Category Archives: travel

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 …

Sunny Santiago

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Our timing was a little off, arriving in Santiago at the start of the Easter long weekend. Nonetheless, we were determined to make the most of the limited time we had and at least see a couple of the highlights on this occasion; keeping a few things back for when we returned later in the month. My longed for retail therapy was definitely on hold, with a lot of shops closed for the holidays. Sigh.

The sun bounced off the shiny skyscrapers as we sped into town from the airport. Santiago, cosmopolitan capital that it is, boasts its own mini Manhattan, with a huge ‘downtown’ business district and well laid out avenues, mixed with apartment blocks and faded colonial mansions – all in the space of two dozen blocks or so. With views of the Andes (on a clear-ish day), sprawling parks and plazas, it is a city you can just about conquer by the Metro’s five lines and foot; we had yet to brave boarding a bus with our token Spanish and well thumbed phrase book. Next time. Maybe.

A large helping of hot dogs....

A large helping of hot dogs….

I hit the tourist trail to check out a few of the “must-sees”, whilst Matt continued researching our Galapagos trip. Knowing full well things would be closed, I made for Plaza De Armes, at the heart of the city and previously, in good ol’ colonial days, the location of the gallows and public hangings. The square was buzzing with people making the most of both the sunshine and weekend; a few street vendors, selling mainly Peruvian (!) knick knacks, candy floss and balloons and an arcade housing some 12 cafes/stalls that seriously catered for any cravings you might have for “dirty white” hot dogs, slathered in mayo, more mayo, gauc, plus you name it, you can have it, number of toppings… Not for the faint hearted or cholesterol checking chicas.

National PO Building

National PO Building

Sadly the Correo Central, main post office was closed; not because I wanted to post anything – we have been beyond pants at sending post cards – but it is a stunning building, both inside and out. I decided against the Museo Historico Nacional and ducked into Iglesia Catedral Metropolitana instead, recently and lovingly renovated it is easy to see why it was deemed a national monument, with its incredible stained glass windows and chandelier that lit the first meetings of Congress after Independence.

Entrance to the mercado

Entrance to the mercado

Feeding time in the market

Feeding time in the market

Not far away the Mercado Central beckoned, an assault on the senses in every way, it was the best place for seafood in Santiago; in the centre and beneath the ornate wrought iron girders, colourful and packed restaurants vied for business, musicians played and stalls sold everything from fresh fruit and veg, cacao leaves, guitars and trinkets. Behind this lay the fish market and the original cafes that fed off the market, with scarred tables and chairs, plastic clothes and all the charm that went with them. A bubbling and blistering hot caldillo de congrio arrived and hit the spot – a hearty stew rather than soup – finished off with tomato, chilli and coriander with a pile of fresh limes, ready to squeeze over. Perfecto!

Fish market in full swing

Fish market in full swing

The fabulous fish girls

The fabulous fish girls

On the way to barrio Bellavista, I strolled along Parque Forestal, that runs along the river (I use the term loosely, as it was more of a stream in

Bellas Artes

Bellas Artes

places) Rio Mapocha and popped into the Museo Nacional de Belles Art, museum of modern art, keen to see the drawings of Paula Lynch, Chilean artist whose portraits in pencil you would swear where photos. The building a stunning Art Deco backdrop for an incredible installation by Finnish, Kaarina Kaikkonen featuring over one thousand garments – men an women’s – strung out, row upon row across the gallery’s entire central hall – resembling a gigantic washing line.

Even if I hadn’t have been up for a fix of modern art, it did mean that I could only hear the whistles, chants and other sounds of the student demo passing by. No dramas but there were rather a lot of riot police present.

Rows of garments at Museo de Belles Art

Rows of garments at Museo de Belles Art

"Bellisimo" Bellavista

“Bellisimo” Bellavista

Barrio Bellavista has a heartbeat of its own and was on our list of places to hang out in, on our return. A multicultural neighbourhood, part old city and part new and edgy with students, musicians, cafes, restaurants, bars (the most per square mile in Chile apparently), theatres and galleries. Patio Bellavista, the perfect pit stop for a cheeky cerveza and a chance to ”people watch’ amongst the restaurants and cafes and craft stalls; a band tuning up ready to take centre stage in the square later that evening, part of the weekend line up.

Navigating the fjords..

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Navimag in her brochure glory

Navimag in her brochure glory

We had pushed the boat out (sorry, too hard to resist!) opting to go on the Navimag ferry up the western coastline and myriad of channels, to Puerto Montt, booking a triple AAA cabin in advance. Not so much because we wanted to travel in style – let’s face it, it was a ferry boat that transported livestock and cargo as well as a few passengers – we wanted to have a window and didn’t want to book last minute; four days at sea … what if the weather was foul, and we had no port hole to peer out of? Thanks, but no thanks. And probably just as well.

Evangelistas cutting through the channel

Evangelistas cutting through the channel

We boarded in Puerto Natales, sadly saying goodbye to Kau Lodge (the girls really did produce the best coffee we had tasted since leaving home) hoping for good weather, great views and half decent wine served with lunch and dinner (we were in training for Mendoza), plus sightings of wildlife from the decks. We got off to a good start, with a welcome bottle of vino in our cabin and relatively informative briefing in our dining room – the cabins had their own, on the lower deck next to the officers mess, below the main dining area.

In the early morning grey light and tides, the ship passed through the skinniest passage on the voyage, Paso Kirke, a mere 80m wide, with a restriction (natch) on the size vessel that can navigate through these waters, heading up the Sobenes Pass, the southernmost channel on our journey.

A series of safety briefings and nature films followed throughout the day, English and Spanish, in the main dining room plus an exchange book programme and the promise the chance to flex your vocal chords at the karaoke evening…. With the hope of sighting a few sea lions on rocky outcrops and seals ‘playing’ in the kelp forests, we stayed firmly on deck, making the most of the dry weather.

Glaciar Skua

Glaciar Skua

Just before supper we got the opportunity of coming up close to Glaciar Skua, part of the O’Higgins National Park and Campo de Hielo Sur. it was magnificent, spanning the width of the channel, some 40 plus metres visible above sea level. Almost the size of Perito Moreno, it’s spiky seraks and deep blue fissures were a sharp azure blue, even in the flat pre dusk light and clouds plus touch of rain, that had just started to fall.

And fall it did. For pretty much the entire journey.

On lookout for seals ....

On lookout for seals ….

The AAA lunch and dinner club

The AAA lunch and dinner club

Murphy’s Law as we wouldn’t get to see much of the stunning scenery around the small channels and islands that made up the fjords. We consoled ourselves with an extra glass of wine with lunch, ‘retiring’ to read in the afternoon, aperitifs before dinner plus a few more glasses with dinner . And really got to know our fellow cabin passengers from Australia as we spent rather a lot of time in their company; like naughty school kids we also skipped some of the lectures and demos in favour of chilling in our cabins watching movies and seeing what we could spot from the port holes…

Puerto Eden, the small (and only) town between Puerto Natales and Golfo de Penas was shrouded in mist as we passed at sunrise; we could just make out few rooftops as we slid by in the silent waters. Angostura Inglesa, English Narrows, so named because only one ship can pass through at a time, came and went without incident and we headed towards the deeper waters of Messier Channel and beyond it, Golfo de Penas and open seas.

It wasn’t the Drake Passage but it was a bumpy 12 hour ride. Just as we were finishing off supper we hit the first big swells and cross winds; time to ‘batten down the hatches’, steadying our tableware and helping our steward Andreas, gathering glasses that crashed over and bottles that had toppled off the table next to us, as he set about lashing closed the china cupboard and cutlery drawers. The evening film was cancelled and probably just as well, as the ship began to pitch and roll with a deep clunky groan echoing through hull as she rode the troughs. Off to our cabins we went…

Misty islands magic around Chiloe

Misty islands magic around Chiloe

The final day aboard dawned a little dryer and brighter – time to stretch our legs on deck and be on the look out for seals, dolphins and sea lions as we sailed around the Chiloe Archepelago. Shouts of “whales, whales” draw a small crowd, but we missed them and watched as sea lions fed on what looked like mini man-of-war jelly fish!

Two books, a handful of movies and a few pounds heavier (four course lunches and diners were beginning to take their toll) we finally arrived at Puerto Montt. Next stop Santiago.

First time foragers

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Given that, once we made camp we were all supposed to use either the picnic tables scattered amongst the tent pitches, or in some refugios, the cooking “hut” provided, an element of (good natured) beach-towel-bagsy-sun-lounger syndrome emerges around 6.30pm when thoughts turn to supper….

After a few days together on the trail, we had checked out each others kit, swapped stories on where we had been and where we were going. Picnic table conversation became the preserve of fave foods and what we were missing and less so about what we were preparing for supper. We thought we had been pretty smart by adding a few fresh ingredients to our de-hy curries, risottos and pasta base meals, so we had to take our hats off the the guys that trekked with bacon plus fresh eggs too!

With bacon running low; onion, garlic and Parmesan, the staple of our non dry stores, we decided to add a few things we found along the way to sex up our suppers…..

Chancing our luck with chanterelles

Chancing our luck with chanterelles

On the trail leading from Refugio Dickson, chestnut mushrooms, morels and chanterelles were all within tantalising and easy reach of the trail. We even thought we spotted a few field mushrooms near the boggy meadows, but weren’t sure enough to risk picking them. Stopping for a spot of lunch, on the banks of the Rio Los Perros, we spied several clusters of chanterelles…. too good an opportunity not to miss! After all, we could always check with the ranger that they were edible.

Mushrooms cleaned, chopped and added to the garlic and bacon lardons, Matt produced the best risotto of the trip. It was perfection on a plate…all that was missing was a big bowl of salad!!

‘Greenery’ in any shape or form, was absent in our camping food and four days in, we were both beginning to miss it. Spinach, broccoli appeared as headliners on the longed for list. Between Refugio Grey and Refugio Dickson, the grassy plains were studded with daisies and dandelions.. pis-en-lit is a well used salad leaf in France, so, once again we thought why not! Washed and wilted they were fantastic in our pasta with arrabiata sauce.

Patch of Calafates on the trail

Patch of Calafates on the trail

Calafate berry breakfast

Calafate berry breakfast

Having spotted so many Calafate berry bushes close to the trail and tasted them in ice cream, we decided to spruce up our morning porridge with a handful of these, instead of raisins. Close to Campamento Los Perros we found a patch of sun-ripened and almost blueberry black berries. Picked and rinsed we added them last minute. Similar to pomegranate seeds they popped in our mouths. Sweet but watery, rather than juicy, we wish we had picked a few more… We would tomoz for sure!!