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Otways & Great Ocean Road

February 26th, 2008

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Despite the weather, we went camping in the Great Otways National Park on the weekend of 22-24 February. Driving from Avalon airport, listening to the cricket, the weather set in and it was chucking it down. After fish and chips at Winchelsea, we drove on to the campsite Dave had selected, near Stevensons Falls. We did not get there till about 10pm, but got the tent up quickly, and fortunately it was not raining.

The next day we walked to Stevensons falls, which were impressive, and the first of three falls we were to see that day. A massive group of pine trees just before the falls were also lovely. We then went on to the festival for the Otway Odyessey, a mountain bike race from Apollo Bay to Forest. We saw lots of people finishing the 50km, covered in mud, and even more coming through doing the 100km, with a further 35kms to go. We were there when the winner went through for the 100km, in 5 hours 6mins, but then he had to re-do the crossing the finish line after being interviewed, as they missed the photo shot of him passing the sponsors ribbon. Bit much after 100kms uphill in muddy tracks, if you ask me.

We then went into Apollo Bay for lunch and to get dinner and breakfast supplies. Then it was on to check out Hopetoun Falls, and eventually make it to our camp spot for the night, near Beauchamp Falls. After a spot of frisbee and getting the tent up when it was not raining, we went to check out the falls, which were still great after seeing so many that day. What is it about running water from rocks.

After a gourmet dinner of (out of date) macaroni, tuna and cheese, a good bottle of red wine and chocolate mousse, we were off to bed where it rained again, but the tent held out.

The next day we went to Triplet falls (sensing a theme here), but could not be bothered walking 2.5 hours to Little Aire falls. There is only so much water you can take.

We headed off to the Otway lighthouse, which I was very excited about, being a history nerd. It is the oldest lighthouse in Australia, and was the first communication boats from Europe would have after stopping in Africa. Lots of shipwreck stories, and we got to go up the lighthouse itself. Great views and interesting machinery. I could bang on more about the history, but won’t.

On the drive back from the lighthouse, there were lots of tourists parked and with their heads to the sky. We stopped to see lots of koalas, one even walking across the road. It was amazing to see so many (I think I saw at least 5) in the wild. Very cool.

By now it was getting onto 2pm, so it was time to drive back towards the airport. But what a drive, all along the coast, and finally the sun was out. Stunning views, cricket on the radio with Australia winning, and feeling like I had been away a week, not a weekend. Tops!

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More photos can be seen here.

Torres del Paine

January 26th, 2008

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We caught the bus from El Calafate to Puerto Natales, a six hour trip which included a border crossing into Chile where I had to sacrifice some Bariloche lavender in order to save the chocolate purchased as gifts for my flatmates.

Puerto Natales is a small town off Ultima Esperanza Sound which exists as a jumping off point for trips into Torres del Paine, a mere 145kms away. Apart from some novelty rubbish bins (see picture), an excellent restaurant serving Patagonian lamb and passable locally brewed beer (Baguales), the town did not have much to entertain the tourist. Luckily therefore we scored a room in our hostel that had pay tv. We were able to watch bad movies and the Australian Open while Dave recovered from a cold and a sore back, and I waited anxiously for the arrival of the tent pole (which never made it).

After 6 days of just hanging out, many calls to DHL and a change of hotels (which no longer had pay tv) we hired a tent and set off to do the ‘W’ walk in the Torres del Paine.

We set off from Las Torres where the bus dropped us to walk to Refugio Chileno. This walk took roughly 2.5 hours, and was not too difficult, apart from the standard uphill bit at the beggining and the end. On reaching Refugio Chileno, we bagged one of the few remaining camping spots in the tiny camping area that did not have tree roots in it, and then set off to walk to the viewpoint of the Towers.

It took us about 2 hours to get to the view point. I was glad we weren’t carrying our packs, as the last bit of the walk required uphill rock scrambling that seems to be obligatory for any viewpoint in Patagonia.

Dave found a spot on a rock from which to look at the Towers, and have a bit of a rest. After taking photos, and eavesdropping on the stupid questions asked by Americans to their guide, we set back. That night, after a feast cooked by Dave of cheesy tuna pasta, we hung out in the hut for a bit to get out of the wind, and scored a free soup each from the guys running the hut as they cleaned up the kitchen. We must have looked hungry!

The next day was a steep walk for the first 30 minutes or so, and then a pleasant meander above other paths below, overlooking a couple of lakes. This went on for about 2 hours, then it got a bit tougher, the worst bit being a creek crossing (one of the few without a bridge), where they had a wire to help follow the stepping stones across, but this was placed at probably the widest and strongest current (the creek was fed by glaciers) part of the creek. Dave found a better spot to cross further down, which I nearly made it across unassisted. All up, the walk from camp to camp on Day 2 took us about 5 hours.

We camped that night at Los Cuernos, a refugio below the ‘Horns’ of Torres del Paine. For the next day we had a decision to make. We could either head for Camp Italiano (2 hours walk away), dump packs and head up the middle of the W, to see the Towers from the other side, or skip the middle bit, effectively making the hike a U, and head straight to Refugio Paine Grande (formerly Pudeto), 2 hours ‘easy’ walk from Camp Italiano.

We decided to skip the middle bit, reasoning that we had seen the towers already, and knowing that it was a very tough uphill walk to the viewpoint anyway - and we did not need to make things any tougher.

The easy walk was not that much easier than the so called medium tracks, we were hoping for no hills, which was unrealistic given the part of the world we were in. Along the way we could see on our left mountains towering above, which had glaciers sitting on top of them, and waterfalls falling along the side of the mountain, and on our right a lake of an indescrible bluey green.

We reached camp about 5pm, and scored a spot to ourselves (though when we awoke the next day we saw that a late arriver had pitched his one man tent a metre from ours. He must have arrived in around 11pm). We had just finished eating dinner, which was ruined by a dodgy can of tuna of pet food quality, purchased from the refugion shop, when a massive gust blew up and covered us and our cups of El Gato red wine in fine black dust and bits of bark (this may have improved the taste of the wine). It was an extremely windy spot, we saw tents with whole sides blown in. Due to it not being a particularly pleasant place to sleep the night, we decided to walk to Lago Grey and back the next day, and then catch the 6.30pm ferry out.

After our breakfast on the fourth day of instant porridge with sugar, powdered milk and dried fruits (very yummy, I did not get sick of it at all the whole hike) we set off for Lago Grey. Again we were able to leave our packs behind at the refugio, making it much easier to do the 21km return trip. The walk involved going through some lovely green foresty bits, and then up on the ridge alongside the lake Grey, where occasionally we could see floating icebergs, or the boat going to the face of the glacier. At the first viewpoint of the glacier, (which was furtherest from the glacier) the force of the wind made it quite an effort to keep walking, (though easier going back!) and it was pretty cold, coming straight off the glacier. Eventually, after 3 hours of walking with the occasional rest, we made it to the viewpoint directly opposite the glacier.

Maybe it was because we had seen so many glaciers of late, or the icy, gale force winds, but we did not hang around for too long, and headed back.

We made it back to the lodge with a good 1.5 hours to spare before the ferry left. We spent this downing a well earned Austral beer, in the dining room overlooking the lake. We then caught the ferry across Lago Pehoe (half an hour) and then the bus back to Puerto Natales, arriving in town about 10.30pm.

We had one last day chilling out at Puerto Natales, and then caught the bus out to Punta Arenas. We walked around Punta Arenas for a couple of hours, which had a lovely square commerating Magellan for discovering the Straights where they could export wool from the bottom of Chile to Europe and North America. The square was surrounded by massive old houses, built by the merchants rich from exporting wool. Fortunes for the town went down hill when the Panama Canal opened, meaning that ships could skip going around the bottom of South America and cut through the middle.

After wondering around town for a bit, buying some chocolate (as Punta Arenas was supposed to be the Chilean equivalent to Bariloche, but the chocolate was more of a fudge consistency, too sweet and therefore of very inferior quality compared to Bariloche) and sitting on the beach of the straights of Magellan while building construction went on behind us.

We flew back up to Santiago, flying over the small islands which make up the east coast of the bottom of South America, and we were lucky to be on the left side of the plane to get a great view.

As a bit of an anti-climax, our last day of the trip was spent hanging out in our four star airport hotel, getting reunited with the tent pole and watching tv.

Then, at 11.05pm on the 24th of January we flew out on Lan back home to reality, work, and home. Appropriately, we arrived back at Sydney on Australia Day, and two ladies dressed in gold t-shirts and waving flags greeted us after passport control, with ‘Happy Australia Day’.

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More photos can be seen here.

Los Glaciers National Parque

January 12th, 2008

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We flew from Bariloche to El Calafate on the 6th January.  El Calafate is in very southern Argentina, and is the gateway to the Los Glaciers National Park, which of course, is full of glaciers.

Now any town was going to look ugly after Bariloche, but El Calafate would have managed to look ugly even if we had come from Mt Isa. The town purely exists as a base for people to visit the glaciers, and apparently it is nearly shut down in winter.

We took an afternoon trip to the Perito Moreno glacier, as apparently there are less people there in the afternoon.  The Perito Moreno glacier is unique as it is one of the few glaciers that is actually advancing, rather than retreating, in the world.

First glance of the glacier showed it to be very big, and we then got a boat up to the south face of the glacier, to get close and personal with it.  On the deck of the boat it was very windy and very cold, but gave us a good chance to take some close photos and appreciate the size of the glacier.  It has a height of about 60 metres from the lake, and massive.

We then went and spent some time on the viewing platforms opposite the glacier. From there we could see the huge chunks of ice falling off the face of it, and crashing to the water below, while it was advancing.  The sound made when pieces came off was the best bit, really loud. Dave got a few áction´ shots of this, which was very impressive.

The next day we got a bus to El Chalten, a very small 3 hours to the north of El Calafate, and the base town for trips into the northern part of the Los Glaciers park, which has the Fitzroy massif and Torres peaks in it.

We did a guided walk in the park to Lake Torres, to then go walking on the glacier between the lake and the mountains behind.  Getting to the glacier involved hauling ourselves across a parallel flying fox, to cross a river. Would have been easier for them to build a bridge, but probably not as much of a drawcard for the tourists.

Walking on the glacier was okay, I think Dave would have liked it to be a bit more dangerous, but I was fine with it.  The guides pointed out various parts of the glacier, but my favourite aspect of walking on the glacier was being closer to the Torres peaks, one of the main features of the park.  We were lucky to have a relatively clear day as well.

On the glacier, the guides rigged up some ice climbing, and anyone who wanted could have a go.  Dave climbed the harder part of the wall, which was more vertical and harder ice (therefore more difficult to sink in the front of the crampons), and I wussed out as I was feeling lazy, and preserving what little upper body strength I have for crossing back over the river with the flying fox.

All in all, it was a fun day, and I would never have walked as far as we did (about 30 kms round trip, or so Dave overheard), to get close to the Torres, if we had not taken the tour.  On the walk back to town, which the guides left us to do ourselves as the paths were so well marked, Dave got stuck being a guide to an Argentine tourist who walked at a snails pace due to a sore knee. I didn´t have the patience to walk that slow, and wanted to get back to a shower. Hence my day was maybe 12.5 hours, and Daves over 13.

The next day we did a much shorter walk to a viewpoint to see the Fitzroy peak, only about 3 hours return. We then returned that night to El Calafate, so as to catch a bus to Puerto Natales, in Chile, the following morning.

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More photos can be seen here.

Hiking in Nahuel Huapi National Park

January 5th, 2008

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Bariloche had a double attraction for us - not just being the prime town in the Argentine lake district, but also being the base for treks in the Nahuel Huapi park, which contains a lot of the mountains and lakes.

Our plan was to do a 3 day hike, but at the end of the third day camp on the trail, for free, rather than paying for another night of accommodation in Bariloche, which is quite expensive due to it being a favourite national destination and peak holiday season.

As the shops were shut on the 1st of January, we had to do all our shopping for the trip on the morning of our departure.  By the time we got to the start of the trek, at Cerro Catedral, a little ski village out of Bariloche, and had lunch there, it was 3.30pm.

We were extremely lucky with the weather - a perfect summers day, about 23 degrees and minimal wind.  The majority of the day was easy walking, on the trail, slight uphill with gorgeous views across more lakes.

The last part of the day, 3.5 hours later, was all uphill to Refugio Frey and the campsite.  Hard going, especially with packs with 3 days of food. The hardest part for me though was the very end.  To get to the campsite, we had to cross the creek which came from Lake Frey using stepping stones.

Now, I am pretty uncoordinated at the best of time, but jumping on stepping stones with a heavy pack and tired legs was too much of a challenge.  I got half way across, until Dave had to come back and rescue me, as the next step was too much for my short legs and lack of balance, and help me across the second half of the creek.

The first night campsite, at Refugio Frey, was located on a lake which was between two massive hills, or maybe mountains, both sides with snow still on a lot of the mountains.  Wind came racing down the valley created by the mountains, and so the whole campsite was very windy.  Wind shelters had been made from rocks by previous campers, but this only blocked the first metre of wind.

We were setting up the tent, which we had carried for the entire trip, when disaster struck. Or rather became evident - when packing the tent I had not put in the centre ridge pole. 

So there we were, in a very windy campsite, with a much researched and now semi useless tent.  We put it up anyway, as it could still hold its shape without the pole, but would not be as solid. We spent that night listening to the strong wind trying to blow us and the tent away.  It was really loud, and niether of us got much sleep, but in the morning the tent was still standing.

I was a bit nervous about day two of the hike, having read on Daves friends website, Haydee and John, that it was really tough.  That was an understatement.

The day started easily enough, walking around the side of the lake, but then we had to cross straight over one of the two huge mountains.  This involved walking through packed snow onto more stepping stones, then clambering up boulders for a good two hours - very tough with a pack, which would sling me to one side if I was on all fours (and I often was) and slightly off balance.

After the boulders came a short interval of walking across snow, then more boulder scrambling to the top.

Surely down would be easy - but no.  Down was a 45 degree slope (maybe steeper) entirely of loose gravel, and a long way down to a lower valley than from where we had come. It took us at least 2 hours to get down to the bottom of the hill, most of it spent surfing our way down through the loose rubble, and a lot of time on my arse. We had come less than a third of the distance of the days hike, and it had taken us about 5 hours.

Fortunately we had a brief respite walking through the nice valley, through some forest even, and we considered just camping there, as it was already 6pm (though it was light till about 11pm), but decided to climb to the top of the ´hill´to see what was next.

The hill was a mountain that never seem to afford a look out, so we kept climbing.  The last bit I hated, going up maybe a 30 degree slope covered in snow, using previous hikers footsteps as steps.  Then more boulder scrambling to the very top.

From the top of the second mountain we could see our destination Refugio San Martin by Lake Jacob. But to get to it was another loose rubble surfing down the mountain, this time shorter in distance, but steeper.

Eventually, after wandering around the bog, and more stepping stones which Dave again had to help me across, we reached the campsite - 9 hours and two mountains later.

Day three was easy - walking through a beautiful valley following a river all the way out.  That was good, as both Dave and I were really sore, and me covered in little bruises from banging myself on boulders, from the day before.  In particular, going downhill was sore, due to the two lots of rock sliding the day before.

The first lot of stepping stones for the day had a overhead wire to hold on to get across, however I still managed to fall in the water on the last big step. The water was not deep, and I just got my trousers wet, but Dave was laughing too hard to be of assistance.

While the third day was easy, it was still long - about 6.5 hours of walking, and 20kms or so. We camped by a beautiful creek, and it was nice to get into camp early and just relax.

The next day we just had to walk an hour to the road to a bus back to Bariloche and a hot shower! We then rewarded ourselves by heading back to the microbrewerys that were closed on New Years Eve and drinking our way through the menu.

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More photos can be seen here.

Bariloche

January 1st, 2008

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We flew from the chaos of Bs As domestic airport to Bariloche on the 29th.  Bariloche is located in the Andes halfway down the length of Argentina and is probably the most stunning town I have ever see, location wise.  It is situated right on the massive Nahuel Huapi lake, which is a beautiful royal blue, and surrounded by snow capped mountains.

It is also the chocalate making centre for Argentina - at least 10 different chocolate shops in the small town centre. We figured that we were therefore obliged to try as many as we could out so as to compare the quality.  It was all very good, and relatively cheap for good chocolate.

Our first day in Bariloche it was pretty windy, but on the following day, the winds were at near gale force.  It was hard to walk around, and there were waves from the lake about 1 metre high!  All we could do was to sit in the hostel which had great water views, watch the wind waves and eat chocolate!

Fortunately the wind died down on 31st. We had a great last day to 2007. We headed out of town, along the lake to Cerro Componerio (1,049 masl), one of the mountains that fronts on to the lake - from lakeside we caught a chairlift to the top of the mountain.  Up the top, the views were even more beautiful than what we had seen so far.  The mountain was surrounded with other lakes, besides Nahuel Huapi, and what wasn´t blue lake was either green or more snow capped mountains in the distance. Absolutely stunning, and the cafe at the top served great empanadas as well.

When we got back to lake side, we walked along the road to the bicycle rent shop.  After my success in Bolivia, it was time to end 2007 riding a bike - fitting as my new years resolution is to buy one and take up cycling.  We cycled around the 30km ´circuito chico´(little circuit), which involved cycling past a lot of the lakes that we had seen from the top of the mountain, through Llao Llao park and past Argentinas most famous hotel (famous due to its position on a peninsula surrounded by lakes).  I even managed to peddle up some of the hills, and got used to using gears on the bike. New years resolution is looking good!

After the cycle, which took about 4 hours, things started to go a bit pear shaped.  We thought we would stop off at a microbrewery that we had seen on the way out from Bariloche - only to find out after getting off the bus that it was closed.  We then waited about an hour for another bus, a long wait after looking forward to a beer.

We eventually got back to town, and spruced ourselves up ready to see out the new year.  We headed back into town to find a place for a few drinks before dinner, only to find both pubs in town (and there were only two) shut. We were pretty hungry after the bike ride, so decided to have an early dinner - at 9pm instead of 10.30.  Nearly all the restaurants were capitalising on New Years by having fixed price menus which were a rip off.  We had dinner at an unsatisfactory steak house, and were finished by about 10pm.  We wondered around, looking for somewhere to either drink or at least buy some wine to take back to the hostel. All to no avail, no shops open, restaurants only doing fixed price deals and not allowed to sell take aways. Hence we were home, in bed, as we could find no drinks, by 10.30pm!

We later found out that Argentina had gone into daylight savings on the 30th, so what we thought was midnight, was actually 1am. So we didn´t even get midnight right!

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More photos can be seen here.

Buenos Aires

December 29th, 2007

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We flew from Salta straight to Buenos Aires on Christmas Eve afternoon.  I had splashed out and booked us a nicer hotel for our time over Christmas, and while the hotels we have been staying in were fine, a flat screen tv, massive bed and about 50 tv channels were definitely appreciated.

We knew that the Argentines celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve, and that they eat pretty late, but we were still surprised when the hotel concierge suggested he book our Christmas dinner for 10.30pm! The restaurant was ok, weirdly enough New Peruvian food, and when we finished about midnight, we were walking back to the hotel through all the Portenos (Bs As locals) letting off firecrackers in the street, or off balconies. 

On Christmas Day we did a self guided walking tour through the city centre, and being recovery day from the Christmas celebrations, the city was nice and quiet, making it easier to get around, and take photos without hordes of people in the way.  We did manage to find a heladaria which was open, and had a Christmas feast of two scoops and a waffle cone.

Our hotel also had free internet, so we were able to listen to the first few overs of the Boxing Day test on the ABC website, and also follow the score with Cricinfo.  The first thing and last thing that Dave did every day for the next few days was check how the Melbourne Test was going.  Understandable, as he has attended the last 4 Boxing Day tests.

On Boxing Day we did a guided walking tour through Recoleta and Palermo.  The main part of this walking tour was through the Recoleta cementary, where Argentinas rich are buried.  It was really good doing a guided tour through the cementary, as the guide told us lots of stories of those buried there.  This included the full life story of Eva Peron (Evita) but also of a girl buried there who found out in 1901 on her 19th birthday party that her mother was having an affair with her boyfried.  The poor girl was in such shock that she fell into a coma, was pronounced dead by doctors, and then buried by her family in the cementary.  Later that night the cementary workers heard noises coming from the area of the tomb, but did not investigate.  They later opened her coffin to find scratches - the poor girl was buried alive, but then died of either fright or loss of oxygen.  Apparently the mother and the boyfriend stayed together, and the boyfriend later went on to become one of Argentinias presidents.

The other story, less tragic, that I liked was of a very wealthy couple.  The bloke had all the money, and his wife loved to shop.  Fed up with her spending his money, he took out newspaper advertisements saying that he would not honour any bills she rang up in the shops (as there were no credit cards or electronic means of stopping her spending at the time).  They had a great fight, and then she did not speak to him again for the rest of his life, even though they stayed married and lived together.  He died first, and insisted that when she went she was to be buried with him at the cementary.  Befitting of their wealth, she had a huge tomb built, with a statue on top of her husband sitting in a chair.  But she specified than when she died, a statue of her was to be put to the back of his, so now they are both back to back, still not talking. I like that she had the last word!

The cementary, with all its tombs, angels and other statues was beautiful, and so we decided to listen to the stories on the tour, and go back later to take photos.

The rest of our time in Bs As we spent walking around the various must-see suburbs, including the Palermo parks, San Telmo and Boca.  We did the tour of La Bombera, the Boca Juniors football stadium, where Maradonna is still a legend.

On our last night, Dave and I went to a milonga, an Argentine dance hall to have our tango lesson.  Initially I thought I had screwed up the day, as it started with something more like a aerobics routine than a tango, and straight after they were playing salsa music, and people were salsaing.  Then they cleared the floor and about 6 couples did a demonstration of tango. Then we were divided into groups and taught some tango steps. So we did get a tango lesson with the locals, though there were so many of them it made practice of the steps near impossible afterwards. It was good to go have a stab at tango ourselves, and see people of varying proficiency do it, than pay $100 to see a tourist tango show.

On our last night, just before the tango lesson, we thought we would give the parilliada a go.  This is the typical Argentine meat dish, a selection of various meats (´from all parts of the cow´as our waitress put it) served on a hot grill. Therefore it involved offal, but I thought I might as well give it a go. One bite of kidney, however, and I was sworn back on to the lomo. Why they bother to eat the crap when they have so much of the good stuff I don´t understand.

So, after 5 days of walking, eating and dancing our way through the Argentine capital we headed back to the Andes to Bariloche.

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More photos can be seen here.

Salta

December 24th, 2007

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We left San Pedro on 21st December.  The bus ride from San Pedro to Salta went through the Andes, which meant climbing up them and then down again, which gave some great views, especially of the changing scenery of the desert on the Chilean side to a bit greener on the Argentine side.

There were a few things we wanted to do in Salta - firstly eat lots of steak, secondly (for me) buy a dress and high heels to celebrate Christmas and New Year not in backpacker clothes, and lastly to see the Andean children exhibition at the museum.

Number 1 was easy, there were loads of parillas (Argentine steak houses) and the steak was very, very good.  It was hard to choose whether to have plain ´lomo´(fillet) straight from the grill or have it with the sauces.  It was all good, and the Argentine malbec not bad either, though they drink it way too young, most bottles they served were 2007, though the year of the wine is not on the menu, so it is a bit of a lottery trying to get something less green. As an added bonus, we found that there were multiple heladarias (ice cream parlours) in town, and that was the perfect dessert.  We have been eating excellent gelato nearly every day since.

Number two objective I ruled out on our first day of shopping. Unfortunately the Salta shops had the clothes that Supre rejects.  Everything was short, tight, bright lycra. There are very few types of clothes that my travelling clothes are better than, and all of them were in Salta.

The third involved visiting the Museum of High Altitude, just off the main square of Salta. In there they had three Inca mummies, who were found perfectly preserved at the top of a very high mountain nearby.  The children were sacrificed by the Incas, which involved giving them some drug to make the sleep, then leaving them there at the top of the mountain, the cold and I think some sulphur gases then killed them while they were unconscious. 

Due to the extreme cold of the top of the mountain, they were perfectly preserved, even though over 600 years old, including their clothes, and things which were left with them of sacrificial importance.

They had one on display, and she just looked like a child asleep in a box. It was sad, and very weird, looking at her, given the age and culture she was from, but looking so alive now.

Salta is a very nice looking town, a lovely main square with a big cathedral at one end, a park in the middle and old style buildings on the other sides.  There was also another old church, San Francisco which to me looked more like a theatre than a church.

We also went to a park at the top of a hill overlooking Salta, which we got to getting a cable car. At the top was some man made waterfalls, religous statues and an ice cream place. We then walked back down and found a pub in a shopping mall at the bottom which had decent beer and to Dave´s delight, was showing the Chelsea v Blackburn game live.

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More photos can be seen here.

Feliz Navidad

December 24th, 2007

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Well it´s that special time of year again. A time to be spent with family and friends but seeing as we are in a country on the other side of the world, the celebrations will have to wait till another day.

We hope that the weather is good, there is plenty of food and booze and that the first day of the boxing day test is not rained out. Most of all though, we hope you are all well and having fun.

Merry Christmas.

San Pedro de Atacama

December 21st, 2007

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So, Dave and I arrive in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, on the edge of the driest desert on earth, expecting to catch a bus to Salta, Argentina, the next day.  We were dreaming of Argentine steaks washed down with red wine for dinner the next eve, until we found out that the bus to Salta did not leave until Friday, 3 days away.

So - what to do in a desert town that we had not planned to be in.  It was funny being stuck in a place which was the main destination for so many other tourists there.  On the evening of our second day there, we did the typical tourist bus trip, which entailed spending some time in the ´Valle de Luna´.  The landscape from the viewpoint certainly did look what I imagine the moon to be - though I wondered if it had been named before the 1950s, when we actually found out what the moon looked like.

 The bus driver then dumped us at the top of the hill, so we could walk our way down to the bottom of the valley, to soak up more of the desert-moon atmosphere.  We were then taken to another part of the valley, to see the Three Maries, a rock carved by the desert winds to have three knobbly peaks, hence thought to be praying women.  From the little ladies we walked to a old salt mine, which was really just a cave, and then driven on to climb a rock for a good view of the Ampitheatre, a cliff in the desert. 

The final destination, and probably the main drawcard for the tour, was climbing up another ridge to watch the sunset over the desert.  While this was pretty good, two things made more of an impact for me than the sunset itself.  The first was the silouette of about 1,000 tourists all sitting in a line on the ridge watching the sunset, and the second being how the Andes turned purple just after the sun had gone down.

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More photos can be seen here.

Apart from that trip, we did not do much else in San Pedro besides eat (quiche for breakfast in our favourite cafe every morning) and catch up on internet. The other local sites were salt plains, geysers and hot springs, all of which we had our share of in the Uyuni salt flat trip.

So - on Friday, finally we got to go to the land of steaks and wine.

Salt plains, silly photos and freaky coloured lagoons!

December 19th, 2007

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After flying back from Rurrenabaque, we got ourselves on a overnight bus to Uyuni, the jumping off town for tours to the salt flats.  The first part of the bus ride was okay, but after about 4 hours, the road deteriorated to a very bumpy track, and sleep was very difficult. I still managed, Dave not so much.

We arrived in Uyuni about 4.30am, not that I realised that we were actually there.  I thought the driver was taking a very long rest, and it wasn´t till 6am that I realised we had reached our destination, but as the town was not happening yet, and it was about 5 degrees outside, the bus driver just let us sleep on the bus. Uyuni was a very unimpressive town, I nearly wished the bus driver had not let us off at all.

We booked a tour for the next day that would take us through the Salar de Uyuni, a massive salt plain, and through a national park which had multi-coloured lagoons, and then on to San Pedro de Atacama, in Chile. We originally wanted to take a tour that finished in Tupiza, in the south of Bolivia, and then catch a train to the Argentinian border. We were told though that it could not be gauranteed we would make Tupiza, as the roads may be flooded due to wet season, and the train was fully booked due to Bolivian holidaymakers.

The tour was in a Toyota landcruiser, with Don Juan our driver, Ivor our guide, and then four other passengers, an English couple, Lucy and Tim and two solo travellers, Robin, a Pom, and Anna, from Sweden. They were all great fun, and made the trip.

The first port of call for the trip was a ´train cemetary´ where the Bolivians have just dumped about 4 trains in the middle of the desert, and turned it into a tourist attraction.  The trains are quite old, and all rusted over.  I am sure there would be a better use for all that metal, but it made for an interesting, if odd, site.

We then went into the salt plain, which is an amazing landscape.  The ground is white for as far as can be seen, and then distantly meets the sky hundreds of kilometres away.  We took our first round of silly shots here, but got more inventive after lunch at the Fish Island. Fish Island was shaped like a fish, allegedly, and is just a big rock in the middle of the salt plain with cactus growing on it. We went for a walk on it while Ivor cooked lunch, and one of the cactus is 1,200 years old. It was looking the worse for wear.

After an hour of doing silly shots on the salt plain, made possible as there is no horizon, so perspective in photos goes out the window, we drove on to get to our accommodation for the night - a hotel made of salt. The walls were made of salt bricks, the floor covered in salt, and even our bed was salt blocks with fortunately, a normal mattress.  There was even a salt bar, which was really cool (I thought of you, Ang and Sean, it is nearly as good as your bar). After a dinner of lama and banana (which go well together, as well as rhyming) we stayed up drinking red wine rather late.

The next day we did lots of driving and visited the yellow lake (due to sulphur), a turquoise lake (salt and sky) and finished the day with a red lake (though it was more outback dirt red-brown) due to the microorganisms in the water.  At the first lake where we had lunch we saw lots of flamingos. So I guess you could call that a pink lake - or pink spotted at least.  We also visited the stone tree, a rock shaped like a tree due to wind erosion, and stopped off at another rock to see some bescutchas, which are rabbit-like animals but with a long tail. They live on the rock, and only eat this really hard green plant, which we could not even scrape off the rock, let alone chew.

On our last day we had to get up at 4am, to go and see the geysers (or geezers, as Ivor pronounced them, to our amusement) at their best.  The geysers were at 4,870masl, and were a field of steam and boiling mud, due to water hitting the cold rocks. It was a surreal site, especially as I was half asleep. 

We then went on to some hot springs, but as it was about 5 degrees, and the water only about 25 degrees, I decided not to get in.  After breakfast we  walked to the green lake.  The lake was not looking so green, apparently it needs to be windy to do so, but the fascinating thing is that there was no life in the lake, due to it being full of arsenic. So we did not get too close to it.  Apparently six months ago a French couple climbed the volcano behind the green lake without a guide, and on reaching the top, treated themselves with a swim in the lake at the top of the volcano. It too is full of arsenic and they died. Moral of the story per Ivor, always take a guide!

We then went on to the Bolivian/ Chilean border, where Dave and I transferred to a van to San Pedro, and the rest of our group went back to Uyuni. 

We were told by the lady at the tour agency that she would reserve us a seat on the bus to Salta the following day after the end of our tour, and it would be all good. Dave was highly doubtful about this plan, and did not trust her to make the booking. Rightly so, as we found out on arrival in San Pedro that there was no bus to Salta, Argentina the next day (Wednesday), in fact there was no bus till Friday.  So we have an unexpected stay in San Pedro de Atacama.

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More photos can be seen here.