below us. It was a pretty gruelling 4-5 hour climb, particularly when we hit the snowline about an hour or so in. The ice made it pretty hardgoing in places and meant we had to rely on our icepicks. Was all made worth it one we got to the top though, was incredible standing on the edge of a volcano crater, hearing the magma bubbling below and seeing the sulphurous smokey/steam bellow out. And the views of the lush green landscape below, punctuated by long fingers of lava flow from previous eruptions that spread out into the distance, and the Andes on the horizon, were immense. The descent was a lot shorter and more enjoyable than the climb - we strapped on a tarpaulin like 'sledge' to our arses, and flew down the volcano luge-style in tracks/tunnels dug in the snow and ice.
Left Pucon and Chile on Fri 26th Feb, bound for the Argentina…
I'm now in Salta, leaving Argentina tonight on the overnight bus to the Bolivian border. Argentina has been quality, another place I'd like to plot a return to. More in my next - necessarily more concise! - update.