from Buenos Aires to Quito via Ushuaia
It was a cool, foggy morning on 18 October 2005 as I left Ealing for the airport. I'd been packing until 4am, and then left the house at 4.30am, so I had a hard time at Heathrow stopping myself from falling asleep and missing my flight. I managed it though, and flew west. I was flying to Buenos Aires via New York, and I arrived at JFK airport in the early afternoon, a little bit refreshed after sleeping all the way across the Atlantic.
I found my way to Howard Beach subway station and took the long ride to Manhattan. It was a beautiful sunny autumn day as I emerged at 34th St and Penn station to find the Empire State Building right ahead, and I decided to go up. The queues were not bad, but made worse by the harassment from over-enthusiastic audio-guide sellers, falsely claiming that there were no information panels at the top to try and flog their gear.
I brushed them aside, looked deliberately angry on the cheesy photo they insisted on taking of every group going up to superimpose onto a fake view and sell at an exorbitant price, and got into the lift. A short climb up some stairs at the top, and there I was, high above New York in the afternoon sunshine. London seemed a long time ago, and South America still a long way away.
I enjoyed the views, and the assault of noise coming up from the streets far below. I was tempted to stay up there for sunset, but my onward flight was at 10pm and I thought that missing it would not be good, so I came down at about 6pm, had a quick wander past some of the famous streets of Manhattan, grabbed a huge portion of cheap greasy pizza, and headed back to the airport for my flight to Argentina.
When I woke up in the morning we were flying over the delta of the Río Paraná, as it opens out into the huge Río de la Plata. It was a beautiful sunny morning as we touched down at Ezeiza airport. I got the first of what would be many Argentinian passport stamps and headed out into a new country.
I'd made a major tactical error by not checking in advance how many pesos there were to the dollar. My guidebook was published before the collapse of the economy in 2001, and as far as it was concerned the peso was still tied to the dollar. None of the currency places seemed to have a written rate up anywhere, so I just guessed a likely exchange rate based on the prices of food in the cafes, got out a reasonable quantity of pesos and grabbed a taxi for the city. The confusion continued when the taxi seemed absurdly expensive - about two days worth of travel budget for a trip into the city. And why was the price in US dollars anyway? I twigged eventually that they used the dollar symbol for pesos, and the price was only half a day's travel budget.
I stayed at the fabulous Sandanzas hostel in San Telmo, south of the city centre, where a coffee had always just brewed and the staff were always keen to help a traveller find interesting things to do. After a quick breakfast there I set off into the centre of the city, enjoying the feeling of being in a big city in a distant country. In a spaced-out jetlag haze, I walked up Paseo Colón, enjoying the hot sunshine.
I got pleasantly lost, wandering randomly down side streets and getting a feel for the place. After a while I emerged on Calle Flórida, the main shopping street, and wandered along there to the Plaza de Mayo. There was a noisy left-wing demonstration going on there, with drums, music, firecrackers and shouting, but I couldn't work out what exactly was being demonstrated about.
As afternoon turned to evening I walked back down to San Telmo, and spent the evening struggling to stay awake and talk intelligibly to other travellers. By 10pm I couldn't go any further and crashed out, not to return to consciousness for almost twelve hours.
My first stay in Buenos Aires was to be a brief one, because I'd bought a bus ticket to Asunción, the capital of Paraguay, leaving on my second evening in South America. I spend my second day in Buenos Aires feeling slighly more coherent, and hung around with Sharon from Essex who I'd met in the hostel. She'd done much the same route as I was going to do but the other way around, and was now at the end of her trip. She needed to reconfirm her ticket home so we walked up to the offices of Iberia, on Avenida 9 Julio. I liked the fact that every town in Argentina has an Avenida 9 Julio because it's my birthday.
Tickets sorted, we got a licuado at a cafe and sat in the sunshine. Licuados are fruity sweet milkshakes and I hadn't had one since I was in Central America so I really enjoyed it. Our business in this part of town done with, we walked back to San Telmo and on south into La Boca. We passed the Boca Juniors stadium and I silently cursed Maradona and his infamous 'hand of god' as we walked by.
We explored La Boca for a while, and stopped for refreshments in a lot of cafes. One was by what we'd assumed was a disused railway line and we were surprised when a freight train suddenly rumbled by.
At 6pm I headed to Retiro bus station to catch the bus to Paraguay. A huge, luxurious bus pulled in to the stand not long after I got there, and a beautiful attendent emerged. Through the darkened windows I could see large, comfortable seats and what looked like a coffee machine. My ticket had only cost £12 so it looked like my luck was in. But no - the beautiful attendant looked at my ticket with haughty disdain and told me it was for a different bus. The giant bus pulled out and revealed a much smaller, tattier bus. Slightly disappointed, I began to doze off as we headed into the Buenos Aires rush hour on our way to Paraguay.
It was a long drive through northern Argentina. Throughout the night a man a few rows behind me coughed flamboyantly, and the woman across the aisle couldn't work out how to turn her reading light off. I dozed uncomfortably. When it got light, we were somewhere in northern Missiones province, and rain was lashing down. At about 7am we got to the border at Encarnación and under heavy skies we got off the bus and trooped through immigration. I was the only foreigner on this bus, and so there was no-one around to consult with when, to my surprise, the immigration official put my passport in a box behind him and motioned for me to go on through. I walked off, confused, hoping that I hadn't just badly misunderstood what was going on, and boarded the bus again. I was very relieved when the bus driver appeared with all our passports.
We drove on into Paraguay. I had really wanted to come here because it's such an obscure place that has no reputation at all as a travel destination, known if anything for its corruption, dictatorships, and forgiving attitude towards Nazi war criminals. For the first few hours I was too tired to appreciate it though, only awaking occasionally to see forested plains with occasional hills jutting up, and the clouds slowly breaking up. By midday it was sunny. We arrived in Asunción at about 3pm, and in the capital the temperature was soaring. I got a taxi from the bus station to a hotel right not far from the city's Río Paraguay waterfront. It was friendly, cheap, and slightly squalid in a harmless, run down sort of way - perfect.
Asunción was lively in the afternoon temperatures of over 35°C. My guidebook described the city as having an 'enviable riverside setting', but I couldn't help feeling that was wildly inaccurate. The city centre lies a couple of hundred metres from the river banks, and on the flood plain was a slum, which stank. Appallingly, the slum sits right next to Paraguay's parliament buildings. Nearby lies the presidential palace, upon which Paraguayans were forbidden to gaze in the days of one crazed 19th century dictator.
But apart from the horrendous poverty right next to the legislature I enjoyed Asunción. People were friendly and the pace of life incredibly laid back. After an uneasy night's sleep in the stifling temperatures I spent the following morning walking around. A band was playing the national anthem in front of the Panteón de los Héroes and a crowd gathered in the street for some kind of celebration. I had a coffee in a bar and watched the world go by.
In the afternoon I got a bus across the eastern half of the country to Ciudad del Este. The five hour journey went quickly, with the flat but vividly green scenery of Paraguay racing by. After a couple of hours we stopped briefly in Coronel Oviedo where I bought some fruit to eat on the way, and I tried to ignore the awful, awful film that was playing on the bus's TVs. Most South American buses covering any substantial distance have a TV, and almost always the films they put on are horrible.
In Ciudad del Este my main aim was to buy a camera, to replace one that had broken two days before I left London. The city was a bit like Tottenham Court Road in London, scaled up massively and plonked down in the tropics. It hummed with Brazilians and Argentinians scouring the thousands of electronics shops for bargains, no-one too concerned about why it was all so amazingly cheap, here in what my guidebook described as the most corrupt city in South America.
In temperatures nearing 40°C, I spent a Sunday with the crowds, poring over the shops in search of a bargain. Haggling in Spanish was not terribly easy and I probably paid over the odds for the camera I got, but it was considerably cheaper than it would have been in London so I thought that was fair enough. I was also hoping to buy a Paraguay football top while I was here as I was planning to support the team in the world cup. Had I known then that they would be in the same group as England for the first round I'd have searched harder than I did but as it was, I couldn't find one. I headed out of Ciudad del Este, over the Río Paraná and into Brazil.
I got a bus from Cuidad del Este across the river to Foz do Iguassú in Brazil. The bus didn't stop at immigration, though, so I found myself illegally in Brazil. I got a bus back, then walked to the immigration post on the Paraguayan side of the river, over the bridge, and into Brazil officially. If anything it was even hotter here than it had been in Paraguay, and Foz was a ghost town on a Sunday afternoon. I managed to mistakenly get off the bus in a distant suburb and walked slowly into the centre of town.
First task was getting some Brazilian money. I had a couple of worrying moments, the first of which was finding that two of my three bank cards wouldn't work in the cash machines. The third was a Cirrus card, which the bank had told me probably wouldn't work outside Europe, but strangely it did work here. Then, on trying to leave the bank I thought I was trapped inside. Turns out the Portuguese for 'pull' is dangerously similar to the Spanish for 'push'.
Next task was buy an ice cream, avoid the hotel touts in town (they were about the only people out and about), and find a taxi to get to my hostel, out of town on the road to Iguazú Falls. It took a while for me first to find a taxi driver and then to wake him from his Sunday afternoon sleep, and by the time I got to the hostel it was too late to go to the Falls. Luckily the hostel was probably the nicest I've stayed in anywhere in the world, with a swimming pool, bar, restaurant and internet access so I chilled out there for the evening.
In the morning I got a bus to Iguazú Falls. It's one of the world's most famous waterfalls, a massive expanse of water falling 80 metres in hundreds of individual cascades. It's also one of the most visited places in South America, and I really didn't like the overwhelming weight of tourists. The crush was so great that I found myself often waiting many minutes to get close enough to a viewpoint to actually see the falls. And the overcast weather meant the falls didn't look that great anyway.
But, as the day wore on, the clouds broke up and the falls began to look better. Despite the swarms, I began to like them a bit more, and when the sun came out properly I took a cheesy little train ride to a distant part of the falls where you walk for about half a mile over boardwalks above the river to get to a viewpoint right on the very edge of the falls, as they thunder into a gorge called the Garganta del Diablo. Here I decided the falls actually were pretty amazing. I'd never stood on the lip of such a huge waterfall before, and the waves of soaking spray deterred some of the tourists as well. I was seriously impressed and spent a while there trying to take pictures every time there were a few seconds where the spray seemed to die down a bit.
Eventually I felt that I'd seen everything I could at the falls, and headed back to the hostel. The following morning I had planned to go to the other side of the falls, but an apocalyptic thunderstorm had started during the night, and carried on until the afternoon. I probably should have gone out anyway because hanging round at the hostel was extremely boring. At 4pm I got a bus to Puerto Iguazú back in Argentina, and got an overnight bus back to Buenos Aires.
Back in Buenos Aires I headed back to Sandanzas. The next major move was to head south to Patagonia, but before that I wanted to go to Uruguay.
So, early the next morning I walked up from San Telmo to the port of Buenos Aires, and tried to work out the incredibly complicated system for buying tickets. After much confusion it turned out I had to ask to buy a ticket at one desk, then go and buy it at another desk, then take my ticket and check in at a third desk, before going on to immigration at a fourth desk. The Argentine official stamped my passport, then passed it over to a Uruguayan official sitting next to him who put a Uruguayan stamp in it - possibly the narrowest border I've crossed. The formalities done with, I boarded the enormous ferry which crosses the Río de la Plata to Colonia del Sacramento in Uruguay.
It was a beautiful day and the two-and-a-half hour journey was pleasant. I was looking forward to visiting a country about which more or less all I knew was that their football team had been notoriously violent in the 1986 World Cup.
The ferry arrived at about 11am, and after I'd changed some Brazilian reals into Uruguayan pesos I headed to the old town. Colonia was like another world after the hectic noise of Buenos Aires, with quiet cobbled streets and hardly anyone around. I wandered around the old walls of the town, stopping occasionally to take photos of the views out to sea. A storm was brewing over the Río de la Plata and a large bank of thick dark cloud was slowly creeping over the blue skies, but for the moment it was hot in Colonia. A few groups of people strolled by, but for the most part I seemed to be the only person doing anything active in town. After seeing everything I could at ground level I climbed the lighthouse, the highest building in town. While I was up there a cold wind starting blowing in off the sea, and I decided it was time to head indoors.
I went to a restaurant on the square, and got a Uruguayan standard for lunch - the chivito. It literally means little goat, and in terms of size it wasn't that inaccurately named. It was an enormous fat slice of juicy steak, with eggs, salad, cheese and chips, and after I'd eaten it I felt like I was in danger of slipping into a coma as all my bodily resources were taken up by digestion.
Luckily I survived, but as I emerged from the restaurant the heavens were just starting to open. I found a cafe and had a coffee for an hour, after which there was only an hour before the evening ferry back to Argentina. The rain had stopped, and the evening sun was lighting the breaking clouds in amazing shades of red.
The journey back was a great one. It started with the sun slowly setting, with the skyscrapers of Buenos Aires silhouetted on the horizon, as we sailed away from Colonia. As the journey went on, the stars came out, and the Southern Cross shone brightly in front of us. All around us, up and down the shores of the river, I could see lighthouses flickering. I stood on deck in the warm evening air and watched the lights of Buenos Aires slowly get closer. We docked at about 10pm, and I walked back to San Telmo.
The next day I bought a ticket to Puerto Madryn, about 700 miles south of Buenos Aires and one of the largest towns in Patagonia - a name so evocative of wild mountains, glaciers, winds and rain that I found the thought of large towns there quite strange.
So I headed up to Retiro bus station for the last time, and left the homely surrounds of Buenos Aires for parts unknown. On my journey around the 'guays I'd only taken a small pack of stuff but now I was carrying everything I'd brought for the first time. I really had only brought essential stuff but the weight and bulk of my pack were pretty considerable, and my hiking pole hanging off the side was a danger to passers-by, but I got to the bus station without maiming anyone.
The Puerto Madryn bus which pulled in first was huge and luxurious, and I feared a repeat of my journey to Asunción, but this time the big bus was mine. I slept pretty well on the way down, only waking at one point to see a sky stunningly full of stars. When I woke in the morning I was in Patagonia. What a great place to be! Endless flat grassy plains extended away as far as I could see, with no sign of human influence beyond the road. Eventually, Puerto Madryn appeared out of the mesmeric plains and we arrived there at 2pm. It was a cool, sunny, windy day.
This part of Patagonia attracted immigrants from Wales in the 1800s, and it's strange to see places with names like Trelew, Rawson and Trevelyn on a map of South America. Nearby Trelew was hosting its annual Eisteddfod while I was in Madryn. Madryn itself today isn't very Welsh, though it has streets with names like Calle Jones and Avenida Williams, and the occasional Welsh flag flies.
I hired a bike to cycle to a nearby sea lion colony, Punta Loma. The colony was 17km away, not really far at all, and before I had left for South America I'd competed in a 12-hour overnight cycle race on forest tracks so I felt easily up to this. However, I faced three serious problems. First, a continuous strong wind was blowing against me; second, after a few kilometres of tarmac the road became a sandy track; and third, even the largest bike I could hire was far too small. I suspect I cut a ridiculous figure as I pedalled through the sand slightly slower than walking pace, a determined expression on my face, almost kneeing myself in the forehead each time I pushed the pedals.
It took me two hours to get to Punta Loma, and I was exhausted by the time I made it there. But it was impressive - a huge colony of sea lions, grunting and honking as they lay on the beach. There must have been a hundred of them. As I watched, the tide was coming in, and the animals were heading out for a swim. More and more of them dragged their massive frames up off the beach and into the sea, and once they were in it was astonishing to see how quick and agile they were. On land, they looked like everything was a struggle, but in the water they raced about.
As the incoming tide encouraged the last few sea lions to get off their arses and go out swimming, I decided it was time to head back to Madryn. The journey back was far more fun, with a tailwind propelling me through the thick sand a little bit faster than walking pace. I listened to some music as I rode, tried to pretend I didn't look preposterous, and made it back in about half the time my outward journey had taken, even with a brief stop at a secluded beach called Playa Paraná where a rusting shipwreck lay just off shore.
The next day, it was time to push on south, to Ushuaia - the southern-most city in the world. I was having a good Spanish day, and successfully found out how to get to Ushuaia, worked out which company was going soonest, bought a ticket and had a little chat with the person selling it, and I even managed to give my Spanish a bit of an Argentinian accent. I hit such form only rarely during my journey, and left Madryn in a good mood on a bus that would be my home for 18 hours as it rumbled another 600 miles further south to Río Gallegos, near the southern tip of mainland South America.
The journey to Río Gallegos was great. It seemed amazing to be getting a bus such a long way through such wild country. After a brief stop in Trelew the endless featureless plains began and few signs of human influence could be seen. Occasional decaying car bodies by the roadside indicated what a bad place this would be to get a puncture. The only major negative was that The Motorcycle Diaries came on the bus TV, and it would have been perfect viewing, but inexplicably they turned it off after a few seconds and put on a film so dire it makes me cringe to think of it.
But the film aside, all was good. I read Ernest Shackleton's Heart of the Antarctic, watched the bleak scenery go by, and as night fell I watched the sky fill with stars. In the morning things looked a bit colder and a bit harsher than they had the night before, and at 8.15am we arrived at Río Gallegos under heavy grey skies. I bought a ticket for the bus to Ushuaia, and left for the southern-most city in the world a few minutes later.
A strip of Chile lies between Río Gallegos and Ushuaia, and it wasn't long until we reached the border. I accidentally broke the law here by having cheese sandwiches with me - Chile strictly prohibits ingress of dairy products, and garish notices threatened enormous fines. I'd forgotten I had the sandwiches until I was safely through, which was lucky - I'm sure I'd have given myself away had I known I was being a cheese mule. Soon we reached Punta Delgado on the Straits of Magellan, where we took a ferry to Tierra del Fuego. The deep green waters of the straits were filled with small black-and-white dolphins, which followed us across, leaping from the waves.
Half an hour later we were on Tierra del Fuego - the wild end of a wild region. We drove on to Río Grande, where we had to get off the bus for a while. The wait there was enlivened when two alsations stole a Frenchman's waterproof coat and ran off with it. And then it was the final leg to Ushuaia, which took us from the flat plains of eastern Tierra del Fuego into the mountainous western half. The change was abrupt - suddenly the horizon was full of Andean peaks. The grey skies got thicker and gloomier, and as we approached the mountains rain was hammering down. We arrived at Ushuaia at about 8.30pm, and in fading daylight and heavy rain I walked to the youth hostel.
The next day I hiked up into the mountains outside Ushuaia, to see the Martial Glacier. I had my first real experience of how quickly Patagonian weather can change - twenty minutes after I set out in bright sunshine, I was struggling through a blizzard. Twenty minutes later it was sunny again. A few miles up the switchback road I reached the bottom of the trail, and set out into the forest. Half an hour up, there was a small cafe at a ski-lift station, and I stopped for a coffee as the blizzard briefly returned. Then, I climbed up to a viewpoint, where there were stunning views of the Beagle Channel and Isla Navarino, under bright sun.
Heavy cloud was soon approaching rapidly, and I left the viewpoint for a quick look at the 'glacier'. I am actually not sure whether I saw it or not - there just seemed to be a lot of snow at the top of the trail, and nothing that looked particularly glacier-like. Everyone I spoke to later who had been there agreed it was pretty rubbish, but it was still worth the trek up there for the views back down to Ushuaia and beyond.
For the next two days I was laid low with a heavy cold, probably the result of my miscalculation in not taking a hat or scarf out with me up to the Martial Glacier. I stayed in the warm hostel quite a lot, but did walk around Ushuaia. It seemed really pleasant and friendly, and my only moment of worry came when there was an anti-Bush demonstration to mark a visit by the US president to Argentina. I very much agreed with the sentiments of the demonstrators, but there were people handing out Argentine flags and I was wearing gloves with Union Jacks on them. In this part of Argentina there are signs by the road declaring that the Falkland Islands belong to Argentina so I thought I'd better hurry on by and not look too British.
Once I'd recovered from my illness, I visited Tierra del Fuego National Park. I was lucky here - the weather was great and it stayed great all day. I walked for a couple of hours along the shores of Lago Roca, reaching the border with Chile. There's a marker that says 'don't go beyond here' but nothing to stop you entering Chile illegally except a vague suspicion that there could be soldiers in the woods. It really emphasises how ridiculously arbitrary national borders are, and I put a foot across before walking back.
I really liked Ushuaia, and Tierra del Fuego, and I would happily have spent much longer there. But my time was not unlimited, and having reached the very bottom of South America, I had just under three months to make it to the Equator. It somehow seemed improbable that I would be able to get there at all from this far flung corner of the continent. There was, though, still much to see in Patagonia, and I bought a bus ticket to Puerto Natales back in Chile, from where I was going to visit one of Patagonia's legendary sights - the Torres del Paine. The bus left at 5.30am the next morning.
I had an awesome day's travelling. I was up at 4.30am, and after a quick bowl of porridge I set out into the cold morning to catch the bus to Río Grande. Various other backpacked figures were emerging into the semi-darkness from hostels along the road, and we all trooped in tired silence towards the bus stop. A blazing sunrise was starting by the time we left for Ushuaia at 5.30am, and no clouds troubled the clear blue skies until the sun was setting 16 hours later.
We stopped for breakfast at Tolhuin, on the eastern side of Tierra del Fuego, and I got a coffee and a couple of empanadas. I watched the empty plains drift by as we rolled on towards Río Grande, spotting just the occasional guanaco or two. We arrived at about 9am, and caught a bus to Punta Arenas, across the Straits of Magellan in Chile. This bus was largely occupied by a depressing group of about 20 fussy women and henpecked husbands, and as I was in a travel-snobbish mood I avoided letting any of them know I was English lest they talk to me.
As we boarded the boat to cross the straits, I realised there were two depressed young people who'd somehow ended up on the same tour as the awful group, and I chatted to them as we crossed. Their relief at a temporary escape from their nightmare travelling companions was palpable. As on the previous crossing, small black-and-white dolphins accompanied us across, leaping from the waves in groups of two or three. It was a beautiful sight in the warm sunshine.
A few hours later we were at Punta Arenas. On the way I'd had an excellent Spanish-learning experience - a bad film played too quietly for me to hear the words, but subtitled in Spanish. The outrageous predictability of the dialogue meant the subtitles were easy to get the gist of, and I learned loads. Finally, one more bus journey in the late evening brought me to Puerto Natales, access town for the Torres del Paine.
In Puerto Natales I spent a day buying up supplies for trekking. My plan was to spend six days hiking in the national park, doing the trek known as the W. An early morning bus took me from Puerto Natales to the park administration centre, passing extensive minefields along the way - a legacy of border disputes between Chile and Argentina. I was in a great mood as I left the administration centre in hot sunshine, with six days of hiking and climbing ahead of me.
My first day of trekking took me to Lago Pehoé. The walk there turned out to be probably the hardest of all that I did, as I was carrying all my food, and the scenery on the way was not particularly remarkable. A strong headwind also dampened my morale, and the hike took a lot longer than I'd hoped. Towards the end there were a number of rises, and over each one I expected to see the campsite, but each time I was disappointed. I finally got there at 5.30pm, just over six hours after I'd set off. I set up my tent for the first time on South American soil, cooked myself some dinner, and prepared myself for a hike to a glacier the following day.
My first day of real hiking at Torres del Paine was to take me up the left hand end of the W and back, to Glaciar Grey. Despite being among some of the wildest scenery in the world I struggled to muster up enthusiasm for the hike for a while, thick cloud and heavy drizzle encouraging me to have a relaxed breakfast first.
Luckily the rain stopped, and I set off at 12.30. The first hour's walk took me through a fairly nondescript gully, at the end of which the path climbed up to a small windswept lake. Cresting a rise a few minutes after that, I found Lago Grey, milky white and dotted with icebergs, stretching out in front of me. The path now wound its way along side the lake but high above it, and soon I got my first view of Glaciar Grey itself, basking in the sunshine and seeming to glow from within where beams of sunlight fell on it.
The path took a detour inland for a while, and without the lake views the trekking was not too spectacular. Occasional glimpses of the towering face of the glacier provided encouragement though, and I pushed on. I bumped into two Australians I'd met the previous day, when they'd given me some wildly inaccurate information about how far I was from the campsite. We chatted briefly but I made sure not to ask them how far it was to the glacier.
As it turned out, we actually weren't very far from it at all. At about 4 pm I reached a sign to a viewpoint, and a few minutes later I reached it. A chilling wind was blowing off the glacier and I couldn't stay there long, but the views were pretty incredible. Though I was high above the level of the lake, I was a good way below the level of the top of the glacier.
After a while scrambling over the rocks at the viewpoint, I headed back down the trail and down another path to a mountain hut on the lake shore. I cooked up some dinner there, and as I ate I heard two enormous booms from the glacier, which must have been icebergs calving off it. As I found later at the Moreno Glacier, icebergs inevitably calve just after you've left, or just as you've turned to look at something else.
I left for the trek back to Lago Pehoé, and though I didn't see any calving, the glacier looked incredible in the late afternoon hazy sunshine. Back at the camp, I ate a carbohydrate-laden dinner and drank some restorative coffees. 7 hours of hiking had been a good start to my week on the W.
My next day was an easy one - a three hour walk around the west end of Lago Pehoé, over some low hills and then around the shores of the almost-as-blue Lago Nordenskiöld to Campamento Italiano, at the bottom of the Valle Francés. I walked slowly, enjoying the scenery, and particularly liked the last section which involved crossing the wild and turbulent Río Francés on a narrow and bouncy rope bridge. I set up camp in the forest and relaxed by the river for the afternoon, enjoying the amazing views of the towering face of Paine Grande. I met my friends the Australians at the campsite and spent the evening chatting to them over a hot fire, until it was almost too dark to find my tent. I was woken several times in the night by the roar of avalanches from Paine Grande. One was so loud that it caused me slight concern about possible flash flooding, but nothing happened so I went back to sleep.
In the morning I set off up the trail to the Campamento Británico, 600m higher up in the middle of the Valle Francés. It was a steep trail, but very quickly it was high enough for the views to be amazing. Paine Grande loomed to the left, and occasional icefalls sent rumbles down the valley. Far below I could see some people hiking along to the glacier that feeds the Río Francés. The weather was perfect, with not a cloud in the sky.
Higher up, the trail levelled out and went through some forest. The trekking was not so fun without the views, but eventually I reached the campamento, and then walked a few minutes further on to a rocky outcrop above the trees. From here there were views up to the Cuernos del Paine, which seemed very close by, and down over Lagos Pehoé, Nordenskiöld and Toro far below. I'd brought my stove and sat on the rocks cooking up some lunch, listening to music and enjoying the spectacular location.
After a couple of hours there I headed back down the trail. As the sun was setting at 9pm or so, I was relaxing in my tent when there was a huge roar. I walked out to the river to see what was happening, and lots of other campers were emerging from the woods as well. The whole face of Paine Grande was obscured by a cloud of snow, and there must have been a huge avalanche from right near the top. As the cloud cleared it revealed rivers of snow pouring down the mountain which lasted for several minutes. I waited to see if there would be any more avalanches but that seemed to be the evening's show over. In the morning I packed up and headed east, towards the Torres del Paine themselves.
The next day I walked 17km along the shores of Lago Nordenskiöld to get to Albergue Las Torres, my last destination of the hike. The first couple of hours saw the path rise steeply for a while, then drop down to the lake shore and a beautiful beach. I sat down and relaxed in the hot sunshine for a while. Every now and then I'd hear the roar of an avalanche on Paine Grande from behind me, followed a couple of seconds later by its echo from the mountains across the lake in front of me.
Further on I reached the Albergue Los Cuernos, and stopped for lunch. While I was there, two tiny colourful birds seemed to be having a fight, dive-bombing each other frantically by where I was sat. One of them landed about an inch away from me, squawking furiously at the other. When his opponent flew off, he sat for a moment before noticing me and flying off. After that it was a long walk under a hot sun to the Albergue Las Torres.
The next day I set off early to climb up to the base of Las Torres themselves. Still tired from the previous day's walk, I hated the first section, known apparently to early British climbers as 'The Slog'. It's a relentless uphill stretch at an uncomfortable gradient, and it took me an hour to cover it. Then, all the hard work of getting to the top of the rise was undone because the path then dropped right back down to the banks of the Río Ascencio.
I stopped by the river for lunch, then pushed on. The next part of the trail followed the river for a while before climbing into the woods. I wound my way through the trees for about an hour, emerging at the bottom of a great swathe of huge boulders cutting down from a high ridge to the left. This, it soon became apparent, was the path, and I set off up, scrambling over the rocks. An exhausting 45 minutes later, I scrambled over one final huge boulder, and suddenly the towers were in front of me, soaring unbelievably into the clouds from a green icy lagoon in front of me.
I sat for a while by the shores of the lake, looking up at the tops of the granite towers, a mile and a half above me, as they appeared and disappeared within clouds. It had been a good hike to get here, but for serious mountaineers it would just be a prelude to the main objective of the towers.
Descending back down over the boulder field was treacherous, and I drew blood by falling heavily on my elbow. But from there things were easy, and I covered the ground back to the campsite more quickly than I had on the outward journey. I cooked up the last of my food, had a very weak coffee with all the grounds that I had left, and watched a beautiful sunset over the mountains. It was my last night in the park and I felt sad that the next day I wouldn't be cursing my slightly-too-heavy pack on a wild Patagonian trail. But as I left Torres del Paine on the bus, a gale of astonishing violence starting blowing and I was happy that I'd be spending the night under a solid roof.
From Torres del Paine, I headed back into Argentina, getting my second set of Chile exit stamps and fourth lot of Argentina entry stamps. I got a bus past a series of minefields - legacy of long-running border disputes between these two countries - then along the shores of vivid blue Lago Argentino, to El Calafate. After the wilderness of Las Torres, this was quite a dramatic return to easy travelling. El Calafate is one of the major tourist towns of Patagonia, and it is well supplied with cafes, bookshops, hotels and tour operators. And I was here for the same reason everyone else was - to see the Moreno Glacier.
For independent travellers the options seemed limited. The only buses that went to the Glacier came with a guide, and so reluctantly I booked a place on a tour and hoped it wouldn't be too cheesy. I was well out of luck though - the journey to the glacier was an exercise in herding the punters from sight to sight, with guides telling people to get off the bus and photograph whatever they were pointing at, and then thirty seconds later rushing everyone to get back on. I focussed my irritation on a spectacularly annoying man who was wearing inappropriately smart shoes and awful clothes, and telling everyone what an adventurous traveller he was when this was clearly just about the most daring thing he'd ever done. By the end of the day I really detested him.
When we got to the glacier we were shepherded along a short trail which took us down to the shores of the lake, and then to a view of the glacier. Even though I was trapped in tour hell I was still impressed at the vast towering cliff of ice, and the jumbled mess of icebergs in front of it. And thankfully, at this point the guides disappeared and said 'be back at the bus in three hours'. Happy to be away from smart shoes man and the others, I had a look around the glacier.
It surprised me. I'd seen glaciers close up in Iceland, but they were nothing like as huge as this one, which pours off the South Patagonian Icefield and is one of the few advancing glaciers in the world. Most startling was the noise, an almost constant soundtrack of creaking and grinding. Clearly, something was going to fall off soon, and I was almost certain I'd be looking in the wrong direction when it did. And so it was, a couple of times, until I finally saw a huge lump of ice fall off just as I looked at a particularly precarious piece of glacier. An icy wind was blowing off the glacier, and it was raining occasionally, but later on the sun tried to break through. The weather over the icecap seemed to be improving, and the views of sunlight on the ice in the distance while we were still in gloom were pretty impressive. Not long before I had to get the bus back to El Calafate, two condors slowly glided down the glacier from over the icecap.
I had a day to kill before the next bus to El Chaltén, my next destination. I lazed around in cafes and caught up on e-mails from home, and also met an Irish air traffic controller. She was interesting as I'd never met an air traffic controller before, but also worrying because her sense of direction was so bad that she wore a compass on her wrist. "But as soon as I sit down at the controls, I know exactly where everything is", she claimed, but I think I might avoid flying into Shannon for now.
From El Calafate I got a bus to El Chaltén, a great journey around the shores of Lago Argentino, stopping at a remote estancia for a coffee, then along the shores of the other big lake of the region, Lago Viedma. Heavy clouds and fading light made the glaciers bearing down into the lake look very threatening. We arrived in El Chaltén in lashing rain and high winds at about 10.30pm, and the word was that bad weather was expected for the next few days.
But the next day dawned bright and clear, and I bought myself some provisions and set off for a two day hike, to Campamento Poincenot near the base of Cerro Fitz Roy. The walking was excellent, with the path quickly rising up to some incredible views back down over El Chaltén. After an hour or so, Cerro Fitz Roy came into view, soaring into the sky in the same astonishing way as the Torres del Paine. The path went through some woods for a while, and on this section I found a huge woodpecker hammering away at the trees. He was unconcerned as I took photos of him from just a couple of feet away.
I wanted to get up before dawn the next day to see the Sun light up Cerro Fitz Roy. My alarm didn't go off, and when I woke up at 5.45am the granite tower was already blazing red in the dawn light. I grabbed my camera and coat and rushed out to a nearby viewpoint. Luckily I hadn't missed the most spectacular light, but I had forgotten to grab my gloves. It was well below freezing, and very soon I couldn't feel my fingers. As the Sun rose slowly higher, the light on the towers gradually got less spectacular, but the air got fractionally warmer and before too long I regained the use of my hands.
Later in the morning I set off to walk up to Laguna de los Tres, at the base of Cerro Fitz Roy. I was cold and tired and I walked slowly. The trail wound gently up to the tree line, at which point it became much steeper and I walked even more slowly. Before long the path was winding through thick snow. Suddenly, just as at Torres del Paine, I crested a rise and there was the mountain right in front of me. A few minutes more to cross a rocky outcrop and I was by Laguna de los Tres, frozen and covered in snow. Far below to the left was Laguna Sucia, liquid and deep green. While I was there several avalanches raced down the steep slopes into Laguna Sucia.
There had been no-one else up at Laguna de los Tres when I arrived, but now lots of people were appearing over the ridge. A haze was thickening over the clear blue skies so I headed back down. Still tired out from the cold and my early start, I trudged wearily back down to Campamento Poincenot to grab my tent, and then right back down to El Chaltén again. The next day I set off for more hiking, this time to a lagoon at the base of Cerro Torre.
I walked very quickly and shook the tiredness out of my legs with a half hour speed-walk up a steep hill just outside El Chaltén. For the most part the walk was not very interesting, but when I finally got to Laguna Torre I found myself surrounded by snowy mountains with a close-up view of Glaciar Grande across the water. Heavy clouds over the glacier hid Cerro Torre from view, but the views were none the less impressive. What was also impressive was the strength of the wind blowing down the valley, which as I stood on the lake shore actually made it impossible to stand up when it gusted. I sheltered behind a rocky ridge, popping up occasionally to take photos of the lake, the glacier, and the streams of snow being whipped off the mountains by the wind.
I could see a huge bank of heavy black cloud heading my way, and thought it would be prudent to head back to El Chaltén. I walked as fast as I could, with the black cloud gaining on me slowly. Luckily I'd just got to some forest after a long stretch in the open when the weather finally caught up with me, and was somewhat sheltered from the heavy snow which began falling.
It seemed like it might be quite difficult to head north from El Chaltén except by travelling right back over to the east side of the continent where the endless plains allow good roads. Luckily, though, there are occasional buses which use Ruta 40 to get from El Chaltén to Los Antiguos. My guidebook described Ruta 40 as 'one of the world's worst roads, passing through some of its most boring scenery', but I've been on that road, it's in Zambia. So I headed north on this road, and actually I found some of the scenery pretty spectacular. We passed through some astonishingly remote places, tiny villages with just a house or two and a cafe which must get no business at all except when buses pass through. The sun shone and I dozed a lot of the way. Late in the afternoon we stopped at Perito Moreno, where a lot of passengers got off, before turning east along the shores of Lago Buenos Aires, South America's second-largest lake. Snowy mountains lined the shores of the deep blue lake.
Late in the evening we arrived at Los Antiguos, a small town by the border with Chile. I tried to find a camp site but discovered that the municipal site was three miles out of town. I didn't feel like walking several miles along an unlit road in the dark, but the hostel in town was full. However, the woman at the hostel phoned her friend Gladys, who appeared to operate some kind of overspill accommodation in her house. I ended up in Gladys's spare room, feeling slightly ill-at-ease in her very large but very quiet house with no other travellers around. I was having a bad Spanish day and failed totally to make any conversation throughout my stay. I was glad to leave early the next morning.
I headed back into Chile. Chile has very strict regulations about bringing fresh produce into the country, which promise vast fines and possible jail terms for those surreptitiously importing evil substances like cheese. At previous border crossings checks had been cursory, but here the seven of us on the minibus were very thoroughly searched. As my bag was being emptied I heard another passenger being asked "Who sold you this orange?". I had bought a sandwich that morning and had failed to declare it on the form, but luckily the border guard believed me when I said I'd forgotten I had it. Eventually, after a lengthy investigation, we were all allowed to pack up and get on the way into Chile.
I spent a quiet day in Chile Chico, a small town on the shores of Lago General Carrera. Apparently the town is a major fruit-growing centre because it has a very sunny microclimate. I spent the night at a slightly odd 'hostel' that was just some spare rooms in somebody's house, along with five other travellers who had also arrived from Argentina. We all chipped in to cook a feast of a dinner, and stayed up very late, eating, drinking and talking.
The next day we all got a boat across the lake to Puerto Ibáñez, a beautiful few hours on the waves with towering snowy peaks all around. The lake was pretty choppy and everything outdoors quickly got pretty soaked with spray, but there was not nearly enough space in the small covered area for everyone. But along the way I got talking to a girl from Finland, and she managed somehow to find us two spare seats in the covered area. As we approached Puerto Ibáñez, the waters calmed and I went outside again to watch the beautiful mountains gliding past. When we docked I got a bus to Coyhaique, at the south end of the Carretera Austral.
I spent a couple of relaxed days in Coyhaique, always intending to go walking in the surrounding hills but somehow never quite getting there. The town was laid back and seemed quite bourgeois, with a well-to-do atmosphere and nice cafes on pedestrianised shopping streets. It also had the biggest supermarket I had seen in South America, with all sorts of produce that you wouldn't expect to find in a small rainy town in Patagonia.
I had wanted to get a ferry up the coast from Puerto Chacabuco, not far from Coyhaique, but it appeared that boats only go from there at random irregular intervals. A company which used to do the run had gone bust due to rising fuel prices, and it seemed I would have to go north by bus. This was no disaster though, because the road north is no ordinary road, but the legendary Carretera Austral, which runs through the wild temperate rainforests of seldom-visited central Patagonia. Early on a Sunday morning I walked through the rain-soaked streets to the bus station and caught a minibus to Chaitén, a few hundred miles further up the country.
There were about 12 of us on the bus, all locals apart from me and two Italians. We drove out of Coyhaique under heavy skies, and before long rain was falling. Gloomy mountains covered in dense forest rose all around. I hadn't been able to get a coffee before leaving Coyhaique so I was relieved when we stopped after a couple of hours at Villa Mañihuales, a tiny village with a warm cafe where I got my coffee and a nasty empanada containing some kind of gritty meat.
A bit further north we stopped for a while in a deep valley with a wild river rushing through it. I wasn't sure why we'd stopped but it turned out that a new bridge was being built here and they were about to dynamite the rock face. I took photos in the drizzle, and stretched my legs. A colossal explosion rocked the valley, followed quickly by two smaller ones, and with that we all got back into the minibus and drove on.
In the afternoon the road took us through Parque Nacional Queulat, which was stunning. Impossibly steep mountainsides were covered in lush forest, with mist draped over everything and snatches of cloud hanging on the mountaintops like candyfloss. Wild rivers and towering waterfalls plunged into the valleys. North of Queulat we reached the town of La Junta, which had a giant statue of General Pinochet on its main street. Some locals got on, others got off, and the journey continued. The road, previously potholed and bumpy, became smooth, and we soon reached Chaitén, 12 hours after we'd left Coyhaique. For the first time on the journey it wasn't raining.
There was a boat from Chaitén to Puerto Montt leaving the evening after I arrived. I spent my spare day exploring the nearby Parque Pumalín, with the two Italian girls who had arrived with me from Coyhaique. The park had been controversial in Chile, being private land, owned by a non-Chilean, and stretching from the coast to the Argentinian border, apart from a narrow strip in the middle. People were sceptical of the owner's motives.
Ignoring the politics of the situation, we asked around Chaitén and found a friendly guy called Juan who had a 4WD and was willing to drive us up to the park for the day. As it had been ever since Coyhaique, the weather was not great, although the rain had eased off from being torrential to just being quite heavy. Most of Pumalín is inaccessible without serious preparation, but we drove for about an hour north of Chaitén, to a place where a couple of trails run a short way into the park. The first took us to some waterfalls, and the second through a grove of alerce trees. Alerces are the largest tree in South America, and are related to the Giant Redwood. They take hundreds of years to grow to their full size but they are now endangered due to centuries of exploitation. It's illegal to cut down living alerces, but apparently it's very common for people to strip them of their bark or set fire to forests so they can harvest the dead trees which are not covered by the law.
The massive sombre trees dripped on us as we walked through the grove. By this time all four of us had slipped at various points on the trail - two of us had a left leg covered in mud while the other two had the right leg. We decided it was time to head back to Chaitén, and I was looking forward to going further north where the weather might be drier.
The boat north was supposed to be going at 11pm but when I bought a ticket I found out it was running late and would not be leaving until 3am. I had many hours to kill but luckily Carlito, the owner of the place I was staying, said I could wait in the hotel even though I wasn't paying for an extra night. He was waiting up for the ferry as well, as his daughter was on board, and I spent a lot of the evening trying to improve my Spanish by talking to him. He turned out to be an ardent Pinochet supporter, and was quite aggrieved that after years of legal wranglings, the ex-dictator had just been stripped of his immunity from prosecution and put under house arrest.
Carlito's view was that the general was 90 years old and should be enjoying a quiet life instead of facing jail, and that although lots of bad things happened during the dictatorship, the responsibility for them lay not with Pinochet but with other senior government people. Carlito was not just a fan, he'd actually met Pinochet on several occasions and had had dinner with him when he visited Chaitén. "A lovely man", he said earnestly. He asked me what I thought, and I tried to explain my feelings on the situation while avoiding getting kicked out and having to spend the small hours on the streets. In the end my Spanish wasn't really up to making complex political arguments, and we talked of simpler things until 2.30am. Then he drove me to the ferry terminal and I got on the boat, looking forward to a long journey up the Pacific coast.
We pulled out into the ocean at about 4am, and I watched the lights recede until we were in inky blackness, then slept uncomfortably on a reclining chair. I had wanted to get up and watch the sunrise, but in the end I slept through it and by the time I awoke it was broad daylight. A small serving hatch opened and I got a slightly oily-tasting coffee and a sandwich, and went up on deck to watch the mountains on the shore slowly drift by. We were sailing through the straits between the island of Chiloé and the mainland, and the waters were calm. I found a ladder up to the top of the boat, which had a sign saying 'crew only', but two old men climbed up it and told me no-one would mind, so I went up as well and enjoyed the panoramic views of islands and boats dotted across the sea.
We arrived at Puerto Montt at 3.30pm, almost seven hours late, and I hurried to the bus station to get a bus to Pucón, a couple of hours further north and situated at the base of the constantly erupting Volcán Villarrica. I got there at about 11pm, checked into a hostel and headed straight for the shower, finally getting out of my shoes which were still damp from Pumalín.
Pucón is a popular place to go in Chile, with all sorts of adventure sports happening in the surrounding areas. For me, the big draw was Volcán Villarrica, a perfect Fuji-like snow-capped conical mountain to the south of town, which has an active lava lake in its crater. I wanted to climb it, and get closer to lava than I'd managed on previous trips to active volcanoes in Sicily and Central America. I'd seen lava fountains at Etna, watched glowing house-sized boulders tumble down the mountain side at Arenal in Costa Rica, and listened to the roar of Volcán Santamaría as I camped on its summit in Guatemala, but here I had the opportunity to stand on the rim of an active crater.
Disturbingly, I was woken on my first morning in Pucón by wailing air-raid sirens. Not quite knowing what was going on, I looked out of my window half expecting to see a cataclysmic volcanic eruption underway, but Villarrica was just gently steaming and the sirens stopped as soon as they had begun. They went off several times during my stay, and I never worked out what they signified. Around town there were various signs detailing the procedure should any volcanic emergency occur, but they didn't mention air-raid sirens at all.
At 7am the following morning I was in the offices of a climbing company, kitting myself up along with two Germans and four Spanish women, getting ready for the climb to the top of the 2,850m mountain. I'd watched an amazing sunrise over the volcano, and the weather looked like it was perfect for climbing. By 9am we were at a ski station at the edge of the snowline, getting on our crampons and setting off for the top. Wearing heavy rigid boots suitable for ice climbing made the going slow at first, but I soon got used to them and wanted to up the pace a bit. Unfortunately the Spanish women proved to be appallingly unfit, and although we had two guides with our group of seven and could have split up, our guides kept us all together at the slow pace. I got more and more frustrated, and started talking to the Germans in German to slag off the Spanish women. The three of us agreed that they shouldn't have been allowed to climb, and united in our anger we trudged on up the ever-steepening slopes.
I could see clouds coming in from the east, but we continued at our interminably slow pace. The Germans taught me useful insults and we cursed our way up. By 2pm we had only a few tens of metres to go, but had to wait while one of the Spanish women overcame terrible laziness to motivate herself to carry on. At about 2.30pm we finally made it to the crater's edge, at the same time as the clouds, and for a few minutes I was furious as visibility was reduced to zero. Luckily it was patchy cloud and soon after the summit was uncovered, revealing a small patch of glowing lava, steaming away. Soon a small explosion sent lava spattering around inside the crater, and then a much larger explosion hurled glowing chunks to some height above the crater rim. We could feel the heat strongly, and despite my annoyance with the Spaniards I was enjoying this.
We walked a little way around the crater to a better viewpoint, and I took as many photos and videos as I could. Unfortunately the cold meant that my digital camera batteries ran out ridiculously quickly and I only managed to catch one small explosion on video. Then suddenly the earth shook and the lava lake fountained out a huge spray of molten rock, which covered the area we'd been standing just a few minutes before, and sent some other climbers running for cover. "We'd better get out of here", said the guide. Having climbed for five hours I'd wanted to spend a little bit more than 20 minutes at the top, and I told him I'd wait until I'd seen one more explosion, and would catch them up. The Spaniards set off down, I saw one more good explosion and felt the tremendous heat from the molten rock, before reluctantly heading down.
I was still in a bit of a bad mood, but when I realised that our plan for descending a mile and a half back to the snowline was to sit down and slide I got a lot happier. The slopes were so steep that we quickly built up tremendous speed, and I had to use my ice axe to stop myself from sliding out of control. Although I feared that it would result in me picking up fragments of optics and electronics at the bottom of the mountain, I decided to take some footage of the descent, and managed not to drop the camera. Barely 45 minutes later we were back down at the snowline, and even though the Spanish women even managed to be really slow at sliding down icy slopes, we returned to Pucón pretty pleased with the day. I spent the evening watching the mountain top glowing red in the distance from the shores of the lake at the edge of town.
The next day I realised that despite my best efforts with sun block, I'd missed a bit. The sunlight reflecting off the ice had burned my septum, and it was astonishingly painful. I spent the day moisturising intensively and trying not to breathe through my nose. I was aching from the climb despite its slow pace, and spent most of the day relaxing by the lake. But I had to move on, and at 5pm I headed for Temuco, to catch the overnight train from there to Santiago.
The train to Santiago was incredibly uncomfortable. I'd been tight and bought the cheapest ticket, which was for a non-reclining seat. It seemed to be designed so there was no realistic way of lying down or doing anything but sitting bolt upright, so I didn't manage to get a huge amount of sleep. I quite liked the restaurant car though, where my ongoing efforts to become a vegetarian were again spectacularly thwarted. There was an extensive menu, and I asked for various likely things which proved to be unavailable, before the server said to me "Look, in fact all we have is steak, and you can have a large one or a small one". I ordered the small one, which when it came was spilling off the sides of the plate.
Having failed to sleep, I was in a bit of a daze when we arrived at Santiago's Estación Central at 7am the next morning. I liked Santiago straight away when I found a cafe on the station serving real, delicious coffee and good cakes as well. Suitably caffeinated, I set off to work out the metro system, get into some accommodation and then explore.
I walked to Cerro San Cristóbal, an Andean foothill rising high over the city to its north. A funicular railway runs to the top and I headed up there, staying to watch the sun set. It was a beautiful warm evening, and I found it difficult to get my northern hemisphere head around the fact that it was early December.
I spent two more days in Santiago, and I didn't really do very much. The next day was a Sunday, and the centre of town was tranquil and quiet. There was a market along the pedestrianised streets, where I found some english-language paperbacks. I had long since read all the books I'd brought with me at least twice so I was glad to find something new to read, even if the least trashy book I could find was by Michael Crichton. And on the Monday I managed to buy a whole Saturday Guardian, for not so much more than it would have cost in the UK.
While I was in Chile, political activity was intensifying in advance of upcoming presidential elections, and Santiago was humming with demonstrations, leafleting, campaign stands and speeches. Having failed to stand up for the late Salvador Allende against Carlito in Chaitén, I was pleased to find a Communist Party campaign stand doing vibrant business in Santiago. I bought a Communist Party mug, made a small donation, and felt that my conscience had been assuaged slightly. But it took another blow when I got into a lengthy conversation with a dapper old gent in the Plaza de Armas, who was if anything more pro-Pinochet than Carlito had been. "Just another few years of the dictatorship would really have sorted this country out", he said. His view was that socialism had failed here because the people hadn't really believed in it, and that most people were relieved when the military took over. But he was without any doubt from the wealthy classes, and I wondered if the majority of people really had been relieved when the air force bombed the presidential palace and Allende died in the ruins.
Before I headed towards northern Chile I spent a day in Valparaíso. On a blazing hot morning I got the bus there from Santiago and spent a fantastic day wandering around its colourful streets. I've rarely been to a city so atmospheric as this one, and I felt that the air was somehow heavy with history. The city sprawls over cliffs which rise incredibly steeply from the ocean, so steeply in fact that roads are often impossible and the only way to ascend is via clanking miniature funicular railways a hundred years old that feel like they might crash back down to sea level at any moment as they laboriously climb to the heights. I wound my way from one end of the city to the other, alternately ascending and descending. Up high it was quiet and serene; down low it was loud and active and a little bit hostile.
I got a bus from Santiago to Antofagasta, 1100km north and sandwiched between the Atacama Desert and the Pacific Ocean. During the evening, at a stop somewhere in Chile's wine-growing country, a man got on the bus selling small cakes, and I tried to buy a couple, but I didn't quite catch what the price was and tried to pay with a note that was ridiculously too large for the transaction. He didn't even try to explain - he just snatched back his cakes, threw my note back at me and stormed off the bus. Luckily, a friendly girl sat across the aisle from me shared her cakes with me, and told me that trying to pay for 50 peso cakes with a 5,000 peso note was not a good thing to do.
We stopped at La Serena at midnight, and then I slept until dawn. When I woke, it was like I was in a bus on the surface of the moon - we were in the Atacama. Not a single living thing could be seen in the harsh grey rocky desert, and we were surrounded by brown hills which looked like lumps of plasticine dropped from a great height. I thought I was dreaming when I saw a giant hand reaching up from the desert, a little way away from the road, but it turned out to be La Mano del Desierto, a sculpture by Mario Irarrázabal. We continued up the Inter-American Highway to Antofagasta, and it seemed crazy to me that, nominally at least, this was the same road I'd travelled on five years ago in Central America. A road connecting this place to the misty mountains of Guatemala seemed impossible.
By 10am we were in Antofagasta, and my first mission was to get coffee. Inexplicably for a South American bus, they'd only served tea for breakfast, and so I set off under the tropical sun to the nearest cafe. Unfortunately, they served me a cup of undrinkable filth, so I went to the next cafe where I got a better one. A third cup at the next cafe along was better still, and now I was ready to look around. I spent a few hours in the city before getting a bus deep into the desert to Calama, a spectacular journey in the late evening sun. I arrived in Calama at 10pm, and set off for the centre of town, which was about a mile from the bus station. I started off walking quickly, but soon realised that I was now 2,400m above sea level and walking quickly was suddenly quite tiring. Gasping for breath, I walked slowly into town.
Calama is a mining town and not particularly nice. Apparently since the Spanish colonisation, 400 years ago, it has rained once, and that was in 1972. I'd wanted to go and see the copper mine at Chuquicamata, where Che Guevara and Alberto Granado had seen the foreign exploitation of Chile's natural resources in 1952, but I'd arrived on a Friday and there were no tours over the weekend. So I just spent a day relaxing in the unforgiving sunshine, watching life on the main drag and buying occasional viciously cold cokes and amazing cakes from a friendly cafe over the road from my hotel.
I stocked up on more cakes from the cafe across the road before leaving Calama to go to San Pedro de Atacama. The bus journey took us through some forbidding Atacama scenery, rocky canyons and exposed plains and barely a speck of green in sight, and it seemed amazing to me that people could make a journey like this, through some of the harshest terrain in the world, by bus. My fellow passengers were mostly locals and I looked around at them, feeling some kind of envy that they lived in this remarkable place.
I arrived in San Pedro in the early afternoon, and the sun beat down on the low whitewashed buildings which glared fiercely. I found a hostel and checked in, and wandered around the tiny village, quickly exploring more or less all of it. It was clearly a town that lived off tourism, but it didn't seem as in-your-face about it as El Calafate or Pucón had been. El Calafate seemed to be built with wealthy visitors in mind, while Pucón was a middle-class Chilean sort of place, but San Pedro was definitely about backpackers. It made for a sociable time but I never much like places where local culture has been overwhelmed by outsiders. It's the central problem of travel really - I want to visit amazing places and see spectacular things, but I don't really want anyone else to.
I hired a bike in San Pedro, and spent a day exploring the surrounding desert. Fortunately I got a sensible machine, far more realistic a proposition than the contraption I'd hired in Puerto Madryn and definitely up to the task of cycling in the driest place on the planet. I started by heading north to the Pukará de Quitor, a hilltop fort which was the site of a last stand during the Spanish conquest. The views from here over the desert showed what an anomaly San Pedro is, with trees and vegetation in an otherwise unremitting sea of light brown.
Further north, I spent a while in the Quebrada del Diablo, a twisting narrow canyon that cuts deep into the hills. I don't know how far I went down it - I started by cycling but before too long the floor of the canyon was too rough to make that worthwhile, so I left the bike and went on by foot. It was an amazing place - just hot sand, orange rocks and blue skies, and if I stood still and held my breath the silence was total. It was obvious that water had rushed violently through here at some point, but extremely hard to believe that could ever happen in the arid heat of the middle of the day.
After the Quebrada, I headed a little bit further down the road to what was allegedly the Inca ruins of Catarpe. But either I didn't go to the right place, or Catarpe is really rubbish - there seemed to be nothing at all to see except a stone wall which could have been built yesterday. It was now far too hot to realistically explore any more, so I headed back to San Pedro for lunch. I'd taken plenty of water and drunk pints and pints, but still I'd almost lost my voice thanks to the extreme dryness. I found a shop selling ice cream in San Pedro and decided that for health reasons I should buy some. One portion left me feeling only partially restored, but a second had me feeling like doing more cycling, and as the afternoon heat gradually receded, I set out for the Valle de la Luna, an area of rock formations 17km south of San Pedro, to catch the sunset there.
This was far less fun than the morning's cycling had been. Earlier, there hadn't been even a breath to disturb the hot stillness, but now in the late afternoon a wind had sprung up from the west, and it was getting stronger by the second. Although it was much cooler than it had been, the wind was hot, and it felt like I was cycling into a hairdryer as I slowly pedalled down the tarmac toward the valley. The scenery was stunning, barren beyond belief and with towering volcanoes fringing the horizon, but I was beginning to get angry with the wind. After a few kilometres the tarmac stopped and I was on a sandy track, with the wind still blowing right at me, and every time I stopped for a second to catch my breath, the wind seemed to drop to nothing, only to start up again when I pushed off. At times I even struggled to cycle downhill. I cycled on in a furious rage, cursing the desert and the wind and thinking I could have been sat on an air-conditioned tour bus which would have cost me less than my bike hire had.
But eventually the valley appeared, and as soon as I wasn't cycling any more I enjoyed the cycling I'd just done. The valley looked alive in the blazing evening light, and I scrambled up the sides to get stunning views over the surroundings, with Volcán Licancábur standing solemnly over everything. After the Sun had set the light quickly began to fade, and I set off for the return cycle. This was massively more fun, and with the wind behind me it took me barely half an hour to get back to San Pedro. By the end of the journey it was almost dark except for the light of the full moon, and I felt pretty pleased with 50 kilometres of cycling in the world's driest desert.
In an ideal world, after a day of cycling in the desert I'd have had a lie-in to recover. But I'd booked myself onto a trip to the geysers at El Tatio, and for reasons I really can't begin to understand, these geysers only erupt for a couple of hours after sunrise. This meant that seeing them required a 4am start. My guide book said that the lights of San Pedro were off between midnight and dawn, so I thought I might see some good skies, but they've obviously got some better electricity since the book was published, and I waited for my minibus under a lit streetlight. The bus arrived shortly after 4, and we drove off into the night. After about half an hour we stopped to have a look at the sky, and it was absolutely stunning.
I dozed during the rest of the journey. The air was getting thinner and colder, and even though I'd been at about 2000m above sea level for almost a week, the sudden rush to over 4,000m was quite taxing. As dawn began to break, we were passing through the village of Machuca, and half an hour before dawn we were at the geysers. The temperature outside was almost -10°C, and we were on a plain 4,300m above sea level, surrounded by mountains a few hundred metres high, with steam rising all around and a deep velvet blue sky overhead.
I set off to explore straight away. The ground was frosty in places but hot in others. Having seen geysers in Iceland, at first I thought these ones were not too impressive. The most powerful was only throwing water up a couple of metres, compared to Iceland's finest, Strokkur, which jetted out columns of water up to 15 metres tall. And all of these geysers were in almost constant eruption, rather than the occasional jets from Strokkur. But these were more impressive in their own way, especially because they covered such a large area. And the biting cold of the Altiplano dawn meant that each droplet of water left a trail of steam behind it, and everything was wreathed in mist.
As soon as the Sun came up, I liked El Tatio more. The warmth was tangible and the light on the geysers was impressive. Also fun was the breakfast provided by the people I'd come with - they put a box of eggs in one hot pool, and a carton of chocolate-flavoured milk in another, and within a few minutes we were eating delicious soft-boiled eggs and drinking hot chocolate. Overhead, the interplay of sunlight and ice particles was creating a circumzenithal arc, something I'd never seen before.
It was quite eerie when the geysers began to die down at about 8am. It seemed like someone was turning off the heat, and that perhaps the whole thing was somehow artificial, generated only for the tourists. By 9am only a few wisps of steam still rose into the warming morning, and it was time to head back down to San Pedro. I was starting to feel the effects of the altitude now, and was glad to be descending again. We drove to Machuca and stopped there for lunch. It's a spectacular place, a tiny village lost in the brown Atacama, but with a glowing white church to make it stand out. They were selling empanadas at a fairly extortionate price, but it was clearly a poor village and I didn't begrudge them this revenue source. Besides, by now my head felt like it was about to explode any minute, and I was hardly able to convert from Chilean pesos into pounds anyway.
We drove for a long while on a plain about 4000m above sea level, spotting herds of vicuña well camouflaged in the brown background. As we began to descend, we got a puncture, and stopped for about half an hour to fix it, which seemed like forever given my pounding high-altitude headache. I was incredibly relieved to get back to the relatively dense atmosphere of San Pedro at 3pm, and spent the afternoon recovering lazily.
Over the previous month I'd travelled from the ice-bound fjords of Patagonia more than two thousand miles away, all the way to here. From northern Scotland to Timbuktu is about the same distance. Chile had been an amazing place but I had less than two months left until I needed to be in Quito so I had to move on. Sprawling across thousands of square miles of southern Bolivia between San Pedro and the nearest Bolivian town of Uyuni is the largest salt flat in the world, and I hooked up with Sebastian from Germany and Pia and Signe from Denmark to cross it. We would travel across in a 4WD driven by Victor from Bolivia.
The Bolivian border is only thirty miles from San Pedro but it's more than 2 kilometres higher, and the rapid ascent was a bit risky from the point of view of altitude sickness. My trip to El Tatio had been good for acclimatisation, though, and I felt OK as we waited in the thin air to get our passports stamped. Near by, an old bus was decaying into the desert sands. It seemed a strange place to have a border, and I wondered just how boring it must get here on a slow day, with absolutely nothing here but the border itself - no town, no shops, no scenery.
Our first stop was Laguna Blanca, just a short distance from the border. It's a deep green mineral lake, which sits at the base of Volcán Licancabur. San Pedro was just on the other side of the mountain, hardly any distance at all, but it felt like we were in a different world, here in the thin air and harsh terrain. I walked down to the chalky muddy shores of the lake to take some photographs before we drove on to Laguna Verde, a little bit higher up and further on. Here we found hot springs, and we took a warm bath in the hot Altiplano sunshine. I made a huge tactical error in not putting on more sun cream - somehow, although I've spent a lifetime getting sunburnt even in the Arctic, I thought I would not get burnt in the midday sun 4,000m above sea level in the tropics. Within twenty minutes my shoulders were a terrifying red, and I knew I was in for an uncomfortable few days.
It was a great place for a dip, though, in fantastically warm water and surrounding by vast wild high-altitude desert and a horizon dotted with volcanoes. None of us were yet feeling the effects of the altitude and the mood was good as we headed yet higher, to Sol de Mañana, 5,000m above sea level and apparently the highest geothermal area in the world. A few roaring holes in the ground were spattering mud, and steam was rising from everywhere. At this altitude there is barely half the amount of oxygen you get at sea level, and I was beginning to feel a bit spaced out. I tried to take some video footage of the mud geysers, but didn't even notice until later that I was taking stills by mistake. I was glad that our destination for the day was 700m lower than here.
We headed on to Laguna Colorada. We arrived in the mid-afternoon and the lake was bright red, with flamingoes dotted all across the waters. What looked like steam rising from the lake in the distance was apparently salt water whirlwinds, a common site here. We were staying here for the night, at Campamento Ende, a meteorological station on the south-western shore of the lake, and we were all now feeling the altitude. My trip to El Tatio had definitely done me some good, acclimatisation-wise, as had the trip up to Sol de Mañana and back down to here, and I went for a walk while the others rested, but I was still totally exhausted if I walked even a few metres uphill. I took a lot of photos of the lake, which was getting redder and redder due to mineral reactions in the sunlight, and the thousands of flamingoes strutting about in the shallow waters.
Night fell not long after 6pm, and the temperature plummeted. I stood on the shores of the lake, breathing the thin cold air and watching a thunderstorm in the distance, until 9pm when the generator at Campamento Ende was shut off, and the only light was coming from the moon. I went to bed exhausted by the altitude and slightly dreading the 6am start we were apparently planning for the morning.
The early start was not too brutal - I slept well even in the thin air, and woke feeling fine at 5.30am. The others felt better too, and more up for a day of sightseeing than they had been yesterday. The lake, so red the previous day, was now more or less all blue. We breakfasted on mate de coca, crusty bread and scrambled flamingo eggs and left Laguna Colorada at 7am.
Our first stop was a group of stones sculpted into weird and wonderful shapes by the winds of the high Altiplano. The centrepiece is the Arbol de Piedra, a stone 'tree' which stands on an implausibly thin base and looks as if it could be toppled with a light push. A few other vehicles were there, and a few people were trying to topple it, but all found it impossible. We spent half an hour or so scrambling over the rocks, looking around at the desert and the mountains and the wilderness, before setting off. There were no roads here, just dusty tracks which we almost seemed to glide along in the 4WD. Victor had a CD of reggaeton music, and was becoming worryingly fond of one particular track as we ploughed through the thick sand. It was beginning to drive us slightly mad, but would become the almost constant soundtrack to our Altiplano journey.
We stopped at Villa Alota for lunch. It was a strange place, just a few dozen houses in the middle of nowhere and more or less deserted. Victor left us eating lunch while he gave someone a lift somewhere, which took an hour or so, and then for reasons we couldn't work out he drained all the fuel from the car into a large tub, before refilling it. Then we had a pretty boring afternoon of driving through the desert to the village of Chuvica, which sits right on the edge of the Salar de Uyuni. The Salar looked strange in the evening light as we arrived, glistening in the sun and stretching away as far as the eye could see.
I got up at 5am the next day to watch a beautiful sunrise over the Salar. Then, after a quick breakfast we got onto the highlight of the journey which was seeing the Salar itself close up. We drove straight out onto it, which was oddly disconcerting, and followed vague trails marked on it. It struck me that it would be extremely easy to get lost if the weather wasn't ideal, but today it was and the Sun beat down. After an hour or so we stopped in the middle of nowhere, to have a look. Having learnt my lesson at Villarrica, I put plenty of sunblock everywhere, including underneath my nose, and got out into the the shining white. The surface was just slightly crunchy to walk on, and for my own satisfaction I verified by taste that it really was salt. I thought of taking a lump home as some kind of souvenir but imagined it would soon crumble into a really lame souvenir.
Further across the Salar we came to Isla Incahuasi, rising weirdly from the salt ocean and covered in cactuses. We climbed up to the top of the island, and also walked out a little way from the island into the Salar. The endless salt on all sides made me feel very thirsty just looking at it, and I was glad we were carrying huge amounts of water. After taking some panoramic shots of the island, we drove on, and after a brief commercial stop at a hotel made out of blocks of salt, we came to the end of our journey at Uyuni.
Uyuni is a dusty town surrounded by desert and salt plains in the middle of the Altiplano. There's not a whole lot to do there. My immediate problem was that it was a Saturday, all the banks were closed, and none of the cash machines would accept my card. For a while I thought I would be sleeping on the streets, but after much asking around I found one exchange place that would give me Bolivianos in exchange for my debit card and a fearsome 10 per cent commission. Money sorted, I checked into a hostel, ran up the two flights of stairs to my room, remembered that I was at 3500m above sea level and collapsed on to the bed wheezing, while everything turned purple and starry for a bit.
I hadn't wanted to spend any time in Uyuni, but the following day was the presidential election and for reasons I couldn't entirely understand, this meant that no long-distance buses were running. I bought a ticket to Potosí for the day afterwards, and spent the day of the election at the Cementerio de Trenes, Uyuni's one famous sight. It's an incredible place - about a mile out of town along the rusting railway tracks, a huge area covered by decaying trains. I walked to the Cementerio with a few other travellers I'd met, and as we started out the weather was hot and the sun fierce. In the distance we could see what looked like very heavy rain, which was slowly moving towards us. As it got closer we could see it was not rain but a sandstorm, and it was actually coming quite fast. We wondered whether we should head back to Uyuni, but I thought it would not reach us, because there was a warm wind blowing from behind us towards the storm. But even as I was saying the words, the warm wind suddenly dropped to nothing. A few seconds later, a strong cold wind came at us from the direction of the storm, and it was clear we'd be in it in a few minutes time.
We were closer to the trains than to Uyuni, and with the dust storm just a few metres away we decided to find some shelter in the trains. We rushed to an old carriage, got inside, and watched as the cementerio became an apocalyptic scene, with bits of debris flying about in a bizarre brown half-light. I'd never seen a dust storm before, and now I found myself right in the middle of one. After a while the wind dropped and we headed out to look around, but we had to take refuge again when it got stronger. Eventually the storm thinned out and we headed back to Uyuni, against the strong cold wind that was still blowing.
That evening, the town was lively as the election results came in, showing Evo Morales in a decisive lead. Evo would be the country's first indigenous president, and his victory was popular in Uyuni. The owners of my hotel were in a good mood when I chatted to them briefly, and on the streets of the town, brass bands were leading noisy parades. I was pleased to be here at this time, to feel the atmosphere of change and hope that was just part of a much wider Latin American shift to the left. A few weeks later, the elections in Chile saw a left-wing victory, and during the following year, six years after I'd been in Nicaragua during a campaign that saw them fail narrowly, the Sandinistas returned to power after 16 years in opposition.
As the bands played and the people partied, we went out for a meal in a busy restaurant. I tried llama, an essential Andean cultural experience, but it was extremely tough and didn't have much flavour. I chewed on the leathery meat watching the street parties, and decided that if I was going to try llama again, I'd probably want to pay just a little bit more for it than I had done.
In the desert of south-western Bolivia, 3600m above sea level, is the town of Uyuni. Outside the town, for reasons unknown, there is a vast collection of train carcasses. They rust slowly under the Altiplano sun and attract the odd traveller from town. Shortly after I took this photo, a giant dust storm swept over the cemetery, forcing me to take refuge inside the boiler of one of the trains.
Early on the first day of Bolivia's new era, I got a bus to Potosí, a city two and a half miles above sea level, at the foot of a hill containing such extraordinary quantities of mineral wealth that the city was once the largest and richest in South America, and in Don Quixote, Cervantes used the 'riches of Potosí' to signify incalculable fortune. The hill is called Cerro Rico (the Rich Hill), and it towers over the town. The sun was shining but the streets were wet as I walked slowly and breathlessly to a hostel. I was definitely getting slightly more used to the altitude, but for some reason in Potosí I got nosebleeds every time I sneezed.
The main thing I wanted to do here was have a look around the mines, and so early one morning I picked a random company of the several that offer tours, and headed off to Cerro Rico. It was just me and a Japanese traveller on the tour, which was conducted only in Spanish. Luckily we both spoke it, and I was having a good day and understood pretty much everything. We started by heading to the miner's market to buy some gifts for the miners we'd meet - coca leaves, 96% proof alcohol, and dynamite. While we were there a violent hailstorm started. We got a bus up to the mine entrance in wild conditions, and headed underground.
Cerro Rico must be about as much mine shaft as rock these days. We entered a mine called La Poderosa, and headed deep into the mountain. The shaft was narrow and low, so that I had to stoop, and it was dry and quite cool. This was clearly no hi-tech mining operation, and as we headed deeper we could see that conditions were primitive. People passed us wheeling barrows full of rock, and when we met miners, they were digging into hand-cut pits. We donated our coca leaves and alcohol, and talked a bit to the miners. One, Don Julian, had worked in the mines for 15 years and was one of the oldest miners at 49. Another, Don Paulino, had been in the job for nine years. Apparently, the average life expectancy for a miner is just 40 years. The typical wage is between 200 and 550 Bolivianos a week - equivalent to £15 - £40 at the time I was there.
The mines are no place for a claustrophobe. At times we had to crawl through particularly narrow tunnels, and just once I got suddenly spooked out by the thought that I was deep underground with no idea of the way out, in a tunnel I couldn't even stand up in. We visited one of the most fascinating parts of the mine, a shrine to El Tío. El Tío is the miner's god, and each shaft has a shrine to him. His image owes much to European depictions of the devil - he is horned and normally painted red. He also is clearly indigenous, with a wodge of coca leaves in his cheek. Miners make daily offerings to him, and believe that he will ensure that their dig is prosperous. We left offerings too, so that El Tío would look kindly on our invasion of his turf.
I asked the guide about earthquakes. If one were to strike here, I wouldn't be surprised if the entire hill fell in on itself. But the guide claimed that this part of Bolivia was completely tectonically stable. We were far from volcanoes, and no earthquakes had ever happened here. The day Potosí experienced one would be the day the world ended, apparently. I hoped he was right as we slowly made our way back to the surface, via a different shaft to the one we'd entered by. When we finally emerged into fresh air and sunshine it was hard to believe what a different world lay beneath our feet. Children were selling chunks of brightly coloured minerals, and I bought a couple before we got a bus back down into town.
That evening I experience a true Bolivian wonder: api. I don't know what it is made of, but it's a thick purple drink served hot, and at 4000m above sea level, on a bitterly cold rainy night, it's incredible. I sat in a cafe, chatting to some other travellers I'd met, drinking api and playing cards until they closed. I was planning to make an early start in the morning, having found out that there was some sort of bus strike happening and that onward movement might be difficult.
In the end, to get from Potosí to Sucre I had to get a taxi, because buses were on strike indefinitely. I was sharing it with a traveller from the US, two Bolivian women, two babies and a dog, which made for a cramped journey. After about an hour and a half of good running on smooth roads through the mountains, our driver stopped to talk to someone, and got word that there was a roadblock of striking bus drivers ahead. We took to a side road to avoid it, and before long the side road became an axle-crunching bone-jarring mess of rock and gravel. Our driver was careful but the road was appalling. We bumped violently along it, occasionally hearing horrific grinding noises and once almost getting grounded on a large boulder, but after half an hour we suddenly rejoined the main road again, and arrived in Sucre about an hour after that, slightly bruised but happy to have made it.
Sucre was a great place - a striking colonial centre, a friendly vibe, nice bars and restaurants and lots to see. Having fallen in love with api in Potosí, I found another Bolivian treat here - buñuelos, a deep-fried doughy snack, which I ate in considerable quantities at an excellent cafe near where I was staying. Although we were still 2800m above sea level, it was much warmer here than it had been in Potosí, and so api was less important to my general well being.
The main thing I went to see in Sucre was a quarry. I'm not normally one to seek out heavy industry while travelling but the attraction here is a huge area of dinosaur footprints which were uncovered just a few years ago. An almost sheer rock face at the quarry was, millions of years ago, a flat muddy area, through which a whole bunch of dinosaurs walked. Their tracks criss-cross the rock face, and it's extremely impressive to see imprints left by many different types of foot, inconceivably long ago. But it's also slightly depressing that quarrying work continues, and even while I was there I could see trickles of dust coming off the rock face. Quarrying continues right up to the layer with the footprints on, and it's surely possible that the footprints won't be there for very much longer.
It was the 22nd of December when I saw the dinosaur footprints, and I fancied spending Christmas at Lake Titicaca. The bus strike, luckily, was coming to an end, and I bought a ticket to La Paz for the night of the 23rd. While Sucre is the constitutional capital of Bolivia, La Paz is a far bigger city and is the de facto capital. I was looking forward to seeing it. My bus left Sucre at about 6pm, and after a meal stop at about 7pm, we passed through Potosí at about 11pm. We stopped for a bit, and as the bus door opened a blast of freezing air whistled down the aisle. After that, I fell asleep - the bus was comfortable and had plenty of leg room. Early on Christmas Eve, I arrived in La Paz. I managed to get rapidly onto a bus heading for Copacabana, on the shores of Lake Titicaca, and we wound up the side of the valley that La Paz sits in, through the vast sprawl of El Alto on the valley edge, and then through populous farmlands to the lake.
On the bus to Copacabana I met Victoria, a traveller from Alaska who I'd previously met in Potosí, and her friend Amanda from Vermont. None of us had booked a place to stay, but luckily things didn't seem too busy and we got rooms at the second place we asked at. It was overcast and cool here, and it didn't seem very christmassy. We were going to climb Cerro Calvario, a large hill overlooking town, but it was beginning to rain so we decided to save that until later. So we spent the afternoon looking around town, buying the occasional bag of giant popcorn which is a local speciality, and relaxing.
On Christmas Day I got up at 5am to see if the weather was nice enough to make a climb of the hill worthwhile, but it was raining so I went back to bed. Eventually I got up at 9am, and we went out to a cafe with a lake view for breakfast. After a morning drinking coffees and relaxing, I went to call home. If I'd been anywhere else in Bolivia it would have been very cheap, but for some reason, all communications in Copacabana are about ten times the price they are elsewhere. I spent 122 Bolivianos on a twenty minute phone call, which was a whole day's budget at normal times, but was still less than ten pounds. And it was great to speak to my family for the first time in more than two months. I could see the lake out of the window of the call centre, and it was very strange to think that back in the UK it was dark and cold and wintry.
After phoning home I went for a walk along the beach. Families were out on the lake in pedalos and canoes, and the public table football tables were doing great business. I don't think I'd ever previously wondered what people do on the Altiplano for Christmas, but if I had I doubt I would have thought it would be boating and table football.
At 4pm I met up with Victoria and Amanda and we climbed Cerro Calvario. The skies were heavy, in the distance we could see rain over the lake, and a thunderstorm was raging several miles away inland. We watched the spectacular lightning until the edge of the storm reached us. As the rain got heavier we hurried back to the hostel, and then for the rest of the afternoon we played cards while the rain battered down outside.
Later, in a brief pause in the rain, we headed out for an evening meal. I had a very Andean meal of cheese and potatoes, and we had a fun evening meeting travellers from all over the world. I thought there was a hint of sadness in it all, though, that all of us had decided to spend Christmas so far away from our friends and families, and spend it instead with a bunch of travellers who in all likelihood we would never see again. As we walked back to the hostel at midnight the rain was torrential again. The hostel owners had gone to bed, and we had to bang on the door to wake them up. Luckily they didn't seem at all angry when they let us in.
The next morning I decided to head back to La Paz - there was a cycle ride in the mountains that I wanted to do. I bought a couple of bags of giant popcorn, got on a bus and headed back south. The sun came out on the way and we had a great crossing of the Straits of Tiquina. In La Paz it was a hot afternoon. I booked myself onto a mountain biking trip for the following day, and then went out for a meal with some travellers I met in my hostel. Christmas already seemed like a distant memory.
In the middle of the Salar de Uyuni, I'd met a traveller from Manchester who said that by far the most exciting thing he'd done in South America was cycling from La Paz to Coroico. I like mountain biking a lot, and this ride, which would actually involve mountains, sounded like a lot of fun. So when I arrived in La Paz on Boxing Day my first priority was to book onto a tour.
The ride doesn't actually start in La Paz, which is a mere 3600 metres above sea level. It starts at La Cumbre, a pass high, high in the Andes at 4700m above sea level. Coroico is 64km away horizontally, and three and a half kilometres vertically. It's downhill all the way, but the catch is that the road is just a narrow ledge cut into breathtakingly steep mountainsides. Sadly, it's a road with a reputation for tragedy - buses and trucks fall with horrible frequency into the valley, and it is frequently described as the most dangerous road in the world.
So I was slightly nervous when I got up at 6am to get ready for the tour. I was also extremely tired, having made a tactical error by choosing a room in my hostel which had a balcony overlooking Calle Sagarnaga. The balcony was nice but Calle Sagarnaga does not sleep, and neither did I thanks to the continuous rumbling of traffic and noise of people throughout the night. I got a strong coffee and then went to the offices of the bike company. We drove up to La Cumbre, where clouds whipped by in a bitterly cold wind, and snow lay on the ground. Here we had a safety briefing, and we all rode around a little bit to get used to our bikes. And then, it was time to set off.
The route began on smooth, well-paved roads, which meant that we could go very fast. However, it was below freezing, and before long I couldn't feel my fingers and my eyes were watering so much I could hardly see. Things took a turn for the worse the very first time I had to brake at all hard, when my bike started fishtailing and before I knew what was happening I was crashing down onto the tarmac. I was pretty shaken and my right shoulder had taken a hard knock, but I was OK to carry on. But now I lacked confidence in my bike, and found myself propping up the rear of the group, with even a timid Swiss girl easily able to outpace me. This was very disappointing for me.
We descended through a police checkpoint. Coroico lies in the Yungas, a region of Bolivia which produces large quantities of coca leaf. The leaf itself is used widely for chewing and brewing, as it has been for centuries, but it can also be used to produce cocaine, of course, and so movements of large amounts of coca leaf are monitored intensively. We passed through and carried on down. Soon we reached a short uphill section, which would have been a great workout as we were still only just under 4000m above sea level. I was hoping to win the informal contest, having been so slow on the downhill, but as soon as I put the power down, my entire rear derailleur collapsed into the rear wheel with a horrific crunch. It was game over for my bike.
Luckily it was not game over for my ride. The company had spares, which were in a support vehicle following us. They drove me to the top of the uphill section, past my fellow cyclists, and prepared a new bike for me. I was genuinely disappointed not to have done the uphill section, but no-one believed me when I said this. The new bike instantly felt enormously better, and when we set off again I was able to lead the pack. Soon we were at the end of the tarmac and the start of the tricky part of the road, and here we split into two groups. I decided to try the faster group, and this proved to be the right decision.
It was the rainy season, and this part of the road was pretty rutted and muddy. Occasionally waterfalls fell right onto it. But the ride was becoming extremely good fun, as we twisted and turned through breathtaking mountain scenery, all the while with dizzy drops just a few feet to our left. We stopped fairly frequently for snack breaks and equipment tuning - brakes needed constant checking, as the consequence of a failure didn't bear thinking about. The lower we got, the thicker the air got and the faster we went. I had my own personal favourite moment of the tour on this muddy section when the guide overtook a bus just before a bend. I decided to follow, passing the bus at speed on the outside, just a few inches from the edge of the road, with my shoulder still killing me from my earlier tumble.
As we got lower, the temperature rose and it became humid. We were now in the coca, coffee and banana-growing regions and the air smelt earthy and fertile. The road was dusty now, but having spent the last two weeks more than 3000m above sea level, I could breathe through my nose and still cycle as hard as I could. I was amazed at how acclimatised I was, and understood why athletes train so much at altitude. Now I was really hitting my stride, and the guide and I led the pack by a long way.
Eventually we saw Coroico on the hillside ahead of us. I was disappointed; I would have been happy with hours more cycling. But our cycle was to end at a small lodge in the jungle, at the end of an extremely steep trail. This was a final flourish which I enjoyed hugely, even though I set off far too enthusiastically and took my second fall of the day. I jumped back on and raced through the tree with my enthusiasm undimmed, and got to the end with bleeding elbows, a shoulder I could hardly move, and a huge grin on my face.
At the lodge, there were hot showers, and a huge amount of food. We had a fantastic couple of hours there, refuelling, and it was good to finally have a chance to talk to the people I'd cycled with: during the ride, everyone was pretty focussed on the road ahead. It was strange to find myself in hot jungle, when only hours before I'd been on a windswept pass high in the mountains.
And then it was time to head back to La Paz. This proved to be more frightening than the cycle down, because the weather had deteriorated and we had to negotiate the road in thick fog and heavy rain, as night was falling. We went much too fast for my liking, but we got back to the top unscathed. I was in an incredibly good mood. The guy from Manchester was right - this had been one of the most exciting things I'd done in South America.
I spent a few days in La Paz recovering from my ride. The weather was pretty miserable, with frequent heavy thunderstorms. I took refuge from one in a cafe, where I met an extremely drunk Bolivian businessman who turned out to have gone to the same university in London as I had. But conversation was difficult - half the time I was not sure whether he was speaking english or spanish.
As the end of December neared, I had less than five weeks left before my flight home, and I still had two countries left to see. So I headed north again, back to Lake Titicaca. It was quite strange to arrive at Copacabana again - I normally try to avoid backtracking while travelling. But I wasn't staying here this time - I jumped straight on a boat to Isla del Sol. It was a sunny day, for once, and the boat journey across the lake was a lot of fun.
Isla del Sol is, according to Inca legend, where the world began. The Sun formed right here, and the Inca people followed. Ancient Inca sights dot the island, and it has an atmosphere of mystery about it. Getting off the boat, I met Lisa and Ryan, who I'd previously met 2000 miles further south at Chile Chico on the shores of Lago General Carrera, the second-largest lake in South America after the one we were now standing on an island in the middle of. They were heading back from the island to the mainland. After saying goodbye to them, a young boy convinced me to stay in his parents' hostel, and we set off up the hill to the village of Yumani, on top of the island. Despite my acclimatisation I was still destroyed by the time we reached the top of the spectacular Inca staircase that leads from the shore to Yumani, and the barefooted child was perplexed every time I asked him to wait a few seconds.
The island proved to be far quieter than I had expected it to be, and my new year was a quiet one. After recovering from my exertions I went for a walk along the spine of the island, and then as night fell I watched some thunderstorms brewing. When I went out for my evening meal, everywhere was almost empty, apart from one restaurant in which I met a French couple, who apparently recognised me from San Pedro. We seemed to be the only people out, and I got the feeling they'd had an argument, because they were definitely not in a jovial mood. After a meal in which there were many awkward pauses in the conversation, they left, and I went to a nearby bar. But that was empty as well, so I walked back along the dark track to the place I was staying.
The thunderstorms were now spectacular, and I watched them from my balcony. Midnight came and went with a couple of small firecrackers let off nearby but no great celebration. Great flashes of forked lightning lit up the clouds, and as it began to rain I decided to head for bed. It was 12.15am, and the new year had begun.
The next day I did more walking around the island. I wrote some postcards while sat on the very peak of the island, just under 4000m above sea level. It was a grey day, but warm enough that it didn't feel like it could be January. I tried to think of some worthy new years resolutions but my main aspiration was to spend as much of the year as possible travelling.
During the afternoon I got a boat back to Copacabana, which strangely was incredibly busy. I had extreme trouble finding a room for the night, with everywhere being completely full. I had one insulting offer of a filthy mattress in a store room, another more friendly offer of a sofa if I couldn't find anywhere else, and then finally after some negotiation I got a triple room to myself, for which I paid the price of a double room. Much relieved, I slept well, and in the morning I got up early to go to Peru.
The journey to Peru was easy, with the border being just a few miles from Copacabana. I got another stamp in my passport, filled my wallet with more new currency, and got a bus to Puno. I killed a few hours there sheltering from heavy rain in cafes and restaurants, and then got an overnight bus to Cuzco, for just 25 soles. And it was an extremely comfortable bus, with the fantastic Cruz del Sur company. The strangest part of the journey was the game of bingo which happened just after dinner. Everyone on the bus was given a card, and the stewardess started reading out numbers. The prize, apparently, was two free return tickets on any Cruz del Sur route, which sounded very useful to me. Not entirely understanding whether I needed just a row, a column or everything to win, I came dangerously close to making a fool of myself, but luckily managed to avoid it. But I didn't win.
We arrived at Cuzco at 3am, and I slept on the bus until 6am. The city has a reputation for sometimes violent robbery so on the whole I was a bit nervous when I got a taxi into the centre. But the taxi driver didn't rob me, and I made it unscathed to the hostel I wanted to stay at. My whole Cuzco experience was pretty much trouble free, except for the extraordinary difficulty I had trying to get to Machu Picchu without going on a tour. After a day and a half of trying to buy just a train ticket and nothing else, I finally discovered the train ticket office opening times - 5am to 9am. Exasperated and pressured for time, I was forced to buy a train/hostel/entry ticket combination from a tour operator.
The train journey to Aguas Calientes was very impressive, along the valley of the raging Urubamba river and surrounded by towering mountains. Aguas Calientes is a pure tourist town, but not as much of a rip-off as I'd expected, and quite relaxed. After a couple of hours, though, it gets boring, and I killed an afternoon by walking down the river valley for a while.
The following morning I caught the first bus to the ruins, at 5.30am. It was still dark, and I was pleased to see that the bus was not full. It's only a short drive to Machu Picchu, up a dramatic switchback road, and so before 6am we were at the site. I hurried up to the Caretaker's Hut, which gives the classic view of the ruins with Huayna Picchu rising behind, and watched as mist drifted over the ruins while the sun rose. It was a beautiful sunrise, and there were only a couple of other people around.
I wandered down to the main ruins. They are spectacularly well preserved, and it's incredible to think that they were completely unknown less than a hundred years before I was there. But I thought that actually, they were nothing like as spectacular as the temples at Tikal, which I'd visited five years previously. One of Tikal's pyramids was the tallest building in the Americas when Columbus landed; Machu Picchu's buildings are far more modest, albeit much more spectacularly situated. Tikal is in the jungle, while Machu Picchu is sat on a narrow ridge, surrounded by a bend in the Urubamba river, and with beautiful Andean peaks stretching away into the distance.
I walked through the main square, and then to the base of Huayna Picchu, the dramatic hill which towers over the site. It's a tough and very steep climb, especially if you got up at 5am, but I made it to the top without too many rest breaks, only to find myself deep in cloud. I waited around for a long while, and eventually the clouds started to break up and move away, and I was rewarded with breathtaking views of the ruins and the mountains. To top it all off, a single condor flew by, just inches above my head, showing off his huge wingspan before flying around over the ruins for a while.
At midday, I came back down, and found the ruins far busier than they had been. I decided I'd seen enough here and it was time to move on again. I was thirsty enough to pay an outrageous price for a drink at the entrance to the ruins, but still tight enough to deeply resent the commercialism of it all. Back at Aguas Calientes I got on the train again, had another magnificent journey up the river valley in blazing evening sunshine, and then after another night in Cuzco I got a bus to Arequipa.
I arrived in Arequipa just after dawn on a beautiful day. Confronting me as I arrived, soaring into the deep blue sky with a dusting of snow on top, was what I had come here to climb - El Misti. My South America plans had always involved climbing at least one big mountain, and El Misti is one of the easiest ways to do that - it's a popular climb from Arequipa, and it doesn't get at all technical. The main thing that stops people getting to the top is the fact that it's 5822 metres tall - just over 19,000 feet. But I'd been acclimatising to altitude for more than a month, and it was time to put that to good use. I got down to business quickly, booking a guided trip to climb the mountain the next day, and then shopping for energy food. The extremely friendly owner of the Sillar Negro hostel where I was staying was a keen climber himself, and when I told him I was doing the climb, he came out with me to recommend good food to buy.
At 8am the following morning I was at the offices of the climbing company, getting kitted out. There were nine of us climbing that day - me, a Swede, a German and seven Peruvians. We sorted out who was going to carry what, met our guides Roy and Angél, and then drove up to the start of our climb, a few kilometres outside Arequipa and a few hundred metres higher. The climb was to take two days, the first taking us to a campsite 4400m above sea level. I took it quite easy to get there, but found the last hundred metres or so very tiring. This was the highest I'd ever brought myself on foot, and we were still 1400m below the summit. We cooked up some dinner, and then received the shocking news that we were going to set off for the summit at midnight. Apparently, the crater was emitting a lot of volcanic gas later in the day, and it was safest to get there as soon as possible after sunrise. We set up our camp, mostly in cloud but with occasional breaks revealing the summit high above. At 6pm Johan the Swede and I tried to get some sleep, but the Peruvians had a more cavalier attitude to proceedings, drinking pisco and talking loudly until late.
I didn't sleep that much, and lay awake for much of the evening, dreading the midnight call. Luckily it wasn't too cold, and when the call came I managed to rouse some enthusiasm. I checked my pack and my headlamp, and put on my warm clothes. We had some jam sandwiches for breakfast, and Roy cooked up some mate de coca. I'd had this traditional Andean drink lots of times already, but despite its supposed stimulant qualities it hadn't really done much for me. But this time it did. I don't know what Roy did differently with this brew, but before long I was feeling absolutely fantastic. The pace seemed easy and my pack seemed light. The skies were incredibly clear, and we saw a couple of bright meteors. The climb was going very well. Johan was climbing strongly as well, but the Peruvians seemed to be struggling. The German was also not looking at all happy, and they all decided to keep on going at a slower pace. Johan, Roy and I headed on up, keeping up a good rate.
Climbing at night was a strange experience. It was quite easy to follow the trail, but the darkness made it impossible to tell how far we'd come or how far we had to go. The summit loomed above us, its silhouette against the stars unchanging. Far below, the lights of Arequipa twinkled. By 3am, the zodiacal light was very bright, and it didn't seem long at all from then until the first hint of dawn appeared. We could see the Peruvians still climbing, a few hundred metres below us, but before it got properly light we saw that they'd given up and were heading back to the campsite. At 5.30am, the sun rose stunningly over the nearby peaks of Chachani.
By now I was feeling less fantastic than I had done, but still pretty good. Johan was beginning to feel the altitude, though. I began to lose track of time, and concentrated only on keeping on plodding up the mountainside. At 7am we realised we were very close to the top, but by then I was seriously feeling the altitude, and we spent 45 minutes covering the last hundred metres to the top. And there we were, just over 5800m above sea level, in the middle of the Andes, standing by the gently steaming crater of El Misti. The countryside was wreathed in mist, which was lit up spectacularly by the morning sun.
Johan was feeling very unwell with the altitude, so he and Roy soon set off down the mountain. I stayed at the top to explore for a bit, and it was an incredible feeling to be alone on top of a huge mountain, so tired from the climb but feeling energised by the daylight. The crater was quite active, with extensive yellow sulphur deposits and lots of volcanic gases gently rising.
At about 9am I decided to head back down the mountain. This involved ploughing down a scree-filled gully, which was so steep that I felt in constant danger of triggering enormous landslides. I had to constantly lean back to keep my balance, and after an hour or so this started altering my perception so that whenever I stood up straight, the horizon seemed to curve upwards. I carried on down in silence, becoming slightly paranoid that I might have got the wrong route, but eventually I saw Roy in the distance. By 11am I was back at the camp, where I found that everyone but Johan and Roy had long gone. We wearily packed up, and then trudged back down the trail. This seemed to take forever, and by the time we reached the road we were exhausted. There we met a group of hikers on their way up, and it turned out Roy was guiding them, so he set off back up the mountain. I hoped he was earning good money, because he had been an excellent guide.
I was possibly more tired by now than I'd ever been before, but also ravenously hungry. Appetites tend to disappear at high altitude, and so all I'd eaten since my jam sandwiches at midnight had been two bananas. By the time I got back to my hostel I was in terrible straits because I couldn't decide whether I was too tired to eat or too hungry to sleep. In the end I fell fast asleep for an hour, then woke up with such a raging hunger that I literally ran out to find food, and ate two full meals.
That evening I looked up at the mountain and could hardly believe I'd been standing on its summit just hours before. I felt like I owned it.
After another day of recovery in Arequipa, sleeping and eating and doing nothing else at all, I got an overnight bus to Lima. In the capital I was going to meet my friend Dave, who had decided that being an artist in northern Spain was lucrative enough for him to afford a holiday. He was going to be travelling in Peru and Ecuador for six weeks, and we planned to travel north from Lima to Quito, from where I'd fly home and Dave would head off into the jungle.
During the night ride to Lima, I saw some spectacular coastal scenery. It was the first time I'd been at sea level for 35 days, and the air seemed thick and soupy. There is twice as much oxygen at sea level as there is at 5800m, and I could really feel it. In the morning we were near Ica, in the desert, and it was hotter than anywhere I'd been since San Pedro in the Atacama. We got to Lima just after midday, and although I'd heard many horror stories about fake taxis robbing tired travellers on arrival, I found a legit taxi and managed to get to a hostel in Barranco, which proved to be a very wealthy suburb. In the evening I walked down to the beach. I was warned by a friendly local to take care of my belongings and watch out for groups of young people, but I had no problems. I watched a beautiful sunset over the Pacific Ocean, and thought that Lima looked like a pretty impressive city, perched on the edge of the cliffs overlooking the sea.
The following night we went out clubbing. Barranco has a legendary street in which every building is a club, and we worked our way along it. Some were good, some were poor, but it was all great fun. When we left the final club, it was getting light, and we decided not to bother sleeping but stayed up until breakfast was served at 8.45am. It was a blazing hot sunny day, and it had been a good night out in Lima.
During the day we went into the centre of Lima, which was palpably dodgier than Barranco. Soon after we arrived some old man tried to give me an old Sol coin, in what I was sure must be some kind of scam although I couldn't see how. He pressed the coin into the palm of my hand and then walked off. A few seconds later a passing child asked what it was, and I gave it to him rather than hold on to it. We were right outside a cafe, and as we went in, the owner told us to watch out for scammers on this particular street. But other than that we had no problems and we spent a couple of hours looking around.
Having skipped a night's sleep, it would have been good to be staying one more night in Lima, but foolishly we'd booked an overnight bus to Chiclayo in the north. We got a ride to the bus terminal with a very friendly taxi driver, who told us to watch out for women spiking our drinks in bars, and described lots of traditional Peruvian food that we had to try while we were here. The bus terminal was more like an airport, with check-in desks and waiting lounges, and in our sleep-deprived states it took us a while to work everything out. We boarded the bus just in time, and shortly after it left at 9pm, I fell deeply asleep.
We were heading for Chachapoyas, in the mountains of the north, but we stopped at Chiclayo because there were some pre-Inca ruins at Túcume nearby that we thought we might as well have a look at. We got a colectivo to the ruins. It was about a half hour drive and I slept much of the way, wedged comfortably in amongst a lot of locals carrying a lot of produce. We walked the mile or so from where we got dropped off to the ruins, but once we arrived we weren't too impressed. It took us a while to work out what were ruins and what were just hills. The guide book claimed that there were 28 pyramids, but only with a lot of imagination could we even see two. But a hill in the middle of the site gave some good views over the plains, and it was a nice hot day. After doing as much looking around as we could, we got a moto-taxi back to the main road and then a colectivo back into the centre of town. A huge meal at a restaurant by the Plaza de Armas prepared us for a second consecutive night on a bus, and as night fell we were on our way inland and upwards into the mountains.
We got to Chachapoyas at 4.30am, and slept on the bus until 7am. When buses arrived ridiculously early in Peru, people often stayed on board until sensible times, and it was always fantastic to be able to get a couple of hours more sleep, without the engine noise and bumpy roads to contend with. After a night of clubbing in Lima followed by two nights on buses, we were pretty wrecked and spent the day ambling around town and drinking coffees. We were about 2500m above sea level, and my previous month of acclimatisation had all but disappeared in three days at sea level.
The next morning we were up at 6.45am, and went for breakfast at the hotel from which a trip to the ruins of Kuelap was leaving. When we booked this, the manager had specifically promised us good coffee for the morning, so we were more disappointed than usual to find that as so often in Peru, the coffee was disgusting. In most places, 'coffee' came as some kind of cold concentrate which you add hot water to, and it was vile. But we were still looking forward to seeing the ruins, and although we set off a bit late ("Sorry about this", said the hotel manager; "There's a few Peruvians going with you today, so we won't be leaving on time"), the journey there was spectacular, along a winding track through the mountains. It was a cool and cloudy day, and it began to rain as we arrived at the site.
Straight away I was impressed by Kuelap. The ruins seemed much more impressive to me than Machu Picchu had, the setting in the mountains was almost as amazing, and there were only eight of us here. A huge defensive wall around the site looked incredible in the mist and rain. A pack of llamas was wandering around the ruins, occasionally blocking paths and looking surly, but fortunately they didn't spit at us. Briefly the rain became torrential, and we took shelter with some archaeologists who were working on restoring a building and had a tarpaulin shelter. Once it eased off again, we explored a bit more. The site covered a huge area, and we probably didn't even see half of it before it was time to go. On our way back to Chachapoyas, we stopped at a restaurant for a late lunch. I ordered guinea pig, an essential Andean cultural experience even for an aspiring vegetarian. I was glad I had tried it, but once is really enough. There wasn't much meat on my guinea pig, and what there was was a bit rubbery.
Having seen Kuelap, we decided it was time to head for Ecuador. To do this we could either retrace our steps back to Chiclayo and then get a bus along the coast road, or take an extremely off-the-beaten-track route through the mountains. We decided we were in the mood for beating new tracks, and so the next day we set off on a multi-stage odyssey. The day saw us getting collectivos from Chachapoyas to the villages of Pedro Ruiz and Bagua Grande, and then from Bagua Grande we got a lift in a combi van heading for Jaén. Jaén was quite a large place but it clearly doesn't see many foreigners. We were besieged at the bus station by moto-taxi drivers and felt a certain unfriendly vibe about the place. It was late when we arrived, so we stayed the night.
In the morning we got a collectivo to San Ignacio, close to the Ecuadorian border. We had planned a brief stop, but we proved to be a huge attraction for the kids here, and we ended up spending a couple of hours being the centre of attention, a situation which Dave exacerbated hugely by letting the children use his digital camera. I thought I might as well hand mine out as well, and the kids raced off around the village taking random pictures. Eventually we decided it was time to go, and we got our cameras back. In this muddy village in the middle of nowhere in rural Peru, it came as quite a surprise when the kids gave us their e-mail addresses, and asked us to send them the photos.
We got another collectivo to La Balsa, the border post. Our driver on this leg was a bit over-enthusiastic on the rough roads and picked up a puncture, which delayed us for a while. His spare tyre was also punctured, so in the end we walked to the next village while he gently free-wheeled, and by the time we got there after half an hour or so, he'd found another tyre and was ready to go again. We got to the border shortly before it closed for the day, and crossed a bridge over the river to Ecuador. On the other side we got a fantastic open-sided wooden bus to Zumba, which took us through some incredible scenery and bounced around so much I had to hold on tightly to avoid being thrown out the side. From Zumba we got on the final stage of the journey with an overnight bus to Loja.
Loja seemed quite nice when we first arrived. We were tired after an overnight bus ride and so spent our first day not doing very much. In hindsight this was a mistake. On our second day we went to Parque Nacional Podocarpus, not far outside Loja to the south. When I planned my South American travels this was not even close to being one of my most anticipated destinations but it turned out to be one of the most memorable places I visited.
We got a bus heading for Vilcabamba, and got off at a road junction more or less in the middle of nowhere. We set off walking to the national park, a five mile uphill walk, hoping we might be able to hitchhike up. A couple of cars passed us leaving the park but nothing seemed to be going up. After three quarters of an hour we were beginning to resign ourselves to walking all the way when suddenly a truck appeared, carrying three park rangers. They told us to jump on the back, and we drove up to the park. The scenery which had seemed OK while walking looked spectacular from the back of the truck with the wind whistling by, and after half an hour of chugging up the track with stunning views over the green rugged mountains we were grinning like fools.
Under threatening skies, we set off for a bit of hiking, which began with a gentle ascent up through the forest from about 2500m to over 3000m above sea level. We walked through the dripping cool humid jungle, and as we got higher, the mist became fog and the air became cooler, and by the time we reached the tree line the fog had become cloud and it began to rain. We were now pretty exposed, and the hike became a bit of an ordeal as the rain began to lash down. The trail took us along a narrow ridge, and the visibility was so low that the ridge looked to us like a sort of elevated walkway in the clouds.
Eventually we reached a turn-off in the trail that would lead us back off the ridge and into the forest. As we got there, the cloud seemed to be thinning, and in just a few minutes the rain had stopped and it looked like the sun might come out. The cloud was lifting, and far below we could see the hut at the start of the trail, and the road in the valley. As a few sunbeams broke through the cloud, we got astonishing views of the Andes beneath the clouds.
The day was wearing on, and we headed back down the trail to the hut. We'd taken a stove and some food with us, but the weather had been so vile on the trail that we hadn't been able to use it, so we were starving. As the sun neared the horizon we cooked up some soup and pasta and restored ourselves. The park rangers had gone back down to the park entrance, so we had to walk the five miles back down to the main road, and by the time we had eaten it was almost dark. Luckily we had torches, and we had a great walk down the track, with some good views of the lights of towns and villages in the valley. We got to the road at eight o'clock and jumped on a bus heading back to Loja.
After a great day in the national park, we were ready to get back on the road. But we'd made a huge tactical error by dropping some clothes off at a launderette before we went hiking. We didn't make it back in time to collect them, and the next day the launderette was closed. It was a Sunday, and in a pious mountain town where there's not a huge amount to do during the rest of the week, Sunday is a very slow day indeed. Every shop and almost every cafe was closed, except for one that was over-priced and unfriendly. Luckily, the town museum, situated in the old town gates, was open, and we spent as long as we could there, enjoying a small art exhibition and some views of the town from the clock tower. I was beginning to feel slightly claustrophobic in Loja, and was reminded of a similar experience in a town by the Zambezi called Lukulu, which had also been much easier to arrive at than to leave.
The next day we got up early, finally collected our laundry, jumped in a taxi and headed for the bus station and more exciting places than Loja. But what a disaster doing laundry in Loja was turning out to be - as we arrived at the bus station there was a lively picket line across the entrance, and it was clear that no buses were leaving. "Ah! I forgot!", said the despicable taxi driver. "There's a bus strike today!". Unfortunately there were no other taxi drivers around and we didn't feel like walking for three miles so we were forced to get the man to drive us back into town. Here we received the shattering news that there was an indefinite bus strike on, but the word was that 'indefinite' in this case would probably mean 'until some time tomorrow'. We fervently hoped that this was right.
The next morning we were up before dawn in our eagerness to get the hell out of Loja. As soon as it opened we asked at the tourist information office and almost wept with relief when they told us the strike was indeed over. We made great haste for the bus station, only to find that in a brief show of solidarity with the drivers, the ticket sellers had had a quick walkout. Luckily they came back before too long, and just after midday we found ourselves on a bus heading north to Cuenca. I now had only five days left to see the rest of Ecuador but happy that I would at least not have to spend them in Loja.
Our plan had been to go to Alausí to get the train to Riobamba, via the Nariz del Diablo switchbacks. But time was now so short, and the train schedules so inconvenient, that we had to skip this. We headed instead to Cuenca, where we only had time to visit the studios of Argentinian artist Ariel Dawi, and the awesomely named German-owned pub, WunderBar. After Cuenca, our target was Baños but we had to spend a night in Ambato on the way after thick fog delayed our bus by a few hours.
The reason we'd come to Baños was to see if we could see the eruptions of Tungurahua. Baños was evacuated in 1999 after a big eruption, but when activity stabilised, the people returned, and the town now thrives on the tourism generated by the volcano, and the geothermal pools which give the town its name. The pools were a good place to spend a couple of hours while a cool drizzle fell. In the evening, we took a trip up to a nearby viewpoint, which we'd been told has good views of the volcano. But we spend most of the time in thick cloud, unable to see even the lights of Baños below us, let alone the glow of lava from above. We met some locals there who were going to a club later on, and they invited us to join them. We had a fun night out at Club Leprechaun, which the locals pronounced 'lepre-chown'
The next day the weather seemed to be changing for the better. We went for a walk in the hills behind town and saw a spectacular rainbow arc over the valley. With the sun threatening to break through, we decided to hike back up to the mirador and see if we could see the volcano. We had a chat on the way to a friendly guy called Carmelo, who had lived in Europe for a few years. He told us about the evacuation of Baños, and said that people moved back not because activity was really declining but just because they couldn't stay away from their livelihoods indefinitely.
Once we reached the mirador we found ourselves in thick cloud. Everything was wet and we couldn't see more than ten feet. But I had a feeling we might have some luck, and so we hung around. Occasional breaks in the mist gave us hope, even though the few other people who came to see what they could see had left pretty quickly. Gradually, it seemed to us that we could see more of the mountain, and eventually we were sure we could see the summit. What looked like black smoke appeared to be billowing from the top, but it was hard to tell whether it was rain cloud or volcanic ash. But a few minutes more and there was no doubt - we could clearly see the volcano, and it was clearly erupting. For me it was quite impressive, but Dave had never seen an erupting volcano before and felt that he hadn't really seen the full show.
Sadly we couldn't hang around. I had two days left in South America, and so that night we got a late bus to Quito. After almost four months and eight thousand miles on the road, I was almost at my final destination. Ever since Christmas in Bolivia I'd been feeling like the trip was almost over, and now that it really was I could hardly believe it.
Quito was a strange place. We found a hostel in what seemed like a slightly rough part of town, but then more or less all of Quito felt like a rough part of town. Most people in the hostel said they had either been robbed here, or knew someone who had been. I really didn't want to end my trip by getting mugged and so I felt slightly edgy and paranoid whenever we were out and about.
Three months previously I'd been at the very southern tip of the continent, four thousand miles to the south. Now we were just a few miles south of the equator, and we decided to go north for a day, to the markets at Otovalo. The bus from Quito took us through spectacular Andean scenery, and somewhere along the way we crossed the legendary line. I felt like there should have been some kind of ceremony, or at least an announcement, but I suppose there is little novelty in crossing the equator for an Ecuadorian. We spent a few hours in the northern hemisphere, shopping for souvenirs. It was pleasant enough, but I didn't think Otovalo really compared to Chichicastenango in Guatemala, where I'd spent an amazing day five years previously buying rugs, pottery, blankets and bags. Chichicastenango was all hustle and bustle with an intense atmosphere of bargaining that meant coming away empty-handed was very unlikely; Otovalo seemed very tranquil in comparison.
The next day was my last in South America. After four months on the road I was tiring, and although I was hugely sad that this mighty journey was coming to an end, I was looking forward to seeing family and friends again. We spent the day at the Museo del Banco Central, which had some impressive pre-Spanish artefacts and some good contemporary art, and then after a trip to a supermarket to buy as much dulce de leche as I could carry, we went back to the hostel. We cooked up a celebratory feast, and then spent a great couple of hours sitting on the roof, looking out over the lights of Quito and the dark shape of the volcano Pichincha silhoutted against them in the distance. Before the trip, I'd been working at the Home Office, and when I left my colleagues gave me 75 US dollars and a huge cigar - perfect for a trip to South America. I'd spent the dollars long ago in Paraguay and Brazil, but I'd been saving the cigar until now. I smoked myself into a blissful mellow haze and thought back to landing in Buenos Aires back in October the previous year. It seemed like a very, very long time ago.
Early the next morning I packed up, said goodbye to Dave who was travelling on for a few more weeks, and headed for the airport. The last surprise of the trip was waiting for me - my flight to Miami would be twelve hours late. I was so psyched up for going home that this was a huge disappointment. I re-arranged my connecting flight from Miami to London, checked in my backpack, and trudged out of the airport, wondering how to kill 12 hours. I ended up spending a couple of them stood at the end of the runway, outside the perimeter fence but still spectacularly, perilously close to the jets taking off and landing. Standing about twenty metres behind a large plane taking off is something I highly recommend - I don't know what I expected but I didn't expect to have to hold onto the fence to stop myself being blown into the road.
After that entertainment, I walked a couple of miles from the airport to the nearest Trolé stop, and headed back into the city. I found an internet cafe, sent messages to my family telling them I'd be 24 hours later than planned, wasted time looking around shops and generally wishing I was already on the way home. In the evening I headed back to the airport, bought a ridiculously strong coffee and a delicious greasy churro, before getting my Ecuadorean exit stamp, boarding the plane and heading off into the night. We landed in Miami at about midnight, and then I had 18 hours to kill until my plane to London. American Airlines didn't remotely offer to accommodate anyone so I won't be flying with them again in a hurry. I spent a few uncomfortable hours dozing on a bench, then got a bus to the city centre. I sat in a park overlooking Biscayne Bay and pondered.
Finally, it was time to go. I left Miami, caught the flight to London, and on a cold February morning I found myself at Heathrow, unemployed and homeless. This had been the trip of a lifetime, but it was great to be back.