Thursday, September 11, 2008

The long way home...

Every vacation must come to an end, and we have now reached the end of this little adventure...
It is 11th of September, 7:30 in the morning.
We are all packed up and at 8:00 we're taking a cab to the El Calafate airport.

The long way home looks approximately like this:
Taxi to El Calafate airport
Plane to Buenos Aires (approx. 3 hrs)
Taxi to switch BA airports
Plane to Madrid (approx. 12 hrs, starting in the evening, arriving in Madrid on the afternoon of the following day)

Plane to London (approx. 2 hrs, arriving in the later evening)
Bus/train to switch from Heathrow to Luton (not sure yet what works overnight, but we hope something is, because taking a taxi for this is way expensive)
Try to stay awake at Luton until 6 AM on the following day...

Plane to Zagreb (approx. 2+ hrs, arriving around 9+AM)

This is not the last post!
We still owe you the ride between the icebergs (now that was fun!), possibly at Saturday when we're back home, if able.
Also, in the next few days, Marko will write that description of the Inca trail, and I will add a summary of all the hostels and companies I can remember us using to provide a little guideline for those about to make a similar trip. Also, I may add a little post or two on interesting things that I just never caught the time to write about.

Anyway, this is it for now. Adios South America! Hola Europe!
See you all! :)

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Land of Ice

Hey everyone! :)
This will be one of the last posts done "on the road", and hopefully one that will cool the hot summer days of all of you back home ;)

We arrived to the last stop of our journey - a small town called El Calafate.
Even though this trip was done between Chile´s Puerto Natales and Argentina´s El Calafate - both very popular and well travelled tourist destinations not too far from each other - the road connecting them just had to be... "special":

With sheep:

Yes, we're definitely back in Argentina :)

Anyway, to El Calafate. The stories we heard beforehand told of it as a very expensive place, but it is just another average Argentinian town (cost-wise). Maybe a little more on the expensive side, being that it is a big tourist destination, but nothing too extraordinary.
We arrived yesterday afternoon and got to love the place right away.
Our hostel is very decent, with (finally) real 24/7 warm water/showers, floor heating, provided soap/shampoo and organized excursions to nearby places of interest. No breakfast is included, but there's a real good kitchen here, and for all above we're paying 35 Arg$ per night (that's around 12US$).
They even threw a third night for free if we go with them to Perito Moreno glacier (which we did today :))
Anyway, I'll post some hostel/agencies reviews and recommendations once we return home, so there'll be more on that later...

Lately glacier-oriented tourism made this town's population bloom. It has more than tripled in the last seven years (is somewhat above 20k now), and all this growth surprisingly made for a really nice place.
There are shops, restaurants and cafes all around, but unlike the other tourist-oriented places we've visited on this trip, people here are very polite. No one is stopping you on the street to try and sell you something. When you leave a shop and say "Gracias" (Thank you) you even get a "De nada" (You're welcome) in return. This is actually the first town I hear this in since this trip started.
There is a much better driver culture here as well. Personally, this is the nicest place to be in of all those we visited on this little tour.

All the shops and restaurants accept US Dollars and Euros in addition to Argentinian Pesos, which is very helpful when you've just arrived in town. Also, unlike the places so far - the exchange rate is pretty much set at 1:3 (the real exchange rate of US$ and Arg$), and people are not trying to cheat you out of your dollar value.

So, on the afternoon of day one we just scouted the town, the shops, and the excursions. We came here with two goals in mind, and two days to fulfill them.
First of them is to visit the Perito Moreno glacier, and that is what we did today.

Perito Moreno is one of the (if not the one) most famous glacier of the world. Unlike many others which are shrinking, this one is constantly growing. It is sliding down from the Andes at a rate of approximately 1 meter per day, and pushing through the Lago Argentino ("Argentine Lake", the biggest lake of Argentina, and third biggest in South America) towards the opposite shore.
Once it reaches the opposite shore, it creates a natural dam which splits the lake into two. One part of the lake then rises and creates pressure, which drills the "ice dam". In a process taking an unpredictable number of years, the dam is drilled, a hole is created (and therefore a natural ice "bridge" as well that connects the land and the glacier), and it collapses. Last such collapse occured in this July (2008), and before it in years 2006 and 2004, but before that the times between collapses were quite some years longer. When the next collapse will occur, no one knows.

However, let's arrive at the glacier first.
On the way there, we stumble upon some eagles sitting by the road observing the dawn:

The road west of El Calafate towards the glacier:

...and finally, first sighting of the Perito Moreno glacier:

A closer look as a chunk of ice breaks off:

...and a closer look at this a 16 km long, 5 km wide beast of a glacier:

There was also a boat ride included, from which we could see the glacier from up-close, with the mountain range that generates it in the background:

One last look at the glacier before setting off back to town:

Allright, I'll have to stop writing now as other people at the hostel are in need of the computer (and I'm already embarassed as to how long I'm occupying it to write this and select the pictures lol), so this will have to do for now...
Cyas! :)

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Gone to Patagonia...

As the blog address suggested, this was the ultimate goal of the trip - Patagonia. The very south of Chile and Argentina, where the winter is just ending now.

As I mentioned in the last post, from Sunday evening we were doing the Cusco - Arequipa - Tacna - Arica round, and there sat on the plane to Santiago de Chile.
First funny thing that happened at the airport there is that the elder man standing in the queue right in front of us understood that we were talking Croatian and introduced himself to us. His name was Tonci, barba Tonci (you guys home know what that means :)), and he came to Chile from Brac, Croatia some 40 years ago!
We said our goodbyes at the Santiago airport and proceeded to wait for our next flight to Punto Arenas which was going next morning.
Oh yes, and the steward on this flight was also interested in Croatia as he was of Croatian origin!

In Punto Arenas - another surprise.
The taxi driver says that 14% of town's population is of Croatian origin! Finally a place where we could have more luck with a "Do you speak Croatian?" than with a "Do you speak English?" LOL!
We saw a few street and store names hinting of this, and in the end the driver has shown us where the "Croacia" street is:

Now I know where we could move if we wanted to live in Patagonia! :P

We had only a few hours in Punto Arenas before catching the bus to Puerto Natales, the smaller fishing town which server as a starting point of sorts for the "Torres del Paine" national park expeditions.
We found a hostel here and took some time to prepare for what was supposed to be a 4-day stay within the park (it is a huge area btw. and even a week would not be enough to explore it in the most basic form)

Puerto Natales - same story again. Shops hinting of Croatian surnames, we enter them and meet more Croatians who moved here a long time ago (e.g. "Casa Pivcevic" whose owner moved here more than 60 years ago!)
On the bus to Torres del Paine, the driver doesn't speak English (of course), but a girl is on the bus who has Croatian grandparents and has lived in Croatia for a year to learn the language - thus, this is the first time here that I can talk in Croatian and someone translates it into Spanish. Most interesting, being that this is the furthest place from home we've ever been to :)

But anyway, I promised some photos last time so enough writing - it's time to show you a glimpse of Patagonia!

Our first photo day in Puerto Natales:

On the following day we finally go to Torres del Paine, and to the first of the three open "refugios" (shelters where you can stay overnight and get some food). No surprise, the owner is also from Croatia!

The refugios here - considering what they offer - are quite expensive. To stay in and just get a no-sheets bed in a no-lock dorm in which you'll have to sleep in your own sleeping bag, you'll have to cash out 45 US$.
All the food is about twice the price of that in Puerto Natales.
There is also a hotel in the park, but a night there goes for some 250 US$!

First day we arrived quite late in the park, because the supposed 2-hour ride turned into a 4-hour one. Apparently someone told our driver that he should never cross that 2000 rpm mark :P (and it was not a diesel).
After this 4-hour slugrace, we finally arrived at the park and walked to the aforementioned refugio.
The weather on the first day was not really the best (cloudy), so there were no nice photo-opportunities, but the second day made up for that.

The second day started with a great dawn promising a nice day:

Here I have to mention that we were preparing to stay in the park for 4 days. This meant we had around 20 kilos each in our backbacks (food, water, clothes, photo gear). Since there are three open refugios in the park, the original plan was to start every day by dragging the full backpacks to the next refugio (a few hours walk), and then go for explorations and photo shoots until the dark, returning to the refugio for the night.
So, on this second day, we pick our stuff (around 18 kgs by now, as some food and water is gone ;)) and head out for the second refugio. According to the maps and stories, this is supposed to be a 4-hr hike.
We set off quite slowly taking photos while the light is still good, and then - in lack of a marked path matching the one on the map - head towards a nearby lagoon at whose shore the next refugio is supposed to be:

Now things are starting to take a different turn. Many of them, in fact.
It is impossible to walk by the lagoon, so we have to go up. And back down. And back up. And so on and on :)
This now turns into a hike starting with grassy hills, and moving on through rocks, canyons, thorny bushes, impassable forrests, streams, swamps, and ultimately knee-deep snow. All with around 18-kilos on our backs and always up or downhill.
Seeing that after 6 hours we were about halfway between the refugios, and that the terrain was getting worse and worse, and that there was no "well-marked path" in sight (more like no path at all), and that if things continued the same way it was likely that we'd get caught by dark before ever reaching the second refugio, and that it was semi-starting to rain - the decision was to head back to the starting refugio and find alternative transport to the other side of the park.
Some 3 hours later, we returned more-or-less the way we came, but through another deeper swamp, so by now Marko's shoes were soaking with water.
Talk about extreme trekking...
A view back down before I finally packed the camera as it was not possible to walk with it in hand anymore:

After return, we sort of agreed about a transport tomorrow, and had a good nights sleep.
On the third day, we joined a group coming in from Puerto Natales that was in for a day-tour. The weather was nice most of the day, and being with a transport allowed us to see more in a shorter time. Luckily, this driver and the group was more photo-oriented, and didn't mind stopping for good photos:

(you can see the three peaks of Torres del Paine in the background)
A bit later we ran across a fleet of condors (again a shot with Torres in the background):

and a couple of foxes, one of which actually tried to enter our van :)

After that, we arrive at the Glacier Grey:

The Glacier Grey shore:

...and it's time to slowly get back home...

Today we just chill and rest, wash clothes and pack, back in Puerto Natales.
Tomorrow morning we go to El Calafate (back in Argentina), where we will spend two days walking on and boat-riding between the glaciers, and after that it's time to return home (Calafate - Buenos Aires (2 airports) - Madrid - London (2 airports) - Zagreb... all in all around 48 hours)

But I hope to write more from El Calafate yet before returning home...

Friday, September 5, 2008

Just a short hi...

...because we are sleeping for 4 days in a national park now and have *very* limited (and not so fast) internet time.

To recap on the last few days:
- took a 12-or-so hour bus from Cusco to Arequipa (Peru) on Sunday evening to Monday morning
- took another 6-hr bus from Arequipa to Tacna (Peru) till Monday afternoon
- took a taxi across the border to Arica (Chile) - that's the way it works here :P
- got sick of buses, got dropped at Arica airport, took a plane to Santiago de Chile (Monday evening)
- stayed up a night at Santiago de Chile airport (cool airport actually :))
- took another flight to Punto Arenas at Tuesday morning
- took a 3-hr bus to Puerto Natales
AND YES - WE'RE IN PATAGONIA NOW w00t!!! Winter time! ;)

I feel 700 US$ lighter, but also happy to have saved more than 80 hours of additional bus time (which would be a killer, and also seriously reduce any quality time down here in Patagonia)
Anyway, Punto Arenas is a cool town. Puerto Natales is a cool town.
We stayed there and chilled for a day (photos incoming as soon as I find some more decent online time), and got a 3-hr bus to Torres del Paine national park, in which we are now.

Point is, you can stay inside this park for days, and transport to-from it is what's expensive, so we decided to take food/water/clothes for 4 days (20 kg backpacks lol, but they will only get lighter as we drink/eat what's in them :P) and stay inside until Sunday.
Hopefully there will be some good photo opportunities :)

Sorry for the lack of photos now, but I have to hurry. There will be more details and photos around Monday I hope, as we'll have some time in El Calafate (Argentina).
We are now entering the last week of our journey, but Patagonia is the nicest place I've seen so far. Simply beautiful nature. But photos will have to describe that later.

See you all! :)

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Machu Picchu - other side

Hola! :)
Marko did the actual planned Inka trail hike, so he will describe how it was to survive that ;)
Since I got up the easy way *grrr*, this'll be a smaller take of mine on Machu Picchu for those not so fortunate to do the hike.

Anyway, it was arranged at the agency that I will join the bus/train combo to Agua Calientes the day before the hiking group reaches Machu Picchu, and then join them on the morning they do reach it.
Luckily, the pills I got from my Dutch friend (thanks B!!! :)) fixed my stomach, and I got there without any further toiletesque interventions.

Agua Calientes (lit. hot water) is a place where Machu Picchu visitors stay before going up. It's located some 6km away from Machu Picchu, and is a last stop of sorts, for those sleeping the night to go up in the morning.
It is a small place whose only orientation seems to be the presence of tourists here. It has one main street, which consists almost solely of stores, restaurants and net cafes. There is a river going through it (Urubamba) with several cool bridges which will bend under your feet, but the other side of that river is rather undeveloped. In fact, the whole town looks like a slum - except for the main street that connects the hot springs at the top and the town square and train/bus stations at the bottom.
On the other hand, the town is located between some quite huge steep green mountains and with the constant mists around it has some sort of a magical aura around it.

A few photos will demonstrate this better...
This is the main street of Agua Calientes:

The Urubamba river flowing through it:

And the backside of my hostel:

I wonder if it was meant to be this way or if there was a time-space anomaly in this place that made half of it disappear :/

Since I had half a day to spend here, I went to check out where the bus station is (a bunch of small buses take people up to Machu Picchu every morning), to buy some last minute supplies and find a net cafe to rest a bit (two vegetable soups and two rices in two days is no way to keep your strength lol).
The resume:
- buses start at 5:30 each morning - you should be there at 4:45 if you want to be among the first in line - by 5:30 the line will be so long that you won't see the end of it, and arriving at this time will probably mean you miss that batch and have to wait till 7:00 to go with the next one
- prices are generally twice as high as those of Cusco, and Cusco prices are already twice as high as the rest of Peru (that's my feeling at least, from the week here)
- even though the towns name literally translates into "hot waters", and my hostel specifically mentions it has "hot water", don't count on it! (unless you can shower in the first minute before it turns to cold)

Anyway, after a 4AM alarm clock (these can be annoying, eh? ;)) and some standing in line, I am finally on a bus up. The dawn is just coming and the mist is all around. Some 20-30 minutes of bus drive later we are dropped off at the entrance to the famous Machu Picchu.
What awaits inside?
Mist! :D

I am supposed to meet with my group (the now tormented hikers :)) somewhere "around the entrance", so I decide to hang around here for a while and await for them to enter. I still have some minutes until their scheduled arrival, but should not move far. And voila - in a minute the mist clears, the sky opens and a majestic image appears:

You can see Agua Calientes way below, and the winding road connecting it to this top.
As fast as it has appeared, it was gone, and everything was covered in mist again. Machu Picchu surely is a nice challenge for photographers. Many mornings could be spent here in search of perfect combination of light and mist.

Anyway, other groups keep entering and going both left (uphill) and right (downhill), but when my group fails to appear some minutes after the supposed 7:00, I decide to roam around on my own hoping to spot them within the walls of Machu Picchu once they do arrive...
My first look at the town:

And a look downhill before the clouds cleared:

Roaming around I found the group (they just entered through the top entrance from the Inka Trail ;)), and the tour began...
Some drama in the sky above the main square of Machu Picchu:

Our tour guide William looking at one of the shrines:

At the top levels there are helpful 'devices', like the stone pointing south:

a representation of surrounding mountains carved in stone:

and a stone for telling the time and the seasons:

One look at the "back" side of Machu Picchu:

And for the end - the famous "postcard" view:

One hint for all going up - beware the killer mosquitos! :P

Marko's report on the climb is coming up slowly but surely - like the climb itself :)

Today we go back to Arica by bus, where we will try to find flights all the way south to Punto Arenas in Chilean Patagonia. See you in two or three days...

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Cusco - or - shit happens :P

Ok, Cusco and shit happening are not really related, but just happened to happen at the same time :)
As Marko said, I got sick and had to miss the 3-day hike to Machu Picchu. Probably something I ate or drank, because my stomach is spinning all around and today I'm keeping myself close to the hostel (toilet ;))
I'm now on recovery program of eating light things and resting, and in two days I will take a train to Machu Picchu and meet with Marko there on the 4th day to watch the sunrise at the Sun Gate and explore Machu Picchu.

This however gives me a chance to write more about Cusco (and hopefully tomorrow look around town more, as it is an interesting town with plenty to see).

So, more about Cusco!
It is a town that is a combination of the old and the new. You can find Inka walls embedded in new houses and vice versa. It used to be the capitol of the Inkas.
The town is situated at 3300m and full of steps, so you can get pretty tired pretty quickly if you try to do things hastily.
The architecture of the town is impressive, both the Inka remains and the new Spanish churches (and there are quite a lot of these here!)

One thing you notice instantly is that it is a tourist-oriented town. The town center is full of police (e.g. a policeman at every corner of the main plaza), there are almost more tourists than locals in the streets, and the prices are not like the ones we saw at Tacna. Things are still cheaper here than in Chile or Argentina, but not all that much.
There are also many European-style shops with similar goods but also similar prices.

A typical street in Cusco, with the town in the background:

Going down the street I noticed a girl with an alpaca hiding behind the corner. As we reached the corner I took a photo of her, only to be greeted with an extended hand and the words "one Sol". So, one Sol to take a photo of someone in the street? I'm new to South America, but apparently that's normal in all the countries here. Oh well, if they pose for the photo, I can see the sense in that. Anyway, this is her:

Going further down towards the town centre, we finally reach the main plaza:

This one is full of tourists and tourist offers, from travel agencies, excursion agencies, people wanting to get photographed and shoe cleaners to people trying to sell you some pot (like one guy named "Johnny Walker" LOL).
Being that this was Sunday (or maybe some other special day?), there was a parade going on:

A sidetrack - would you buy something here and eat it? :)

Oh and this was a cute photo opportunity:

so I asked "one Sol?" and the old lady confirmed and they both posed for the shot.
The light wasn't the best, and at one shot they looked away, so I snapped 3 shots and gave her one Sol.
Then the comedy began, she was basically pulling my sleeve and pointing at the kid... oh so it's one sol for each? Now you tell me? Ok, so be it. I give the kid another Sol. But nooo, then the "3 photos" story begins and she wants 5 Sols. Strange maths happen here, but we're getting used to it :)
More math fun occurs at the smaller shopping side-streets like this one:

You can buy dozens of little hand-made things or clothes in these shops, and you're a sucker if you don't drop the price for at least 20% ;)
Anything you wish to buy - drop the price!
If you buy several things, ask a discout for that too!
If you found another seller selling below that price, put that in as well.
We dropped prices up to 50%, but I guess they could be dropped even further if you're good and speak Spanish ;)
We even negotiated the Dollar-Sol exchange rate at an exchange office, but didn't exchange anything in the end as all the exchange offices here will rip you off. The newest Footprint guide says rate should be 1 US$ = 3.25 Sols. You won't get above 2.90 in the offices in Cusco. Just use the ATM.

In the evening we climbed up to the ruins of Sacsayhuaman (pronounced by many tourists as "sexy woman" :)) from which you can have a nice look at the city:

(note the airfield in the middle of the city, quite interesting to land here consiering the town is surrounded by hills)

On the upper side of the hill, many people come for some relaxation time. This looks like the park of the city:

and here is proof that Japanese Anime has found it's way to Cusco as well :)

By the time we climbed up, it got too dark to take good pictures of the Inca walls of Sacsayhuaman, so this'll have to do for now:

More to come in the next days, some of Cusco and nearby ruins, and some of Machu Picchu (in hopes I'll be ok by then lol)