That weren't no DJ, that was hazy cosmic jive

The great up, up, up

15 December 2010. Wednesday.
So, um, a week has passed and more. Besides the number of days themselves, we’ve also passed through three climates, 1,000 kilometres, and various versions of wine-flavoured ice-cream. When in Mendoza, do as the Mendozans – and that means waffle cones full of merlot.

To catch up to here – I caught the Bariloche-El Bolson bus by the skin of my teeth, as it transpired, with the operating company being different from the ticketing agent. Word to the wise: always good to ask every bus driver you see whether he’s driving the bus you want. More reliable than simply knowing the destination signs, the bus logos, or the scheduled parking bays.

Anyhoo, the 2-hour ride south was mostly breathtaking. An otherworldly ridge of giant tyrannosaurus-tooth mountains ringed the expansive network of azure lakes, and megaton accumulations of snow clung to the steep slopes with what seemed to me a gravity-defying tenacity. When the avalanches come, they will make a mighty rumble, but thankfully the only rumble I heard was that of the bus engine, driving us further and further south. I shot photos from the bug-splattered windows, my mind at once awed by the vista, as well as focussed on meeting M in just short minutes. It was an exhilarating ride, though every minute seemed to slip past like a second, and with a heartskip, we were arriving in town.

Once pulling in – a town without a bus station – I kept my eyes out for a short-haired backpacker girl cross-legged with a sketchbook, and indeed found her. On spotting her, it immediately felt like months and even years had passed: but once I tipped my hat, saw her smile, and lifted her up, it felt as though we’d been apart maybe a week. We were giddy and tongue-tied and full of laughs. Maybe altitude had something to do with it? Hee.

We ate trout and drank wine, caught up on all adventures and silly banter until a bit late, then to the hippy-commune of a hostel where she’d arrived that morning – a 20 minute walk up a dark gravel road, guided by starlight and random aggressive dogs – we kept stones in our hands for worst-case scenario warning shots against them, and happily never threw a single one.

Straight to next day: hiked around a small lake, Lago Puelo, picknicked and (as she’s now wont to do) some birdspotting. Snowy peaks framed the turquoise lake, purple lupins (like snapdragons) and yellow gorse brush held the dry soil in place, with flashes of ponderosa and grassy-leafed bamboo sporting wheat-like flowery blooms – supposedly exceedingly rare. We ran for the hourly, and hour-long, rural route bus back into town: a bus filled with mulletted teenagers with a super-distinctively eighties fashion sense that brought me way back to school bus memories of my own distant past.

The next day was epic. We plotted a three-day trek up and around Hielo Azul, a 2000m summit near to town. Three days sounded all very leisurely at first. Well ho-lee-shit. The weather was against us from the start: heavy drizzle that soaked through my camera case, so I packed it away. We crossed an Indiana Jones-esque suspension bridge over the glacial Arroyo (Stream) Azul – all dangling planks and swaying cables, and from there would begin the 15km trail upwards. They recommended seven hours – minutes were certainly not slipping away like seconds during this hike, I can tell you. It was really a torturous, freezing and soaken climb, a relentless day where even pausing for tomato and cheese rolls offered no relief – only more wet and cold. M is better practiced at the trekking, though both our spirits were struggling a bit. Swamp-crossing, thorn-scratches, no views at all, clinging to muddy rock-face by torn fingers, beaten all the while by lashes of rain. I’m afraid humour was really gone for a good part of the day. Only burning thighs, blistering feet, angry lungs, sweat, and ice. I laugh now. But there was a lot of FFS action going on at the time.

We reached Refugio Hielo Azul by just gone 6.30pm, two bags of bones. We were greeted by two military-minded Israeli-hikers and an American couple with a Vermont lentil-soup ethic. The refugio’s manager, Luciano, a young, serious Argentine, brewed his own cidery beer at the premises. I ordered a litre. We told jokes, explained family histories, and played backgammon by the woodstove and a dangling light bulb until the wee-est of hours, then slept in the loft, sound as houses, joints and muscles scolding me throughout the dreamscape.

Day two presented snow. There had been a slushy dusting at the Refugio when we left, at a very civilised 11am. (!) for our revised walk to the nearby Refugio Natacion. It was literally only a 5km route, but solidly up, through thickening snow, muddy streams concealed under the white powder, and a lost path. Trailmarkers were normally yellow and red stakes pounded in the ground to no more than a foot’s height, and before long, the snow had covered everything.

So, yes, we cursed and growled our way up the 45 degree incline out of the ravine, slipping often, clinging to the icy and muddy earth, to loose roots and branches, anything possible, as we crawled angrily to higher ground. It took us three hours, easily. We had these little crises of identity: do we like trekking, actually? Is this normal? Would anyone like this? 😦

Once plateauing, though, the snow knee-deep, pine boughs weighed down by the heavy white stuff of wonderland, spirits returned. We scoured the deep and frozen alpine lakelands looking for the lost Natacion – following old footprints for a time, before they trailed off, or reversed upon themselves, or met an intersection of confused footsteps, with trails radiating out hopefully in eight different directions.

By 3pm, we found the place. The refugio was smaller and colder than at Hielo Azul, with plastic-sheet windows, and populated by a subdued clique of porteno trekkers, and a French couple, Pierre and Sabine. It was only midday, but we stayed put. Thoroughly rustic – slow Scrabble games, slow pasta cooking, slow guitar on an untuneable acoustic, and constant fire-stoking. No beer or wine here, though there was mate tea to be sipped from a small gourd. It’s a bitter drink, but there’s something super stylish about holding a gourd of loose tea and sipping from a steel straw! Knackered, we went to bed in the frozen loft by 10pm, M and I bundled tightly together in a couple of sleeping bags, me wearing four layers, and with shorts on my head. Warming, and oh so sexay.

Day 3, the descent to Wharton, a farmhouse neighbouring El Bolson by about 20km. We went with Pierre and Sabine, which was very pleasant. She’s a translator in a school, and he’s an early childhood educationalist with lots of ideas about radical education reforms, including teaching Breton in Brittany’s primary schools and teaching kids how to find themselves as much as finding out how to multiply. We decided it would be good to bring backpacking hippies into classrooms to describe their experiences to the kids, and to encourage them to get out and go far. Bizarrely, the whole day was very nice. No slip-sliding down muddy or icy ravines down this face route: the snow-fed streams presumably washing out the westward ravine paths we’d taken on the ascent. The gorgeous snowy forest-scape and crooked rocky peaks soon gave way to panoramic views of the valley below and the Andean mountains opposite. This was a day for harrier-spotting, biscuit-eating, photo-taking, and after about six hours, coffee and cigarettes riverside back on the banks of the upper Arroyo Azul. The sun was hot, and sandflies darted around.

A 20km taxi returned us from Wharton to El B where, sadly, we lost P & S with vague plans to reconvene at the Jazz Fest at 9pm. By 9, our rice wasn’t even boiled. We did go to the jazz fest (and “jazz” it was – no zydeco or bluegrass stylings of Montreal’s festival, El B featured nothing but improv beep-beep toot-toot nonsense. But hey, it was cultural like) but no sign of our compadres. M and I had to sleep in separate dorms at the capacity-full hostel. Sleep! I listened to clandestine shagging and wine-fuelled ha-has till about 4am, before rising at 10, to pack again and to prepare the departure. We were Bariloche bound.

The trek and the relentless pace had made me very desirous of some lazy comforts – newspapers, laundry, internet, coffee. Our travel schedule is a bit tight – I don’t want to waste time, but that doesn’t mean I don’t wince in envy at some fellow hostellers, lounging in hammocks, unbothered by pace or plans. M and I bickered mildly over this point. But, leave El B for Bariloche we did – her logic is just too sound.

In Bariloche, my second visit to the town, we found a glorious hostel, La Bolsa del Deporte. Happily recommend to anyone. We didn’t do much but prepare pizza (oh! Yes, we hitched to Bariloche, remarkable successfully, waiting about five minutes before being picked up by an agreeable trucker from Osorno. He was affable, and spoke to us both via Megan’s amazing ability with Spanish. She holds actual conversations. I guiltily chime in with grammarless comments punctuated with French) and lunch for the next day, and met Kenny and Sarah, a lovely couple from the Great British North (he Scottish and she English). Our plans didn’t quite match up, sadly, as we were only pausing in Bariloche, really.

We’d planned a one-day trek up Cerro Lopez, but infrequency of necessary buses scuttled the plans. M was despondent – noon, on a glorious sunny day, and we’re still nowhere! In absence of the day trek, I reverted to a plan to hire bikes, and so we did that. The “famed” (so the tourist info place wants you to know) Circuito Chico route, 30km round some of the lovelier bits of the lagos.

Yes, hills. That’s what it was. 30km of hills! My trek-ruined legs did struggle a bit, but we completed the circuit, and it was a treat. More harriers, incredible mountain views, and a quick peek into a small mountaineers’ cemetery – graves of the fallen. All the headstones were for local climbers, some who’d died climbing here, and some locals who’d died climbing abroad. With towering shale peaks and a bubbling stream nearby, I’ve never seen a cemetery so idyllic and so fitting a resting place, given the passions of the people who lay here.

Cor blimey – that’s the end of the notebook. Can’t write any smaller I’m afraid. Will buy a new one the afternoon… hold tight friends.

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Over the Andes

6 December 2010. Monday.

The volcanic south is also the misty and cloudy south. Meaning, I’m going to have to take their word for it, I’m afraid, that there are indeed volcanoes. I’m not asking for a big demonstration – nothing that might bury me in boiling ash – but perhaps a little burp. Or, at the very least, a parting of the clouds.

Volcan Osorno’s base is visible across the silvery saucepan of Lago Llanquihue, but its Fujiesque dome is totally obscured in a cotton-swathed sky. The town of Puerto Varas has mild charms that blend bits of Banff with bits of Duncan, B.C., but I have meandered through the whole of the town three times and it’s not yet a quarter to twelve in the morning. Hum!

An incredible change of pace, if nothing else – the single dilemma I face today is whether to hire a bike or not. Given the quietude of the town and the hidden splendours that won’t reveal themselves, I am looking forward to Bariloche on the Argentine side, and hope to spend a bit more time there. It sounds more purely like a Banffesque town with gargantuan mountains all around, and something of a buzz about it as well – though surely that could be the buzz of other tourists…

The night bus last night was quite good – a bit of a sore tailbone from sleeping at an incline for about eight hours, but that’s par for the course. I read some Bruce Chatwin, and played Scrabble against myself. Is that sad? Well, it might have been if I hadn’t scored a bingo! (SCUTTLES). There was no one to ooh and ahh at me though. In fact, I can’t think of a single person who would. But it kept me entertained. It isn’t hard to do.

Hmm. I wouldn’t say I regret Puerto Varas – this is essentially on the way to my real destination anyway, and it’s a relief of some kind to be in an incredibly quiet town without hordes of fellow travellers around. I can eat some croissants (media lunas, sorry!), cycle, hike, regale in the splendour of 19th Century German timber architecture, as Germans featured large in the development of the town over a century ago. I could nap, and maybe, just maybe, challenge an old Spanish-speaking grandmother to a game of Scrabble. Cor blimey, it’ll be a full day after all!

Perhaps more than Banff, or Duncan, P.V. just reminds me of small-town Canada overall. Grid-system roads, four-way stops, nary a pedestrian in sight except for the occasional dog walker or mum with a trolley. Quaint, faux-dollhouse buildings, ice cream shops and little galleries, and this cafe where I sit right now – colourful and brimming with cheer, biscottis and local art for sale. Populated by a middle-aged clientele on laptops or buried in newspaper pages. Kind and mild. These might be the “Lagos Patagonicos,” but there is nothing of Nigeria’s Lagos here.


Nothing today has really dissuaded me from the idea that I’m in the Kootenays. If only I were a rafter or heli-skier!

It’s 10pm, I’m treating myself to a beer in a kind of night club with no one in it, but a Shania Twain concert DVD playing on about… four screens. Today I’ve enjoyed a brief cycle round the lake (part of!) and a long walk down disused railway tracks and through an overgrown thorn-bushed trail to the shore, all loose pebble and mud. Managed a couple of words of greeting with two fly fishermen, and got approached by a very angry dog. I’m very looking forward to tomorrow – crossing the Andes by bus, and descending into the next big valley on the other side: the valley of Lago Nahuel Huapi. I’ve decided that, rather than risk another night of it being just me and Shania, I shall push through and take a second bus to El Bolson tomorrow night. Reunion time with M it is! So tomorrow will be epic in every way. Hell, Osorno might even erupt (come on, you!)

7 December 2010. Tuesday.
I have 90 minutes in Bariloche, and four hours till getting to El Bolson and joining up with M. What’s this town like? I’ve never been to Switzerland, and unless I come across an illicit windfall and need somewhere cute to stash it, I may never go at all. Bariloche epitomises what I’d expect – razor-edged summits ring the lake, and wind whips across it into a town of chocolate shops and wooden gift shops. For an adventure tourism hub, the town is sweeter and cuddlier than I might have imagined – I suppose scraped knees and bruised arms are best left for the trail.

The bus here: three hours in Chile through mostly pastureland and white cloud, which eventually gave way to intriguing mountains sheathed in large wisps of mist and gusts of sleet. So much for “summer”?

By the time we crossed the border and hit the eastern ribs of the Andes, the sun had freer reign and joyous vistas emerged. Great snow-peaked dinosaur-jaw ridges presiding over whitecapped lakes, great slides of tanned scree plunging steeply into the water, having washed away whole groves of twisted pines in their wake. Other mountains were completely bereft of trees, though dotted with dark puffs of thorn bush or bright bursts of broom. A misty, freezing network of lush ravines gave way to these semi-arid craigs, and I, like a hunter on the prowl, kept my Nikon poised for rapid snapshots from the bus window. Several times, I hit my mark, and let out a satisfied “ha!”

After having eaten a burger in town and changed Chilean pesos into Argentine, I’m now suddenly aware I have to go. So, here’s the last note for the moment – I imagine there will plenty of writing time in a couple of days, but as I’m about to see M for the first time in several months, I may put the book away till Friday at least. El Bolson ho!

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Valparaiso and the big bus south

4 December 2010. Saturday.

Santiago is behind me, and I’m ensconced in a triangular patio on the corner of Cumming and A. Montt streets, motorbikes and flatbed lorries rumbling around me here in Valparaiso. The sun blazes, and colourful, worn-down, century-old buildings stack against each other up the steep hillsides. Snoozing dogs steal patches of shade to lounge in, oblivious to motors rumbling everywhere.

My own hostel is a wooden-stilt-supported home built in 1892, snaked around by quaint alleyways and gritty stairwells (which are much more enjoyable after having dumped the rucksack – it was quite an ascent – a mile and a half walk from the bus station seemed doable enough until the hill decided to go steadily upper and upper).

The city’s got a bustling and youthful atmosphere about it – graffiti murals stretch across cracked concrete walls. No gang-style turf-claims, there are portraits, surreal landscapes, abstract expanses of colour for its own sake. I’m very curious how these murals are agreed. Do artists split the city up and decide to tackle different walls? How much of it is collective? Does anything ever get painted over? Do the UNESCO Heritage folks, who’ve designed the old town a treasure of humanity, actually kind of like what these kids are up to?

My last night in Santiago was a minor epic of lateness, involving a cluster of fellow hostellers, two of them long-term, who had collected their own friends in town since their arrival. The night involved a nightclub, which we were permitted into for free thanks to a Brazilian’s apparently magical skills at asking the doorman quite politely. The music was cheese and Top 40, before salsa dancing ensued, and it all closed up by 5am. Not the natural way to prepare for an early morning bus to Valparaiso (“Valpo” if I start using backpacker slang) but I made the bus all the same.

The major attribute of this city is the architecture and the street art, and the main thing for me to do really is just to wonder in its grit and colour, and look out across the Pacific horizon towards what I suppose must be the northern tip of Queensland. Despite all this, there isn’t much to “do” but drink coffees and take photos, which I’ve done plenty of so far, and which I certainly don’t mind. The purpose of travel to me seems often to be to seek out new and idyllic cafes, little bars, and take photos. So, missions are certainly being accomplished, however simple these missions are.

After the supermarket meals of cheese and pitas that I’ve depended on so far, tomorrow I’ll treat myself to sushi (as ubiquitous here as in Vancouver, though not quite as cheap). Even that meagre plan makes me look forward to the reunion with M in El Bolson even more, as solitude has its limits! Four more days till then. If buses from Puerto Montt permit…


I’ve just found a gorgeous, perfect hang-out cafe, thus re-fulfilling the cafe mission. A smoky, street-level dungeon, dim lights, young bohos, eighties rock played quietly, gritty and unpretentious, serving beer from tins for CH$900. It’s called “Cafe Ritual.” Tell Lonely Planet all about it! Walls of red and white, sheet music lacquered haphazardly across the walls, random furniture, and tiny. O.K., now for pasta.

5 December 2010. Sunday.

Valparaiso’s sun has re-emerged after a day of cloud and cool breeze, and with it, the end of a period of aimlessness. Feeling quite bright and excited about the next phase – the bus south – and also pretty well rested. A part of me had been very looking forward to the “Valpo” (sigh) Saturday night, imagining lots of folk rock blaring from cloistered late-night cafe bars, but 1) I was so tired, and 2) my fellow hostellers were kind of annoying, and 3) Cafe Ritual was the only place that looked appealing in the end. So in the end, I made some pasta and sipped a pisco sour courtesy of Jorge, the gregarious hostel owner (shame about the party kids).

In the end, I did agree to join a couple of them on a night out, which only reconfirmed that once you’re in your thirties, you’re in your thirties. And it’s nice here in the thirties.

We ended up meeting with a hosteller’s German 22-year-old semi-resident friend, who led us up one of the city’s incredible hills near midnight, towards his friend’s house where a party was supposedly going on. I was mentally bailing on them the whole walk, after the German explained his view on getting a good daytime high versus nighttime high. My favourite nighttime highs tend to involve dreams of riding a flying dinosaur, and these are utterly uninduced. So, 40 minutes after setting out on this walk, and finally finding the guy’s friend’s house and the cast of six half-asleep beer-drinkers, I said my hellos followed by a quick sorry, I’m out of here. Just not up for small talk about nighttime highs, sorry.

All for the best, as rising early, I got some insight from a Chilean surfer/geographer over breakfast about Chile’s south, and he advised me against Puerto Montt (a non-descript small city) and suggested Puerto Varas – just 20 miles from P.M., but a village on the lake, under the shadow of towering Fuji-like Volcan Osorno, and well connected for Argentine buses. I decided I’d take his advice, as I felt long overdue for some outdoor beautinesses.

First to the choral service at St. Paul’s church, a small place on Cerro Conception (I’d expected an organ service, but oh well) and then a successful tour of hilly neighbourhoods and some new classic photos. Took a couple of elevadors, the 45-degree-angle funiculars that grind up and down the steep hillsides of the city. Got online briefly and planned movements with the M. Without mobile phones, we are really going to be going old school, and having to plan our meeting point in advance – no luxuries of “I’ll text you” or “25 minutes late, can’t find that cafe, let’s meet at Tourist Information instead” – no, we’ll have to, umm, plan!

It’s now resplendent in Valparaiso – The sun is getting low here at 6pm. I think about London’s 3.45pm sunsets and snow, and find it oddly suddenly natural to be experiencing late spring in early December. I get this sense of normalness surrounding Christmas being a summer festival – something that is tied in with general carefree holiday excitements: why not also indulge in gift giving and song singing at the same time? Festivities surely don’t have to be stuck in with the act of hunkering down, making beefy stews and complaining about winter-induced aches. Not sure how it will feel to see fake Christmas trees erected closer to the time, but on verra.

But, that old sun is reclining seriously now, and I’ve got places to go. An 8.15pm departure for the volcanic south. Boom boom!

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January 2011

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