Archive for the ‘Americas’ Category

San Carlos de Bariloche is a small city in Río Negro, Argentina. Most people seem to call it Bariloche, and for some reason I call it El Bariloche. It’s surrounded by the foothills of the Andes and it sits on the shores of Lake Nahuel Huapi. It’s a regional tourist centre for mountaineering, hiking, and skiing. I don’t remember ever making the decision to come here, it just seemed like a natural progression on my journey from Mendoza to Tierra del Fuego. I had intended to travel down the coast of Chile and return through Argentine Patagonia. The cost of Argentina at the time I visited was considerably less than Chile, so I think this was a strong motivation. I dodged the hotel hustlers at the bus station and decided to walk into the town; I was pursued by several stray dogs as is often the case on my travels in South America. The outskirts seemed unremarkable and didn’t leave much impression. However, after checking into a local hostel I immediately set out to have a look at the town centre and the view across the lake. I was very impressed.

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Julio Roca statue

My experience of both Chile and Argentina was always tainted by watching football. My image of the people from this part of the World was always dark haired swarthy characters who either outclassed or out cheated my long suffering England team. This image is of the exotic Latin types transplanted from the back streets of Napoli or Madrid into the vast regions of the Americas. I was aware that there was an influence, especially this far south, from Germans and British. Although I knew this I never really expected to land in what seemed like mini Switzerland. The style of the centre could have been plucked from William Tell. It’s a beautiful if embarrassingly twee town. Most of the people seem overwhelmingly European, or should I say Northern European. The comparison with Santiago de Chile and Mendoza was quite striking. I felt like an outsider with my scraggily dark hair and unshaven black face.

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Centro Civico

This part of the World was settled by some Germans, the name of the town may actually come from Carlos Wiederhold who established a shop here. There were subsequent migrations of people from all the Alpine areas of Europe. Slovenians, Austrians, Swiss, and Northern Italians. The aesthetics are specifically Alpine with log cabins and those large boulder type walls, the sort you may find in Aspen, Colorado. I always wonder about ski type places whether things are built like this because they have to be or because they just feel that they should be. Is it the abundance of ‘ski lodge’ materials that lead to the ski lodge aesthetic or do people just think, well, it’s a ski lodge kinda place so let’s make it look that way. Either way, I’m not complaining. I love the place! There are many nice little cafes and chocolate shops. You can wander round looking at the semi ethnic souvenirs with an icy breeze rolling in from the lake.

It’s so far from most places, including Buenos Aires which feels another world away. It makes me wonder if it could be the perfect hiding place for Germanic types hiding from prosecution or trying to evade War Crime charges. If Hitler ever did escape before the Red Army rolled in I image this place would be a great choice. There are a couple of publications who used this area as the backdrop to their various conspiracies. To lend weight to the argument the local German School was apparently run by former SS Hauptsturmführer Erich Priebke. Anyway, that war is over and Bariloche stands as a testament to solid and tasteful Architecture with streets of old world charm. I actually returned here on the way back from Tierra del Fuego, I wish I had stayed longer!

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Arequipa, Peru is a beautiful place with old colonial squares and those traditional Spanish era churches. The main reason I visited Arequipa was to see Juanita the ‘ice mummy’, however, I also stumbled upon the serene and beautiful Santa Catalina Monastery. This monastery is a monastery of nuns of the Dominican Order. I always thought convents were for nuns and monasteries were for monks,  but what do I know? It was founded by Maria de Guzman  and built in 1579, it was enlarged in following century. The rather large monastery takes up a sizeable part of the older part of Arequipa and there are still some nuns living in the closed off part; tourists can visit the rest.peru032

This city is no sprawling metropolis compared to Santiago de Chile or Buenos Aires, but it’s busy enough in that typically Latin way with taxis beeping their horns and people squabbling loudly. The mildly chaotic atmosphere outside is hard to detect once you get inside the peaceful cloisters of Santa Catalina. There are some interesting exhibits on life in yesteryear, but by far the best thing to do is wander around the peaceful maze and get lost among the painted walls and flowers. I even found some guinea pigs nibbling on salad in one of the quieter chambers. If you know anything about Peru then you can imagine what will happen to those little creatures.


Santa Catalina is built in the Mudejar style. This is the style adopted by the Moors who remained in Iberia after the Christians took it back. It’s not as obviously Moorish as some of the buildings you would find in Andalusia, but there is more than an echo to the styles of the Al-Andalus Moors. The tiles, brightly painted walls, and vaulted ceilings would seem familiar to anyone who has seen the old Moorish buildings. This particular building is very simple and sits perfectly into the surrounding streets of Arequipa. It reminds me of the places you would see on Spaghetti Westerns with peaceful locals being harangued by angry gunmen.


I find that most of the colonial Spanish, or Iberian architecture I have seen in South America fits seamlessly into its surroundings. I think this is a combination of parts of Iberia having similar light and climate, and because the buildings have had time to age. Looking at the history of European exploration, the Spanish and Portuguese have been in America a long time. The reason I talk about this is because I have often found Anglo-Saxon colonial styles to be completely out-of-place, especially in hotter climes.

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The Perito Moreno Glacier is in the Los Glaciares National Parkin the south west of Santa Cruz Province, Argentina. I took a tour there from El Calafate and went on a boat to get close to the 60m+ high terminus which is 5 kilometres wide.  The glacier is advancing from its 30 km length. The ice cliffs sometimes collapse into the lake which creates a pretty impressive noise and an even more impressive splash. When I think of glaciers I just imagine a world of ice. The reality here is that it juts past the green forest clad hills. These evergreen hills contrast sharply against the blue ice of the glacier.

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Torres del Paine National Park is in the southern Chilean part of Patagonia. The Cordiella del Paine is the most impressive part of the park with the hugely impressive ‘towers’ or ‘Torres’. These three needles which you will see in my pictures are around 2,500m altitude. It’s possible to spend a lot of time hiking and climbing in the park but I really went to see the three towers.

I arrived from the south because I was staying in Puerto Natales which is about 1h30 or 112km from the park. Unlike most of the tourists I wasn’t staying in the park, I found it rather expensive for basic cabins, this was why I did an extremely fast ascent to get the view of the three towers. My bus to return to Puerto Natales didn’t give me much time to hike so I ran as often as I could and made a scramble over the last thirty minutes to get to the viewing point.

All experience is subjective and it was an extraordinary sequence of events that coloured my experience. I hadn’t read too much about the place before arriving in Southern Chile, it didn’t seem to be on a par with the other bucket list places in South America. I was pretty tired after jogging or at least marching to the lake from where you can see the towers. When I eventually got to the top it was…awesome.

People (mostly Americans and Australians) use the word awesome to describe many things. After seeing the Torres del Paine I don’t think I can use the word any longer. I was literally struck with awe and wonder. When I saw the view of the impossibly large granite monoliths I reeled off so many swearwords I felt like I had got a kind of condensed turrets syndrome. My feet were rooted to the ground and I felt paralysed. As I got my senses together I realised there were three people behind me who were taking some food whilst leaning against a rock. There was no confusion, they weren’t fazed and I wasn’t embarrassed by my outburst. They simply looked and listened and basically said ‘we had the same ideas’. A scene like this couldn’t even be imagined, the most impressive lands of Tolkien’s Middle Earth couldn’t compare with this site. By this stage in my ye ar long trip I had seen many things and many places. I will maintain that New Zealand is the most scenic place I have visited. However, as a single site and a single experience, the three Torres of Torres del Paine have remained the benchmark for all my experiences before and since.

I regret to describe this in such superlative language because I fear it may raise expectations before others visit, but I have to be honest, it’s the best thing I have done whilst wandering. I was also very lucky to have a clear crisp day, I have been told that the weather in Patagonia is pretty fickle. I leave you to look at the pictures, I hope they give a sense of how impressive this place really is. I don’t like having my picture taken in front of places but I include one on this occasion because I felt a real sense of achievement and I hope you can tell by my expression the wonder I felt. The picture was taken by the people on the rock shortly after my turrets outburst.

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I finally left Cusco which was hard to do, every time I ventured out I found some new places. On my last night before I caught the bus I was on a hillside next to a Jesus statue, oh… and next to an Indian woman with an alpaca, that’s Peru for you. I opted for a more economical bus than last time, I realised soon that this was a mistake. Cheaper buses are not too bad usually, there won’t be as much food and the steward will be undetectable from the general public, you put your own luggage on and tear your own ticket off, all these things are easy for me. The problem is that on these cheap buses you get the lower end of the market in terms of people. In this case mostly old native women with bundles tied to their necks and little bowler hats perched on their heads. It’s customary for me to be sat next to the little kids, drug dealers or crazy old people. On this particular occasion I thought it would be ok, a youngish guy put his bag next to me and saluted me ‘Buenas!!’. He then wandered off and I was left to think …ah well at least no screaming kid, I’ll get some sleep maybe have a brief conversation about football (I can actually converse with Peruvians as they speak Spanish using words and sentences unlike Chileans and Argentines). However, I was premature in my assumptions, no sooner was I relaxing into a state of pre-slumber than the biggest native woman ever… came and sat next to me.

                                                   As with most of the Indigenous people in this part of the world she was about 4 foot tall and 5 foot wide. Although that’s harsh. I take it back. She was only about 4 foot wide after shedding three of her blankets, these Aymara people LOVE blankets and bundles, there is no limit to the number of fine woven products they adorn themselves with. Within the many blankets and shawls a couple of niños usually pop out, the niños traditionally cause much trouble and their faces are always covered in food. This particular lady had no niños to speak of but she took all of her seat and half of mine, she also stunk of dried animal dung. Eventually I got fairly comfortable but every time the bus swung to the right (Peru is very mountainous by the way) she squashed me into the window. The discomfort got worse as the night progressed because the heaters were broken so everybody’s feet were catching a chill. The rest of the journey progressed like a bad lucid dream.

                 After a change of bus and the most informal border crossing ever between Peru and Bolivia, we reached our destination…Copacobana on lake Titicaca, by this stage the bus was mostly filled with Gringos. I chose the cheapest hostel 2 US dollars a night (15 Bolivianos) it was …basic, but ok. I found Copa to be very cool indeed. Yes it’s touristy, and most of the buildings are modern and falling apart, but there is a very nice vibe in this town. It’s a small place surrounded by the lake on 2 sides and a steep mini mountain. I suppose that’s why they named the area in Rio after this place. I had a wander up the mountainitop for sunset, it knackered me. It wasn’t a long way but this little mountain is actually 3966m above sea level, it’s hard to catch your breath at that altitude. I met a guy off the bus called Konstantin from Munich, although his mother is from Croatia, we went for some food which cost less than 1 US dollar, he was sick the next day but I survived.

                The following day was one of my best, it was the reason I came travelling and justified all the bollocks that it takes to reach a place like this. A great mixture of a boat ride, chatting to various people and a great walk on my own. I went on the boat to Isla del Sol, the legendary birthplace of the Sun(god), this was a sacred site way before the Incas, despite what the lonely planet says. After paying for a crap museum to see some rocks, we were guided up to the ruins of the temples and sacrifice tables. Near this area was a big rock that looks like a puma….hence the name Titi (puma) caca (rock). The name was a new thing to me as I always thought Titicaca meant… titi = Breast, Caca = poo. The discovery of this translation makes more sense. 

After looking around the temples and so forth we could either do the three-hour hike back to the other end of the Island or just head back for the boat. I was ambling round for a while and didn’t realise how little time I had to get back, so I set off on a mission and soon overtook most of the group on the steep climb. I took great satisfaction in strolling past the two dreary American girls with all their expensive mountain gear. Backpackers from wealthy Western nations carry far too much equipment. If you want an indication of what to pack for a trip just look at the locals. It was a short walk on a small island, take some water and a snack! If there is one mantra for backpacking it is “Half the stuff’ twice the money.”When I reached a point outside of the peloton I had a great walk.

It was totally silent and motionless; the view was amazing. The island looks very Mediterranean…like Corsica or parts of Greece, but in the distance were peaks of over 6000m, I was always surrounded by the deep ‘azure’ of the lake (Im sorry – it’s the best word) and in the distance I could make out little groups of natives tending their crops and smacking their asses, I mean donkeys. The altitude and sunlight made the walk pretty strenuous but I soon reached the end village in just under 2 hours, the only people to keep up with me were a Canadian and a Dane who told me some great stories of Amazonian adventures. They recounted a tale in which they couldn’t find a boat so they tried to build one, it didn’t work.

                                                 I have realised whilst travelling that literature is really an extension of such tales. That’s how things started before people could write. The need to share stories, exaggerate stories, or create stories. Unlike books, oral traditions are far more entertaining because you can live the experience through the expressions on someone’s face. You can also ask questions instead of leafing through the footnotes at the back. I’m the kind of person who buys books with many footnotes. I wish I could remember all the stories that people have told me but there is something beautiful about a story starting and finishing with you. Even if the storyteller remembers things word for word it will never be the same again. the moment is fleeting because of who is there and what else is going on. These stories were told on a wooden balcony drinking coca tea overlooking Lake Titicaca. During that time  we also found a stray English girl from the boat who had shunned the entire tour and gone on the trek instead. I really respected her confidence to completely ignore the tour and just wander off. If we all did that there would be no tour. I usually stay the bare minimum of time as a simple courtesy to the guide and out of respect for the destination. We had  time to kill so we took pictures of various rustic scenes from the main village. I found a Rasta donkey complete with dreads (it was young and therefore fluffy), we also found some Pigs and a load of alpacas.You are never far from kids and animals in Bolivia.

A brief note on alpacas and Llamas:

Alpachas and Llamas are actually related to the Bactrian (two hump) and Dromedary (one hump) camels of the Mongolian steppes and the Arabian deserts. You could say that these two creatures are proto-camels. Several thousand years ago the ancestor of these species travelled over Panama and eventually found its way over the now disappeared land bridge between Alaska and Siberia. This migration and subsequent genetic modifications led to the appearance of the furry Bactrians in the Gobi desert and the Dromedary of the Arabian desert, which are both of course Camels, the greatest living beings on this earth. Few other creatures are so well suited to their environment.

After eating at an unfinished restaurant and being served by a girl of 7 years we quickly got down the hill to catch the boat. On the way down the hill we saw a group of Israelis who started to ask how far it was to the top, I told them about 30 mins and very steep at that, actually it was more like 10 but hey.. they had little Indigenous kid carrying their packs. I will be cruel only to keep cosmic karma in check. Any fully grown able-bodied person who gets small kids to carry their stuff deserves what’s coming.  The journey back on the boat was much swifter than the reverse trip in the morning as I was talking to people. Time passes quickly when involved in interesting conversation, and there is usually an opportunity to scare gullible backpackers. I spent some time next to the two dreary Americans from the bus the previous day. The journey was less pleasant for them as every time one of them opened her guidebook and pored over some place I said ‘ Oh my god, don’t go there!!!’. This is a really annoying habit I have developed after several months of travelling, I don’t think anyone has actually taken my advice, at least I hope not, otherwise their journeys will be scant at best. I think one of the American girls disliked me because she was actually born in Surrey and I said it’s the English equivalent of Delaware, what do you know or care about Delaware? My point exactly. I crashed out after disembarking and later went to eat (another) trout. The trout of Titicaca are among the biggest in the world.

The brief stay and the journey to Titicaca has been one of the most rewarding. It’s a place I have seen on many travel shows and there is the great sense of deja-vu when you see the colourful villagers and the perfect blue of the water. When people imagine backpacking this is what they imagine. It really lived up to my expectations and it’s one of the few places I missed as soon as I left. The lake and rocks have always been sacred to the people who inhabit these parts and I can see why. It’s a truly special place.