Back in Blighty

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We are back. In fact we have been back six months. How time flies!!

It took us a while to get back into the swing of things & even longer for our prized table top book to arrive from Australia.

Packed with memories from our Polar Pioneer adventures; our daily journals & photos brought together in a one off edition, for us & our fellow passengers..

With thoughts now turning to where we will go for my big birthday in 2016 – Patrick……if you are reading this, there is something I need to ask you! – plus our imminent trip to Sri Lanka to celebrate a friend’s wedding & check out elephants, we thought it was high time to recall the highlights…..

Our bucket list holiday delivered everything we could ask for – & so much more – up closer than close encounters with mighty humpback whales, curious & playful leopard seals & more penguins than we could possibly hope to see. We didn’t think much could top this – & then we went to the Galapagos Islands. Nature once again blew us away as we literally had to pick our way along paths & beaches littered with iguanas & seals, saw an enormous number of other species & swam with penguins.

There were other highlights of course; the mournful tango watched in an old dancehall in the heart of Beunos Aires, savouring wines galore in Mendoza & the first jagged peaks of Fitzroy coming into view…. Patagonia, a playground we will surely return to.

Even now, when someone asks us “so how was your trip” a wry smile passes our lips as we try to put into words just how utterly a-mazing our holiday was. We can’t. We dubbed it as a an adventure to the end of the world; it was all that & so much more.

Matt & Jules xxx

For anyone interested in reading our mini adventure in Sri Lanka, go to the link below:
mjules2013.wordpress.com

Island hopping in the Galapagos….

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From the very get-go we had both wanted to go to the Galapagos Islands, land of myth and mystery made famous by Charles Darwin and his groundbreaking “Origin of Species”; his theory of biological evolution and natural selection shaped following his short stay on the islands in the five year voyage aboard the Beagle.

Santa Cruz giant tortoise

Santa Cruz giant tortoise

The Galapagos Islands, Archipiélago de Colón or Islas Galápagos are located some 900km west of Ecuador on the Nazca tectonic plate and given the spanish name for (giant) tortoise by Tomás de Berlanga, the first Bishop of Panama. He drifted off course while sailing from Panama to Peru and accidently discovered the islands…and the tortoises. The group of islands straddle the equator and consist of 18 main and three smaller islands across a land area of nearly 8000km. In spite of being located in the tropics, the islands’ micro-climate is curiously dry, with annual rainfall of as little as 6-10cm in the lower regions and only a handful of islands with their own source of freshwater.

With only a matter of days before our plane touched down in Guayaquil, gateway to the Baltra, Santa Cruz and the islands beyond, we still had not secured passage on a live aboard boat for the dates we wanted.  Not for want of trying; Matt had contacted all of the small boats that fitted the bill, but with limited internet access since leaving Mendoza, his travel agent and negotiation skills were tested to the limit!. Eventually we secured one of the last cabins on the 16-passenger boat M/S Beluga (ironically one of our first choices) that was bound for the older eastern islands. Result!!!

Arriving in Baltra, we were hit by the heat – 32 degrees with shirt-sticking, hair-frizzing humidity that had us diving for the air-con button, the minute we checked into our hotel on Santa Cruz.

Fisherman's friend...

Fisherman’s friend…

imageSanta Cruz and with it’s key port town of Puerto Ayora, is the main tourist hub of the islands and boasts the longest pedestrianized street with more souvenirs shops than-you-can-shake-a-stick-at, a cute and colourful artisan market, galleries and tour operators galore.  The small fishing dock cum market draws big crowds of people plus its fair share of sea lions, pelicans, and as you’d expect,the restaurants serve up pretty mean seafood –  fresh off the boats – Isla Grill ticked the boxes for us, with a sweet and tender Mariscada salad of chargrilled shrimp, octopus and calamari, that went down rather nicely with a icy cold bottle of Palomino Fino Ecuadoran white wine. Perfecto!

From here we boarded our boat and met our fellow passengers, half British and half North American.  All of us up for the adventure of a lifetime. We cruised at night and making landings by day; island hopping across the eastern archipelago with chances of seeing colonies of sea lions, the odd penguin (yes please!) iguanas, tortoises, frigate birds and the infamous boobies plus other species. Not a card carrying twitcher, I was not as excited about seeing lots of different birds unless they were really different (boobies and flamingoes), or didn’t fly (penguins). Wriggling into a wetsuit and going snorkelling or diving with fish, rays and sharks – now that got my heart racing!!

Shrimp feeding

Shrimp feeding

Cerro Dragon, Dragon’s Hill was to be our first landing and not quite the dry one we were expecting, scrabbling last minute to take off our boots and wade ashore. We headed inland towards the two salt lakes (there was no fresh water on the island) and stopped to quietly watch seven flamingoes, filter feeding on the brine shrimp.  With dusk not that far away we carried along the trail and up the hill, black/white sticks marking out the path, so we couldn’t accidentally stray. In the short dense grass we saw our first land iguana and stopped in our tracks to stare. Not as “pre-historic” as the marine variety, golden yellow, streaked with shades of burnt orange with patches of shedding skin, it blended in to the scenery. And then we saw another, and another… by the time we counted close to a dozen littering the path, we began to joke with our guide, Silvia …. whatever she had paid the chap ahead to plant them for us to find, it was worth it!

Land iguanas ... or mini dragons ?

Land iguanas … or mini dragons ?

Sally crabs

Sally crabs

The next morning we visited South Plaza, one of the twin islands off the coast of Santa Cruz.  Scrambling ashore we tried hard not to tread on the ‘sally lightfoot’ crabs that clung to the rocky shore as waves rolled in. One firmly eye fixed on the crabs and the other on the sea lions littering the beach and the landing platform. Never mind the two metre ruling for their benefit… what about us?!

Welcoming committee of sea lions

Welcoming committee of sea lions

Despite its small size, South Plaza is also home to a ridiculous amount of nesting birds; numerous gulls, Tropic birds and Swallow-Tail doves, for starters.  No sign of the blue footed boobie, but we had plenty of time yet and more islands to visit.

Santa Fe, also called Barrington Island after British Admiral Samuel Barrington, is a small island and home to a different species of iguanas, paler and smaller along with giant prickly pear cactus. The iguanas, patiently sit for days, weeks in fact, waiting for the lush pads to fall before feasting away on the juicy pulpy flesh. We watched an iguana tearing into the cactus pad – prickly spikes included – wondering just how long he had waited.

Deserted island....

Deserted island….

After a fab three course dinner – soup, succulent pork chops, red cabbage with spiced sultanas and prunes, broccoli and a decadent chocolate pud – that I could have laid down and died for – we slept like babies as we made our way towards the fifth largest and easternmost island of San Cristobel, stopping at Cerro Brujo on the way.  Pristine coral beaches, with lava rock breakers and sandy dunes were a welcome surprise.  We braved the chilly surf for a paddle and watched boobies, frigates and albatross punch-diving for their breakfast.

Giant saddleback tortoise

Giant saddleback tortoise

Visiting the tortoise reserve and breeding centre was an eye-opener as we discovered some 200,000 had been eaten over previous centuries – ships fodder and local fayre when it was discovered tortoises could live for a up to a year on their own fat reserves without any food and water- providing a tasty source of fresh meat on long voyages. Following man’s introduction (and later eradication) of other species on some islands entire populations were wiped out as they struggled to compete for food.  They inhabit seven of the islands and can grow to a whopping 500kg, living to a ripe old age of 100, however at five they are tiny, barely 20cm, living in a semi natural habitat, awaiting repatriation with their ancestral island where they adapted to, hundreds of years sgo; ‘saddle backs’ are able to reach high up into the cactus plants and under vegetation, ‘dome backs’, found on islands with humid lowlands, just bulldoze their way through the undergrowth!

Iguana pile up

Iguana pile up

Espanola was one of the oldest and southernmost islands that we were keen to see; created from a single caldera, it has, over thousands of years, moved away from the volcanic ‘hot spot’ and is flat as can be. Similarly to Hawaii, the islands are located on s particularly hot mantle, that, in essence, burns through the earth’s crust, creating volcanic activity, which give the islands their harsh and dynamic landscapes. Espanola is home to the ‘Waved’ Albatross, loads of other bird species and masses of marine iguanas. Basking in the afternoon sun, sprawled all over each other, they lifted a lazy eye – almost in acknowledgement of our presence. Inland we came across the females, more drab (natch sadly) and ready to fight for their square of land to lay their eggs. Everywhere we looked there was a bird we hadn’t seen before, a new species of lizard or a pile of iguanas. Wildlife overload, it was almost a welcome relief just staring out to sea at the blow holes – incoming tide forced through fissures on the porous lavarock, spraying jets of water as high than the geysers we had seen in the Atacama desert.

Blow baby

Blow baby

As we picked our way between the rocks, careful not to disturb any birds we stumbled across, we hit the headland and “Albatross Runway”.  Hard not to miss this particular bird with a wingspan over two metres… even so, we struggled to capture one on the wing. We all laughed as we tried to get the ‘money shot’ of an albatross perfectly framed in full flight.  The National Geographic would not be knocking on our door anytime soon! . It was touching to see the males perched in the long grass, waiting patiently for their mate to return to the same spot as last year, as they mate for life. True love!

Waved albatross waiting for his mate

Waved albatross waiting for his mate

Onward we tramped along the trail, hot and sweaty, swapping skittish lava lizards for marine iguanas, piled high on top of each other to conserve body heat, arms and legs akimbo and playful sea lions, making the most of the surf along the reef. Silvia had to put her finest naturalist skills to the test… “shoo-ing” and cajoling along the sea lions that blocked our path to the zodiacs and return to the boat!

Sea lions on the shore..

Sea lions on the shore..

All the islands were formed through the layering and lifting of repeated volcanic eruptions, building layer upon layer over time. Santiago, our next stop, was an incredible example of this. Originally named James Island, after King James II, it was the second island that Charles Darwin visited. Just a couple hundred metres offshore are two islets; Chinese Hat, with its delicate lava and spatter cones, has intricate channels of lava that lead to the sea to create little coralline beaches. The perfect hang out for juvenile reef sharks and sea lions, golden rays and the odd penguin. Yep, we really got to see the tiny Galapagos penguin bobbling along, like a duck in the current, completely fearless of our approaching zodiac – with only five percent of the total population spread across three western islands, we were very lucky. We even got to snorkel with them.. More on that later!!

Penguins inspecting the pahoehoe lava flow on Santiago

Penguins inspecting the pahoehoe lava flow on Santiago

Sullivan Bay, our landing spot was incredible in its barrenness and beauty. As you walk along the flow, or lava field stretching more than 50 km square, smooth sheets of lava rock, pock-marked by lava ‘bombs’ spewed out from the nearby eruptions a hundred years ago, are all mixed up with sections resembling twisted rope, silky ribbons of lava toffee and cake batter and scrunched up knotted entrails. You can just imagine the slow moving surface lava, oozing, creasing, wrinkling finally crumpling as it’s surface cools, completely at odds with the molten magma river flowing much faster below, both further inland and towards the sea.

Bubbling lava rock

Bubbling lava rock

We peered into gaping chasms made by lava flowing out below the solidified surface lava crust and later collapsing, intrigued by the coloured multilayered rock made up of minerals, gases and crystals that get picked up and mixed up on the way. The slow moving pahoehoe lava flow looks completely different to the more common aa flows (phonetically named this in Hawaii because it hurts when you stand/fall on it!), the faster flowing lava flows found on other higher islands, that we had seen. It’s leaves a far more spectacular landscape in its wake.

Salt of the earth

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Salar de Atacama, the Atacama Salt flats are over 3,000 sq km and the biggest salt flats in Chile. In fact they are only rivalled by neighbouring Bolivia, home to Salar de Uyuni (or Tunupa) which is a whopping 10,500 sq km.

Surrounded by the Andes to the east and the Domeyko range to the west, it’s edges crinkled by volcanoes – Lascar and Lincancabur at a few metres shy of 6,000m and only a few km away – quietly active – or so they say! The scenery that surrounds the flats is impressive, without even taking a single step on the crunchy hardened salt or ragged and crusty grey-white surface of the core area; the result of evaporation and no rain.

Swimming in the Atacama

Swimming in the Atacama

First up was a trip to Laguna Cejar and nearby Tebinquinche… We were going swimming. Well actually floating to be more precise, as the salt concentration is close to 28% (the sea has around 3-4%). Having learnt an invaluable and painful lesson in the Dead Sea many moons ago, we checked for any surface scratches and cuts before we donned our cosies. And jumped/dived in. It was cold and our eyes stung momentarily. Much colder than we had bargained for but still very refreshing and loads of fun. Our fellow guest, Siobhan, came with us and we tried (in vain) to have a race to the middle of the lake and gave up. Instead we searched for small pockets of warm-ish water and tried our best to float serenely and gracefully. Instead, listing and rolling like bloated fish…

Rinsed and ready ...

Rinsed and ready …

We were glad Marketa, our host, came with us – aside from her good company and perfect timing – we beat the ‘tourista crowds’ at every place we went – without her insider knowledge we would have committed a serious schoolboy error and not brought the gallon barrels of fresh water we needed to douse ourselves off with after!

Next stop was Lugana Tebinquinche in all it’s glory; chocolate box perfect whiter-than-white salt flat with its endless horizon and crystal waters of the lagoons, reflecting the Andes range and Licancabur plus a strip of vegetated desert that glowed a weird yellow in the late afternoon. We ran across the white expanse, flung a few shadow shapes and checked out the mini lagoons that spring up from the outcrop of water below the earth’s surface.

Hammer shadow pants rule!

Hammer shadow pants rule!

Whilst we were busy playing around and getting ready to capture the sunset, Marketa got together our “well-earned” snacks and, in the absence of a bottle opener, Matt used the back of the truck to open beers… Cheers!

Reflecting at lake Cejar

Reflecting at lake Cejar

Cactus door and leatherwork at Toconao

Cactus door and leatherwork at Toconao

The next afternoon with flamingos on our our wish list of things we really wanted to see, we headed to Laguna Chaxa, stopping off for a quick peek at one of the nearby villages, Toconao. All of the houses are built using volcanic brick, sillar, even it’s pretty towered church that dates back to 1750, complete with a cactus and leather hinged door.

Although a lot of the village work in the mines (lithium, from the salt flats accounts for 27% of the world’s reserve and is considered to be the largest and purest source), we wanted to have a quick peek at Quebrada de Jerez, a wide gorge that is supported by an underground spring; an oasis for the band of village growers. Quince – the principle crop, apricots, cactus fruit and pomegranates grow in abundance. As we munched on a fresh quince, that stripped the moisture from our mouths, our jaws nearly dropped when we were told the pomegranates are pretty much left to the birds! You can imagine the look on the guide’s face we told him what they cost in England!!

Quince

Quince

Salar de Atacama also boasts one of the most important flamingo reserves, Reserva Nacional Los Flamencosand is home to three different species; Andean, Chilean and the rarely spotted James. We were oh-so-lucky when we visited as we managed to see all of them. Some standing solitarily and feeding on the brine shrimp, others moving in unison across the salty lakes.

Flamingo feeding time

Flamingo feeding time

We crunched along the paths that led us to each of the mini lakes that make up Lugana Chaxa; if you can imagine the ragged clay based rocky earth in this area as huge scabs across the surface of the plateau, then the small exposed lagoons are like small open wounds that don’t heal because they are teeming with life. Works for me!! The brine shrimp that are found in the lagoons are an essential and incredible part of the Eco-system; not only do they manage to survive in the viscous salty water, they provide food for the flamingos and other migratory birds. oh, they apparently clean up the waters by ridding them of nitrogen and phosphorous, too.

With minutes to spare before the sun disappeared, we returned to one of the middle lakes and found to our amazement that all three species were hanging out, quite nonchalantly together… totally oblivious to the small group of snapping tourists. Matt, Cezar and our guide, where doing our best to get a photo in the glow of the sunset.

Sunset at Laguna Chaxa

Sunset at Laguna Chaxa

Outer space adventures

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National Geographic had a lot to answer for, as to why we were in the Atacama desert. Their glossy pages a siren with incredible images taken at both Valle de la Muerte, Death Valley and the more infamous Valle de la Luna, Moon Valley

Views across the valley

Views across the valley

We had opted for the slightly longer hike around Valle de la Muerte. Mars Valley, or Death Valley as it is confusingly also named; allegedly the Priest that named the valley “Marte” was misunderstood by the Spanish speaking population. Either way, it is a strangely stunning place, pretty much devoid of any vegetation which kinda makes you wonder how the numerous caterpillars survive that we saw. From the imposing cliff top you can clearly see the gorge and road cut into the mountain-side, by sulphur miners many yeas ago. Jagged ridges of mountains with vertical strata lines, suddenly give way to weather worn drifting sand banks and huge dunes.

Looking for an oasis...

Looking for an oasis…

Dropping down from the cliffs onto the ridge of the ‘Great Dune’, our guide, Cezar, suggested we take our boots off. We didn’t need to be asked twice. Off they came and we took off along the ridge, feeling like we had struck gold when our feet found cool moist sand below the surface. Like a bunch of kids we ran down the steep side of the slope, each stride sending a mini avalanche of trickling sand with it. Yep, if you are up for sand surfing, this is the place to do it…. Pity about the achingly long slog back up..!

Dune runners

Dune runners

After a cold beer and tasty lunch of ensalada, followed by vientre de cedro, pork belly with savoury rice at the lodge, we were ready to hit the trail again. This time to the infamous Valle de la Luna.

There is an very compelling reason by NASA tested it robots out in this part of the Atacama – otherworldly rock formations, huge layer cake salt mountains in an barren landscape pock-marked with a few salt basins and a vast crater – it’s the closest they can get to Seeing how primitive life forms can survive, on this planet.

Valley walls

Valley walls

Sheer high rocky walls and a sandy valley below, make it look similar to the Grand Canyon in places; sand banks and rocky paths, a strange trip to the seaside. Natural erosion has sculpted weird and wonderful shapes out of the rock; the three Mary’s – now two and a half (one lost it’s head!) and strange twisted fingers of rock point eerily skyward.

Rock finger pointing

Rock finger pointing

We huffed and puffed our way up layered dunes, across the crunchy salt rock strata to Piedra del Coyote or Cari viewpoint, as it is sometimes called. It was so worth it. At dusk the valley took on the most incredible hues; the clay and mineral salt mountains turning everything from gold, burnt orange to cardinal red, fuchsia and deep purple before us. We sat in silence, wrapped up in warm fleeces and hats as the light faded, totally mesmerised.

Sunset over valley & volcanos

Sunset over valley & volcanos

Sunset at Valle de la Luna

Sunset at Valle de la Luna

Desert days and nights

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On the Atacama road

On the Atacama road

Landing at Calama airport, the landscape took our breath away; a vast plateau stretching out in front of us as far as the eye could see, broken only by several jagged mountain ranges and huge salt basins, shimmering in the sun. On the horizon we could make out the Andes and the snow-capped chain of volcanos. On the ground, dust spiralled up and trailed behind the huge super trucks travelling along the mining roads. Calama is a major mining town and as the copper mining industry took off in 1915, it’s labours are considered a key indicator of the Chilean economy. Chuqicamata or Chuqui as its known locally is the largest open copper mine in the world.

street life in San Pedro

street life in San Pedro

We headed 110km south east to San Pedro de Atacama on a near empty highway that cut through the plateau, salt ridges flanking the road, signally our approach to town – the clay and salt crusted ridges, pushed by volcanic activity and shifting plates, had been shaped by the weather and resemble the spiny backs of weird pre-historic monsters. San Pedro de Atacama is pretty much an oasis in a barren land and sits close to 2500m above sea level.

Shuttered cafe in San Pedro

Shuttered cafe in San Pedro

It looks almost Spanish with its cactus roofed 16th century Iglesia de San Pedro, pretty tree-lined plaza and adobe shuttered buildings, selling trinkets galore (mainly Bolivian) and trips into the desert, plus open doorways offering the promise of a cooling beer or home made juice and empanadas inside.

Luckily we had found our own little oasis in the shape of Atacama Wellness Ecolodge, just outside town. With its great food, hot tub, hammocks and shady terrace plus full programme of tours/activities, we would find little time for massages and a siesta, let alone time to paint the town!

Llamas

Llamas

Keen to experience as much as we could in four days in one of the driest places in the world, we headed out bright and early the next morning for our first hike in the desert. Setting off near the small village of Machuca (pop. Eight!!) we headed down the valley, surprised to see a coating of ice across the wetland’s mossy lichen and tiny streams. Mind you, we were starting out at altitude, nearly 4,000m. We followed the course of the rocky and empty river bed with its patchy tall ‘fox tails’ and sturdy fustica grass, used to make roofs. Grazing llamas eyed us quite casually as we walked by, staying close to the corrals and munching on the short tufty grass and tola bushes, that smelt like eucalyptus and rosemary. The domesticated version of guanacos we had seen running wild, these were bred for their wool. We decided they wouldn’t get any points for being smart as we walked round a pretty unconvincing llama “scare crow” on the trail… Wearing a safety helmet and clothes stretched over a few sticks, it apparently stopped them wandering too far!

Scaring the llamas...?

Scaring the llamas…?

Atacameno settlement and shade for lunch

Atacameno settlement and shade for lunch

We stayed with the river as it meandered towards an old Atacameno settlement, stepped and irrigated from snow melt streams, with clay baked stone walls, fustica roofs and occasionally still used by shepherds tending their flocks of llamas. The perfect lunch stop, we hungrily tucked into chicken sandwiches and juicy oranges, washed down with a kiwi juice drink – a fave of our guide.

After slapping on more sunscreen, we picked up the pace a little as we carried on down the valley – the narrow gorges off to either side, now giving way to a broad plateau and views of our first cactus plants, standing tall on the sheer scrubby side of the mountain. Sad as this may sound, we had been looking out for them, as they were the stereo typical plants we were expecting to see. We weren’t disappointed! Some of them were seriously huge – single “pillars” and branched “candelabras” – that had been slowly reaching out to the sun for some 600-800 years!

Ancient cacti on the slopes

Ancient cacti on the slopes

Rio. Grande valley

Rio. Grande valley

Across the plateau, the scenery was couldn’t be more different; barren layer cake rock, with massive erosion in places, battered by winds and weathered by time. Further down the valley the contrast was greater still; cacti replaced by a swaying bright blue lupins and lush grassed banks near to the widening river bed. It seemed at each and every turn we made, the landscape changed offering amazing views as we headed towards the nearby Rio Grande and our pick up point.

The next day we set off even earlier – in the dark – as we wanted to see the Geysers del Tatio in the early morning light when they would be at their most active and impressive. En route, we watched as the temperature gauge dropped and ice began to form on the windows – inside! – as we climbed higher. We kind of wished we hadn’t agreed to Fabian, our guide, suggesting we mirror conditions outside to aid acclimatisation. It was -6 degrees and falling!

There she blows!

There she blows!

We soon forgot just how cold it was when we approached the geysers, not just a handful, but loads of them! Amazingly, together with hot springs, bubbling mud pools whispy fumaroles, (steam and gas vents), they cover almost four square miles and at 4300m are the highest geysers in the world. Gingerly we approached our first one, staying behind the stepping stones that marked “safe territory”, peering into the warm steam of the fumaroles, listening with bated breath to the gurgling of hot subterranean water below, as it built up pressure…..Whoosh!! With little warning, jets of boiling water erupt from the cracks, spraying high into the air at various angles.

Fumaroles in action

Fumaroles in action

Together with fellow Brit, Siobhan and a couple of Californians from the lodge, we picked our way through the geysers, marvelling at how different they were; some with fumaroles that reached close to 10m, others, were a vast mass of bubbling boiling water shrouded by the steam. Thankfully all were without the nasty sulphurous odour, you would expect to find. In the early morning sunlight, with the backdrop of the Andes and ‘smoking’ Licancabur volcano, the landscape was quite something!

Breakfast is served ...

Breakfast is served …

Just as our fingers started to turn numb from the cold, the breakfast picnic our guides had brought along was served ; a feast of cold cuts, breads, preserves and sweet cakes, served with mochas made from nescafe and hot chocolate – tetra packs heated in a thermal pool of water. Boiling at close to 85 degrees because of the altitude, it certainly brought some feeling back into our hands!

Later that evening, when we would normally have been safely tucked up in bed, we ventured into San Pedro de Atacama to check out the night sky at one of the observatories. With zero light pollution Atacama is the perfect place for star and galaxy gazing – even with the naked eye you could make out the Milky Way and various constellations, although few we could name. Mind you, we were now in the Southern Hemisphere, so nothing looked the same as it did back home.

We had our own Patrick Moore, in the shape of Miguel, who with the aid of a really neat laser guide literally pointed out Saturn, the Southern Cross, Tropic of Cancer, Alpha and B Crux and the Scorpion to name but a few. We then headed into the cupola, that housed their prized telescope. As he lined up the revolving roof and telescope, we wondered what we would actually be able to see….looking through the lens with its 120 times magnification, the tiny twinkling stars took on different colours, that gave away their age, the rings around Saturn became thick bands of white, galaxies in other solar systems unfolded as we learnt more about the sky at night. Time flew by and before we knew it, our grown up stargazing session was over. As we headed back to the lodge, it dawned on us just how insignificant planet Earth is.

Wishing cross at entrance to rainbow valley

Wishing cross at entrance to rainbow valley

Next morning, we were delighted when Marketa, the lodge owner, offered to play host and guide and bring along with her two Labradors. Not sure who was more excited, us, or the dogs as we drove across the plateau towards Valle del Arcoiris, or Rainbow Valley, as it is better known – for a very good reason. Amphibole, calcium, salt and other mineral deposits had permeated the mountainous volcanic clay valley, staining them in bizarre layers; green, blue, grey, white and orange and ochre. Impregnated with tiny shards of gypsum the slopes sparkled and glittered in the sunshine.

I can see a rainbow ...

I can see a rainbow …

Matt's New BFF ... Leo

Matt’s New BFF … Leo

We marvelled at the wind sculpted clay ridges and unexpected beauty of the valley. Scrambling up to get a better view, Leo and Zoe ran up and down, panting for breath and having a great time too.

King of the castle ...

King of the castle …

Grape escape

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There was a very good reason why we crossed the border back into Argentina from Chile, making a bee-line for Mendoza….Wine, wine and more wine! We were on a mission to try as many good wines as we possibly could in three days – whilst trying to remember what they actually tasted like! No mean feat with hundreds of wineries on our doorstop to choose from, growing grape varietals such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and the infamous Malbec and Torrentes. With rather a lot of success these days… Or so it would seem from the 90+ scores given by Robert Parker, the acclaimed critic. Argentina, one of the New World wine suppliers, is considered the fifth largest wine producer in the world, with Mendoza and the vineyards in the province, producing two thirds of this. The region contains 223,000 hectares of planted vineyards, compared to 400,000 in France, with some 280 wineries opened between 2001 to 2007. Malbec is very much the flagship grape; originally brought over from France in 1855, it thrives in the continental climate and semi arid dessert conditions of Mendoza, perfectly suited to the terroir. With vineyards planted at altitudes between 800 – 1100m, Lujan de Cuyo, is very much the epicentre for this emblematic wine of Argentina.

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Magical Malbec grapes

We decided against DIY; neither of us fancying our chances of making it on bikes all the way out to the Uco Valley, or navigating the city after a few glasses in a hire car. We were keen to learn more about the process and varietals and had noted a handful of vineyards we would be keen to see…. none of them were close to each other.

Cellars at Alto Vista

Cellars at Alto Vista

Notebook in hand and open mind we opted to go with Ampora, a well known wine tour operator for the first two days that offered full on guided tastings and we were so glad we did. Not only were Majo and Alex great hosts cum tour guides, they each added a different dimension; Majo, Mendocino history, culture plus her amazing personality and wine knowledge and Alex, a breadth of technical knowledge that was astounding coupled with a great passion for wine; he had just graduated from his degree in wine making.. Before we arrived at each of the chosen bodegas we were given a brief potted history. It was so interesting to learn about each of the predominately European funded vineyards, their preferred viticulture methods before we began tasting; the tours were given with great passion and pride and you couldn’t help but feel an almost reverential hush fall as we stepped into each of the cool and inviting cellars. Over the three days we met agronomists, owners, along with first and second winemakers – all keen to give us an insight into their world.

Tasting room good to go

Tasting room good to go

Spit or swallow… It’s just one of those questions you have to ask. We did both. With twenty odd wines to taste on our first day, we couldn’t possibly quaff all of them and remain coherent. So we studied the colour and savoured the aroma, before taking a slurp across the tongue and palate; occasionally doing ‘the right thing’ and making use of the spitoons. And took notes … decidedly more legible at the start of each day!

Behind closed doors... Private cellar at AV

Behind closed doors… Private cellar at AV

On day one we joined by a handful of Americans as we headed to Lujan de Cuyo, less than 20km south of Mendoza. First stop Bodega Altavista, an really attractive and well established winery, with old vines dating back to 1889, it also doubles up as the French Consulate. Here we had our first taste of Torrontes – known as the “liar” – for a good reason – on the nose an aromatic perfume like Viognier yet on the palate a complex and refreshing citrus finish similar to Sauvignon Blanc.. Unexpected and delicious, it was a show stopper. We actually tried their full range of top shelf wines, from sparkling to their single vineyard Malbec, plus another newbie for us, the Italian grape Bonarda. One wine we didn’t get to try was their Alta Vista ‘Alto’ 1998… Around $2900 AP, or £380 a bottle, we didn’t blame them for not opening it!

The bar had been set and we were not disappointed, as the hits kept on coming.

Wine painting in the cellars  of Kaiken

Wine painting in the cellars of Kaiken

Next stop, Bodega Kaiken, with its pretty covered pergola overlooking the vineyard we ate our first grapes, straight from the vines. Deliciously sweet the Merlot grapes were weeks away from their hand picked harvest. Their Malbec Kaiken Rose caught our attention; the deep rich rose colour a result of 24 hour contact with the grape skins, an aroma that reminded us of cherries and candy floss, it tasted of bananas and melon…we imagined savouring it with a plate of chorizo and octopus in a sun-drenched beach cafe.

Barrel art at Pulenta

Barrel art at Pulenta

With slightly squiffy heads, we were glad that we would soon be filling our bellies. After a pitstop at Pulenta Estate and a tasting that left us favouring the deep red, spicy yet sweet berry Merlot 2008, we headed to Ruca Malen for lunch, with perfect wine pairing (natch). Our table was the last to leave as we lingered over our five course lunch. We sighed over our starter of goat cheese truffle with dried chilli matched with a Yauguen Torrentes and giggled as our third course of Quartirolo cheese and chorizo, beautifully matched with their 2006 Malbec, came with it’s own presentation “map” under the glass plate. Stuffed to bursting after a full day of wine tasting and wine pairing lunch, we were in need of a power nap, before we could do anything else. Casa Lila, our temporary home for the rest of our stay, also gave us a great taste of Mendocino hospitality. A few blocks from the main drag, it was charm personified; beyond the pretty worn iron gates, it was an oasis of peace and tranquility. Just what we needed after a “hard” day of tasting! Yep, gluttons for a good thing, we both knew come 8pm we would be ready for another food fix and more wine! Matt had yet to completely embrace Argentine late night dining. Mind you, even I struggled getting my head around sitting down for a ‘proper’ dinner at 11pm – the reservation time offered for a table inside one particular popular restaurant. We dined outside, serenaded by street musicians, as we tucked into a langoustine salad for me and Costelata de cerdo, pork chop, for Matt… Washed down with our new found favourite, a bottle of Torrentes.

En route to Uco

En route to Uco

Ready for round two, we got up early and embraced our first sunny day in Mendoza as we headed for the hills and Uco Valley. With just four of us (we were joined by two young wine buffs who had friends/family that owned their own vines) and the prospect of a tour and lunch at O Fournier, we were in for a treat.

Tank tasting at Altitude

Tank tasting, at altitude

With a special backdrop of the Andes, vines at altitude and high tech holding tanks, Bodega Atamisque was our starting point for the day and second tank tasting; gingerly we sniffed and sipped the murky liquid offered – full of sediment, you could just about detect the top notes of a soft fruity finish. Within thirty minutes the sediment settled and the wine took on a refreshing and slightly florally almond taste; with less than a week in the tank, it showed great promise and would eventually emerge as their Sparkling Cave Extreme. We were completed divided on whether or not we preferred their Catalpa 2011 Pinot Noir or Merlot. Tough call to make at 11 in the morning!

Straight from the barrel

Straight from the barrel

Gimenez Rilli was an unexpected gem. Not only because we toured with one of the owners, but we tasted one of the finest Malbecs we had ever tasted – from the barrel, a month into its maturation, whilst nibbling cheese and quince in the tasting room. With great pleasure we eagerly hoovered up the steaming hot carne empanadas as we worked our way through several of both their Torrentes and Malbecs. The clear winner? Gran Reserva 2008 with its deep red-violet colour and classic taste of cherry, chocolate, spice and vanilla. It was delicious.

Corn-ucopia...

Corn-ucopia….

Steak and Malbec moment at O.F

Steak and Malbec moment at O.F

We headed further towards the foothills and the incredible looking and super high tech, Bodega O. Fournier. With a restaurant overlooking a lake teeming with trout and the Andes, it was a magical setting for our five course lunch; a twist on classic dishes from Argentina and Spain, matched with some of their best wines. Steak aside – which was cooked to perfection – medium rare and came with a red mojo sauce, the starter, Duo de humita en chalk y cazuela, a thick corn stew served with the savoury cake of corn, came with a first rate glass of Urban Uco Malbec 2011. Spying the well placed deck chairs, it was difficult dragging ourselves away, as we wrestled with thoughts of a siesta, sprawled out on the terrace. Not only were we stuffed to bursting, we polished off another bottle of their B Crux 2008, a heady blend of Tempranillo, Malbec and Merlot, after lunch!

Lazy like a Sunday morning...

Lazy like a Sunday morning…


On the third day, we were almost relieved to be only visiting one vineyard, Trivento, in Maipu, and home to the production of a wine we had sampled a few times at home, La Chamiza. This time round we got to meet the winemaker and sample with him. We were not disappointed, as each glass surpassed the previous one. Our favourite (natch) was the much heralded Martin Alsina Malbec 2008 and their top end wine. With a bottle in hand we headed back into Mendoza for a hearty lunch.

The most consistent and striking observation we made, over the three days, was just how incredibly well structured the mid to top end wines we sampled were. More so given their age, or serious lack of. So many of them made the cut, it would be difficult to pick our all time favourite, although we will defo be looking out for Torrentes on our return. I would like to say we could spot a Malbec at ten paces – just by the colour – although that just might be wishful thinking!!