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Blog Archives: Entries for 2011

My latest new countries

I am still on the road in beautiful South America.  Since my problems, which I have managed to overcome with much help from several kind and thoughtful travellers, I have been to Paraguay and back to Argentina. From Salta I headed to Posadas a quiet small city on the border with Paraguay for one night then across a small bridge by bus to Encarnación, south-east Paraguay. I couched surfed with a cool guy named Claudio and his friends for two nights and visited an early 18th Century Jesuit ruins, where Guarane Indians lived and worked, making rock carvings of nearby flora and fauna.  After this I took a six hour night bus to Asunción, Paraguay’s capital where I stayed for three nights. I took a chance and just arrived at the only hostel around 7 am. Luckily the owner was home and for once did not ignore the door bell. A cool American named David from Oregon originally. Although he was busy organising the hostel, he gave me good directions to the city centre and to nearby shops and cafés, plus the park across from the hostel.  Asunción was hot and humid, in the mid 30s. After my sweaty stay there, I planned to go north to Filadelfia, but due to heavy rain and the outbreak of Dengue Fever, which would kill me because I have very low immune system after my kidney transplant, I returned south to Argentina and once again Salta.
 
My one night in Salta was quiet with dinner in the city with a couple of girls from Canada, a guy from Poland and a Romanian guy. How times have changed travel wise, 10 years ago and maybe even only 5 years ago you would not have met many people from East Europe travelling and certainly not in South America.
 
Next I once again headed north, this time to a small town named Tilcara where I eventually stayed for four nights in a great small crazy hostel come house.  Apart from the fact that the house permanently smelt of cigarette smoke it was lovely and the people great, warm and friendly.  The small town is surrounded by hills, I spent my first evening walking around the centre, checked out the only plaza and eventually found a restaurant and had a steak. I met a lovely couple from Buenos Aires and they helped me order and kept me company and even dropped me back at the hostel.  I spent my second day walking around and just relaxing, taking photos and enjoying the small market in the square. On my third day I went on a hike to Wider Cave, or Windy Cave. This was a four kilometre walk hike over rough rocky terrain with a cool native guide named Diego. He told me about the different plants and how one named Molle could be used in a bath to ease aches and muscle pains. We climbed and I stumbled hitting my knees and feet many times. At one point Diego had to drag me up an almost vertical incline. I had fun stepping over rocks and stretching my legs over rocks and huge stones. The trail twisted and turned and undulated constantly. It was hard work and I drank water constantly and huffed and puffed. Eventually after climbing up what seemed like hundreds of rocks and walking crablike between several stones with a huge drop on one side, we reached the cave.  The first cave was quite large and we were able to stand. However, we then had to get on all fours and crawl through a narrow rock tunnel to reach the other side of the cave. Once I was able to almost stand, we climbed through a tiny window like gap and I was able to sit on a rock ledge and enjoy the open expanse with mountains in front and the cool air on my face. We returned the same way. and the descent with me constantly creating avalanches was even harder The sun appeared and later discovered I had been sun and wind burnt.  Two days later I headed into Bolivia and my 58th country.

I had to take a bus from Tilcara to the Argentine border then find a bridge and walk into Bolivia. It was straightforward enough. Although once in Bolivia the atmosphere changed abruptly. People pushed and shoved, there was more noise and shops had their products for sale on the street. I was lucky enough to meet a lady and her boyfriend I had met briefly in Tilcara and they helped me find the bus station in Villasun where I caught a bus to Tupiza. Tupiza is the gateway to the Bolivian desert and the Salar salt flats. I head there tomorrow Monday 21st March for a four day Jeep tour of adventure and off-roading. It should be an exciting trip with much wildlife and fun.  Tupiza has little to offer apart from a nice market and a small square and church. It’s a nice relaxing place for two nights and one day. Horse riding is available and some walks to nearby canyons.

More to come soon, Tony the Traveller

Problems on the road in South America!

Since the last blog, I have been to a few places and had several problems, some of my own design and others completely beyond my control! My trip up the coast of Chile hit a snag one evening when I attempted to get a bus from Valparaiso slightly north of Santiago to Arica, Chile’s most northerly city. I was informed that no buses were available until Monday, and it was only Saturday evening. I then asked about buses to San Pedro de Alcama, but again was told no buses were available, this time until Tuesday. Therefore, I returned to Santiago for one night and caught a bus to Mendoza, Argentina and wine country. This was an 8 hour bus ride through towering peaks and bumpy unpaved twisting roads. I enjoyed the journey immensely, feeling the bumps and twists. Mendoza is a nice quiet pleasant city with a main large plaza (square), surrounded by 4 smaller plazas. I found Mendoza has the best pavements of all the cities I have visited in Argentina thus far!! After a couple of pleasant days strolling the streets and visiting the cafes I headed north to Salta where the problems began…

The bus journey to Salta was meant to be an uneventful 18 hour ride but turned into over 20 hours and a change of buses. Something was obviously wrong with the bus I was on from the beginning as only 2 hours after leaving Mendoza, one of the bus personnel began banging things under the bus!! We did eventually continue the journey. However, only 70 miles (100 km) from Salta and about an hour from my destination, all passengers were told to disembark and board another bus. In my haste to gather all my gear and ensure I caught the next bus, I left my bag of medication, which had been on the floor between my feet all day, and only realised I was without it once in Salta. A guy from Spain who was also travelling, helped me to visit the company to explain my problem as he spoke Spanish and I only have a few words of the language. I was informed that it might arrive the next day, but not to be too hopeful. I decided that I needed to find a hospital and get replacements as it seemed unlikely my medication would reappear. Another backpacker from Italy accompanied me to a hospital that specialised in kidney conditions the following day after hostel staff had discovered where I might get assistance. The hospital had the required medication but the next problem was that it cost $750 for a month’s supply of 5 medications, something I could not afford. However, I was told that I might be able to get a week’s supply of the anti-immune medication for free. When I visited the doctor, he was able to give me a month of anti-immune tablets for free – unbelievable and extremely kind. The other meds I purchased for about $50. That evening, as I went to buy my bus ticket for my next journey, I discovered that my medication had been found and nothing taken, amazing. However, it was at this point my next problem arose! I tried to take money from the cash machine to buy my bus ticket to Posadas on the boarder with Paraguay, but the card refused to give me money. When I attempted to buy the ticket with my card, it was refused. I visited several other banks with one of the hostel staff named Carlos, but the same result, I was refused money. This meant having to email and then Skype my Mum, and work out what was wrong with the card if it was blocked or broken or it was the banks in Salta. I eventually established that the bank had blocked my card because I had gone from Chile back to Argentina. Through Mum’s help and Skype I was able, after 4 attempts, to get my bank to remove the block and use my card.

Salta is a more difficult city to travel around, although it is like many cities in South America on a grid system so it is just a case of counting blocks and asking for the name of the street. San Martin seems to be the main street in most Argentinean cities as he was the main general who gained Argentina independence from Spain in 1810. One of the main attractions in Salta is to climb up a hill by way of 1026 steps to a view overlooking the city and its mountains. I had threatened to climb these steps for several days and on final morning in the city did so. I first got my directions from Hostel Duendes at San Joan Street 189, where I had stayed and walked north for 7 blocks along Santa Fae Street then east for 3 blocks on Belgrano Street. This street gradually lead up hill to the Monument of Guemes, a notable local hero in the war of independence. Once at the moment, I managed to get a security guard to take a picture then set off to find the steeps up the hill. This was slightly confusing at first as the steps I found were large individual long blocks, that lead to a road. Nevertheless, once across the road, I was shown to where the real climb began. Rock steps that ascended in groups of ones and twos before larger groups of six and seven. The escalator twisted and turned up the mountain making it difficult for me to find the next series of steps. As I climbed the drop one side of me or the other became great and I nearly came off the step trail several times, slipping twice and falling onto grass at one point. I sweated and grunted my way, slipping, stumbling and banging my feet up the staircase. It was great fun and an enjoyable challenge in a peaceful setting with trees along the route. Two thirds of the way up, I was again confronted by a road which confused me for several minutes and it was only with the help of a girl from Canada that I found the final set of steps which took me to the top of the small mountain. I passed two man-made waterfalls along the way and added them to my collection of many photos from this trip.

Once at the top, I took in the view briefly, feeling the nice breeze and warm sun, before taking the cable car town to the bottom, which cost 15 pesos. I then got directions to the main plaza, 9th July and had a meal before catching my bus to Posadas.

I spent one evening in Posadas, which was hot and had little to offer in the way of attractions. I took a bus to the hostel from the bus station and got lost trying to locate the actual building. It was a Sunday and few people were about. I was now in the tropics. The next day I headed to my 58th country.

Paraguay

I had arranged to couch surf in Paraguay, at least that was the plan. I caught a mid-morning bus from Posadas across the border to the small city of Encarnación. This took about an hour. I was dropped on a street in the centre of Encarnación and had to find someone who had a mobile phone in order to meet up with Claudio, the guy I was staying with. Eventually I found a lady in a shop with a phone and 10 minutes later Claudio met me. He works in civil engineering and after dropping me at the house he shared with 3 other Paraguayans he returned to work. I met the other guys, Raul, Joseph and William, who nicknamed me Pony, because I’m so short! I just hung out that first night and spent my only real day exploring the river front in the morning and visiting an 18th century mission in the afternoon. It was about 25 miles (40 km) from Encarnación in the small city of Trinidad and took over an hour on a small rickety old bus with no air condition to get there. I was dropped on the side of a road with only broken bricks for a pavement. I had to walk 5 dangerous blocks in blazing sun and heat to find the mission. Once there, I was taken around the remains of the church and sacristy where I felt many pieces of rock art that the Guarani local natives had designed. I felt faces and flowers and leaves carved into the sandstone bricks that had been used in the church, it was most interesting. I later returned on the same hot smelly bus after chatting with some of the guides that worked there. That evening I caught a night bus for a 5 hour journey to Asuncion, Paraguay’s capital and took a chance the hostel would be open and have a bed available. I took a taxi but was taken to the wrong hotel twice before another taxi driver found it. I later discovered I could have taken a bus. I arrived at the hostel, an old house which had one dorm room with 4 beds, around 7.30 am and luckily found the owner in. He, for once, did not ignore the door bell and I was able to get a bed for a couple of nights, which turned into 3. He was a bit surprised to find a blind man from England with little Spanish wanting to stay. However, David from American was helpful and kind. He gave me good directions to the nearest supermarket and told me about an internet cafe and food place named Hesharms, run by a guy from Siria. I crashed for most of the first day and visited a nearby park in the afternoon. It was intensely hot in the mid 30s Celsius (90s Fahrenheit) and very humid. I visited Hesharms cafe and found him a kind and interesting guy. I met one lady there who spoke some English and gave out some of my promotional cards about my book. On my second day, I had to go and find a place that sold hearing aid batteries as mine had run out and only one hearing aid was now functioning fully. David thought this might prove impossible as he said Paraguay is a very poor country and anything that cost or is specific might be not available. However, I headed for an electronic place and they helped me find another place that happened to sell hearing aids. Once I had my batteries, I set off to find the Palace of López. This not open to the public as it is where Paraguay’s president Calos Antonia Lopes resides. However, it is a lovely old colonial building and worth a picture. I eventually found it with help and then after my photo headed to the Paraguay river. I walked around feeling grass with my stick and hot sun shinning on my face. I eventually walked back into the city and found the plaza with the Pantheon of Heroes, a large building in the square with plaques and tombs inside. I had a brief explore before heading to a bar for cheese Empanadas and Sprite for lunch. Then I walked the 14 or so blocks with dust, sand, holes and gravel, not to mention broken pavement slabs back to the hostel. I sweated and struggled up the hill in the sun, getting burnt and bitten in the process. Back at the hostel, David informed me about a Dengue fever epidemic that had broken out in Brazil and in north Paraguay and Bolivia. I was planning to go north to Filadelfia in the Chaco, a mostly dry area of land in north Paraguay where many natives live. However, I knew Dengue would kill me if I caught it so I made plans to return to Salta, Argentina. Tomorrow, 14th March I go to Purmamarca, a small town in north Argentina for one night then head to southern Bolivia for the last 2 weeks of this tremendous Latin America adventure.

Tony the Traveller

The big debate of South America!

For the last month I have been travelling through Argentina and Chile. There is a question and a debate that comes from this travelling. I have visited Buenos Aires and Ushuaia, Argentina for the second time and discovered Puerto Williams, Santiago, Isla Negra and Valparaiso, Chile for the first time. I also revisited Punta Arenas, Chile twice. The question is, which is better, Argentina or Chile?

They are both different but similar countries. Argentina is larger geographically whereas Chile is longer. Chileans speaker faster and slightly different Spanish than Argentinians, at least that is my impression. Argentina is generally less expensive than Chile. The bus journeys are just as long in both countries and they share the magical wonder that is Patagonia.

The people, well the majority of both Chileans and Argentinians I’ve met, have been wonderful, kind and friendly, eager to laugh and helpful with directions. I would say the Chilean people are possibly slightly more friendly because I have met them in smaller cities and I have met more Argentinians in the large cities. However, on the whole, they are as warm as each other. I don’t know if I could tell the difference between a Chilean and an Argentinian if met them together but there must be slight differences in voice and temperament.

The cities and towns are different in each country due partly to the geography. Argentina has the space for large populated cities like Mendoza, where I am at present, whereas the narrowness of Chile makes for smaller towns with coastal features and/or steep streets. Valparaiso, north of Santiago, on the coast is a fine example. The hostels also vary, but on the whole I have found hostels in both countries unique and relaxed with few rules and no door keys!!

Puerto Williams in perhaps the most southern town in the world, although it is disputed. All I will say is that it is very far south and on an island south-east of Ushuaia. Puerto Williams is part of Chile and there is a small naval presence. I would describe it like a frontier town, gravel roads with mostly wooden buildings. The town is coastal but with no beach and two small harbours, one being a yacht marina. I found it a pleasant stay for two nights. A lady named Loreto owns a hippy café named Cafe Angle, which anyone who visits must check out. The food is good and reasonable.

For a capital city, Santiago is not too bad, the main plaza, square is worth a visit, and the Park San Cristobal with the statue of the Virgin Mary at the top of a small cable car ride is also worth visiting, even if it is touristy!!

My favourite place visited on this South American trip so far has to be Isla Negra. A small town of roughly 500 souls, it grew out of the fame of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, who built his last house here and lived there on and off during the 1960s and early 1970s. A tour of the house, which looks out over the sea, is given in English and Spanish and is excellent. It is an amazing place full of collectable items and atmosphere. Neruda wanted it built like a ship and the doorways and stairs are very small! An amazing interesting man of the mid-twentieth century and definitely worth further investigation.

Neruda’s house in Valparaiso is also interesting and visitors can take an audio guided tour at their leisure through the house that he lived in during the early 1960s.

I stayed at the Poet Madness Hostel in Isla Negra with a lady named Sandra and her daughter Pea. It was a really great experience. A wooden house in the countryside up dirt road tracks above the small town. You descend rock steps, cross a wooden bridge, ascend more rock steps, then climb up wooden steps on to a wooden porch and that is before entering the house. Once inside, you are greeted by the lovely aroma of burning incense candle and the scattered objects of Sandra’s personal collection. Decorative lampshades to coloured stones and necklaces. Cushions dot the floor and the atmosphere reminded me of the hippy communes I had read about of the 1960s counter-culture generation. Truly relaxing and homely.

Sandra refused to take my money for any of her hospitality, which included an evening meal of beans and bread, cheese and cookies for breakfast. Tea was offered frequently. I met Pilar, a lady from Santiago, who was with her lovely daughter Margarita, aged 10. The kids became my friend and looked after me for the evening.

I visited a friend of Sandra, a man named Roberto, who has wooden sculptures in his garden. After feeling up all the sculptures on view I entered the large wooden house to hear a band practice for a weekend gig. They let me play the drums and everyone applauded my efforts!! The young people were all really friendly and cool. I gained a small insight into Chilean small town life and also received a cultural and social experience.

Some days later I met-up with Sandra by chance in Valparaiso, she just saw me on a street corner, amazing, especially in a city like Valparaiso with its many hills and winding streets that go in all directions!! Now I am in Mendoza, Argentina, a nice city with several squares, hot weather and friendly people. I next head to Salta then towards the Paraguay boarder.

That is all for now, more picture available soon. Tonythetraveller

Antarctica part two and other travels

After making the first landing on Half Moon Island during the first evening in South Shetlands it became even better. We enjoyed many more landings, nine in all, with only Port Lockroy being missed as the time of evening was too late for a landing. The wind with us constantly became horizontal on more than two occasions and was at its most devastating during our visit to Deception Island and on Hannah Point.

The return journey from Hannah point on 3rd February was breathtaking! The Zodiac was tossed up and down like a toy and on attempting to reboard the Ushuaia, I nearly fell back into the inflatable! Leandro said it was the roughest landing he had done thus far and he was concerned for me.

In between this adventure, we had fun in Niko Bay where many of the group took an Antarctic bath at a pleasant 1.72 degrees C! I sat on the stoney beach and listened to their shouts!! I heard Chinstrap, Gentoo and Adelie Penguins at various times on most of the landings and the Adelie made a hell of a noise! It sounded like laughter!!

One evening some of us witnessed nature and its best and most destructive. When visiting Peterman Island. Leandro and I visited a large colony of Gentoo Penguins and listened in near silence as they chatted among themselves and wondered about. Leandro described the action and I enjoyed the sound of sea and penguins. Many of the others watched the sun setting. As darkness fell, a bird, an Arctic Skua common among Penguin colonies attacked. These birds eat penguin eggs and young chicks when ever possible. Leandro told me what occurred: The Skua went back and forth along the line of penguins tying to find and take eggs and chicks, while the adult made hissing sounds and tried to ward off the birds. It reminded me of stories I had heard of the naval convoys during World War II heading to Russia and being dive bombed and picked off by single German bomber planes… Just before we left, and after the penguins giving an impressive defence, one chick was taken and killed. Apparently, one lady found this too disturbing and returned to the ship. It was sad to learn about but part of nature.

The white continent is impressive as we learnt and discovered. The science bases and historical harbours and science museums I visited were fascinating and provided extra insight to the wildlife on the most southern and cold of continents. Hearing how scientists lived and worked, undertaking meteorological and other scientific research in an environment as remote and extreme as Antarctica can be, was amazing.

Leandro and I spent a fascinating hour on Niko Bay exploring, and in my case, touching every object in the former British scientific accommodation. Established in the early 1930s by the British and eventually bought for £1 by the Ukrainians in 2009, the former lodge, now museum, illustrated the harshness and also toughness of people two or three generations earlier. Five to seven men living and sleeping in small wooden cabins, which were only a few inches higher than me, for over two years was amazing.

The Russian station, however, held the best of modern comforts including the most southern bar in the world. We were offered early morning vodka, sadly I declined! Apparently, under British occupation, ladies who visited the station often left their bras as a souvenir! Only a couple were on display and I was unable to feel any!!

Although Antarctica was the seventh and final continent I visited, it was so much more. All my senses – sound, smell, touch, skin nerves, spacial awareness, temperature, feet textures and facial muscles – exposed and tested by all the elements in Antarctica. I was so privileged to be there on the snow and ice, in penguin poo, hearing birds and penguins talk, elephant seals grunt, Humpback whales blow for air. Feeling the icy wind slash through my four layers of clothing, the snow giving way time and again under my feet causing me to loose balance and fall into the snow, often on my arse.

It was climbing up the volcano on Deception and walking the beaches on Peterman and Paradise, just being there, that made it so special. The Zodiac – crazy, speed frilling, wave crashing, wind chilling rides – only add to the adventure and hearing about the history of whaling or feeling icebergs in the sea as we speed by was an even greater pleasure. Going with such great people like the two Greek boys, Leandro, Danny, Andrea, Cecilia and everyone else I met made it so much fun.

I loved sliding down the snow onto the beach or handling whale bones on Half Moon Bay and hiking the volcanic clad glaciers, paddling in rubber boots in the sea, hoping a penguin might swim by, listening to the lectures and adding colourful questions and provocativeness, when requested, it was so fantastic. What a blast, what an adventure, what such kind, friendly people.

Now I am in Santiago de Chile for one night before heading up into north Chile, first along the coast and eventually inland to the world’s highest desert. Since the Antarctic expedition, I’ve explored Puerto Williams, Chile, flew to Punta Arenas where I held everybody’s attention at the hostel Backpacker Paradise. Christina and Migel, from Spain, and Ronny from Switzerland did their best to look after me!! Then it was to the Falkland Islands for a week of relaxation, expensive but interesting tours and nice, kind people. I have now been on Falkland Radio which was fun and heard King Penguins make trumpet sounds at Volunteer Point. If anyone goes or is thinking about going to the Falklands, I recommend staying at Lookout Lodge with Caroline Cotter. Three meals a day plus free laundry for only £30 per night. It is a little way from town but very walkable.

Today I visited Parque de San Cristobal and the statue of the Virgin Mary. It was an interesting trip. Another backpacker and I took the subway, metro, then a cable car to the top of the mountain to look over the city and take in the tranquillity ad peaceful religious environment. Its now getting warmer as I begin my travels through northern Chile and further into the heart of South America. About 28 degrees C, 90 or so Fahrenheit, in Santiago today and set to get hotter!! Well that is all for now. Happy travels, Tonythetraveller.com

The white continent!

So my trip has begun. I am on the road for just under three months, visiting Argentina, Chile, Falkland Islands, Paraguay, Bolivia and Peru. However, my real challenge is to get to Antarctica, the white continent. I began on 20th January and flew to Buenos Aires, capital of Argentina via Texas, USA. Four relaxing days were spent with friend I had met six years ago when in Africa. Rodrigo and Inma showed me around B.A, took me to great restaurants for meat, which is beef in Argentina, and made me feel like part of their family. It was hot in Buenos in the mid 30s Celsius, but my next trip took me to colder temperatures.

On 25th January, I caught a 6 AM flight to Ushuaia, the most southern city in the world and waited!!! This was my second visit to Argentina and I had stayed in Ushuaia before so I knew what to visit and where to go. I stayed at hostel Cruz de Sur in the centre, a great place with very friendly staff. I told them on arrival I was searching for a boat to Antarctica, all the companies I had contacted when in the UK had requested I take a companion or pay double for a guide. They were all charging too much. However, the guys, Alexandro and Vicie at Cruz de Sur, were able to help. They contacted a company that had a cruise leaving on 28th January for nine nights. I had to pay for a personal guide but the cost was much less than I had been quoted by other companies. I decided it was worth paying and prepared for what I hoped would be an amazing adventure.

Writing this blog 12 days later, I can confirm it was, and much more amazing than I could ever have a imagined. The ship was called M.V. Ushuaia, 85 metres long approximately with a forty person crew and staff. The passengers numbered in all sixty four, with another twenty joining later, but more about that further down. I took plenty of gear, warm hat, two different pairs of gloves, a couple of pairs of trousers with warm linings and tops and jumpers made with material designed to keep one warm in the cold and cool in the heat. I also had a fleece jacket and a water resistant jacket and water proof trousers. We were all given rubber boots and life jackets on board for the various landings.

On the afternoon of 28th January 2011, I went off on my adventure to Antarctica. Leandro from near Buenos Aires, Argentina, was my guide and companion for the entire trip and I must say now he was a star. We shared a cabin together and he looked after me as if I was his own son. He took photos of me in the various locations, of wildlife, described the animals in their habitat in broad detail and ensured I had a fantastic time and experience. I cannot thank him and the rest of the staff on board the Ushuaia enough. I met many of the passengers during the cruise and many became friends and although suffered my odd sense of humour seemed to cope with me for the majority of the trip.

It was fun, going to lectures about nature and the continent, hearing about the penguins we would spot and smell and hear in my case, god all the penguin poo!! It was so informative and interesting. Dannies, Andrea and the others all gave tremendous informative lectures.

After two days crossing Drakes Passage, really a large expanse of the Southern Atlantic Ocean, looking for Albatrosses and Petrels and trying to tell the difference between a royal and a wondering Albatross, we eventually arrived in the Southern Shetlands, the most northern part of Antarctica. On the early evening of the second day, we made our first landing by Zodiac, rubber inflatable boat, to Half Moon Island.

So I finally set foot on the Antarctic, was so emotional as I stepped from the sea onto the rocky pebbled beach, what a frill to reach the last of the seven continents. The next instalment of my adventure will have to wait for another week. Happy reading to all who experienced the trip with me, many, many thanks for an amazing time…

Tonythetraveller