Monthly Archives: August 2014

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Ski Bums : Portillo, Chile

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.

And by the same token. When life gives you winter… go skiing.

Portillo 15Not bad… for a snowboarder

It was never really in our grand plan to be travelling through the southern Andes in mid winter, but maybe it should have been. After a few years of living in Alberta we have really grown to love a white winter. Freezing our butts off in the altiplano of Bolivia just didn’t feel right without the snow to make it all worthwhile.

So we were pretty stoked when we crossed the border into Chile and stopped just a few minutes later at Portillo. The little ski resort of Portillo is high up in the Andes, with a beauty of a lake nestled between the jagged peaks.

It’s not a particularly big ski resort by North American or European standards, but it sure is pretty.

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We camped in the carpark for a couple of nights and had a great day of skiing.

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There hasn’t been a whole lot of snowfall this year, but the icy slopes softened up nicely after a few hours of bright sunlight. Just like spring skiing in the Rockies.

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And really, is there a better place to enjoy a beer and a burger than on top of a mountain, with the warm sun beating out the cold? Not many, if any.

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Although I make it sound like an ideal stopover, it wasn’t without hassles.

I was still battling some unknown illness and spewed from the chairlift.

On top of that, we’ve had a leaky rear brake for weeks now and have had it checked out by three different brake ‘experts’ already. We thought that the last guy in Mendoza had replaced the cylinder with a new one, but we dismantled the brakes in the carpark and found out that this wasn’t the case. This has been incredibly frustrating.

Some amigos in Portillo assured me that the next 60km of descending road wasn’t as bad as it looked. So we pushed on.

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Luckily, they were right. We made it Los Andes without hassle and finally took matters into our own hands. I was working on the van in front of a brake workshop and the guy there recommended a short term solution. Plug the brake line with a nail and keep moving until we can find the part we need. The brakes actually work a lot better now, and we should find what we need to fix it properly in Santiago.

All part of the fun, onwards and forwards as always.

Posted from Santiago, Chile.

Winter in Wine Country: Northern Argentina

Northern Argentina has so much to offer, but we really didn’t make the most of it. As I was slowly recovering from the most disgusting gastro illness of all time, Mark was next on the hit list. We didn’t have much energy for anything, but as always, we had to keep moving. When we weren’t driving, we were in recovery mode.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt took us about three days to realise we were wearing the same thing.

The north is dotted with some super cute dusty desert towns. They mostly have a charming mix of white colonial style architecture and adobe mud brick buildings. Usually our main reason for visiting civilisation is to sample the region’s local foods (and in this case wine), but with our pathetic appetites, we struggled to get into the swing of things.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALunch in Tilcara – still in my pjs

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEvery town seemed to have a pristine white church

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAdobe ruins

Ice-cream imitating wine in Cafayate 

The more we travel, the more I am able to draw comparisons and parallels with other places we’ve been. Sometimes it can be counterproductive, but other times it helps to create a sense of familiarity and comfort in a new place. Northern Argentina reminds me a lot of Utah, in a good way. It has striking rock formations and beautiful coloured desert landscapes, as if burnt by the sun. Oh, and some sweet wild campsites.

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We arrived in Mendoza late on Saturday night. This wasn’t great timing, as lots of places were closed on Sunday and Monday. We still had fun though, exploring the pretty streets and plazas on our bikes. It’s easy to forget that this city is in the middle of the desert.

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Our culinary highlights were dinner at Maria Antonieta and wine tasting at the Vines of Mendoza.

We met up with Beto in Mendoza, he’s a VW mechanic and self-proclaimed pirate. After the rough roads in Bolivia, we need to replace the engine mount. After taking a look at the van, Beto recommended that we wait until Santiago where they have more parts. But meanwhile, he toured us around his city, helped us buy some tire chains and car insurance and gave us some other contacts in Chile and Argentina. His wife, Kuki, even treated us to a great home cooked meal.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFausto, a sweet Brazilian dude, staying with Beto while he works on his engine

Beto introduced us to the art form that is mate drinking. He taught us how to prepare the leaves properly, by shaking out the dust. Then once the hot water is added, spitting out the first bitter mouthfuls. The cup is then passed around the circle, and each person slurps an entire cupful before passing it on. When you’ve had enough you say “Gracias”, but not before (this is the hardest part!).

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We decided that winter here is probably not the best time for wine touring. The countryside was stark and lifeless, but still held a depressing kind of beauty. Blood red berries (probably poisonous!), offered the only splash of colour.

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The hostess at Bressia took one look at us, and said we needed a reservation to do a wine tasting. We had diligently made one the day before, so after giving her a silent “up yours”, settled down for some yummy wine and cheese. We already know Argentina has great reds, but we also really enjoyed their white, Lágrima Canela, a delicious chardonnay blend. After loading the van up with wine, it was time to hit the road again.

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Lately our thoughts have been drifting towards snow covered forests. The forests are still a bit out of reach, but the snow is getting closer. We headed towards the border for Chile, but since the road was closed due to bad weather, we spent the night in the snow-less ski resort of Penitentes.

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Bring on Chile and the snow!!!!

Posted from: Santiago, Chile.

The Salt Flat Saga : Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

We had to shout at each other to be heard above the howling wind. The flying sand was stinging our faces and got into our eyes, noses, mouths and ears so that we could barely see, and had difficulty catching a breath.  With all of this going on, we were trying to dig the van out of a foot of soft sand which had blown in and engulfed what should have been a road.  To make matters even worse, the fast flying sand was creating a static charge, so that every time we tried to open the car door we were zapped with an electric shock.

This is probably the craziest situation we’ve encountered since starting our trip. Visiting the Uyuni Salt Flats was supposed to be a simple two day drive, but things don’t always go to plan.

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The drive to Uyuni started out quite well. We left Sucre early and puzzled our way through Potosi without too much hassle. We soon heard on the grapevine that the road to Uyuni was blockaded by protesters.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe normal route to Uyuni… no big deal

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We were discussing the situation with a roadside restaurant owner when a truck laden with vegetables stopped for lunch. “These are my friends.” He said. “Follow them, they know another way.” This was the start of our hassles.

Firstly, the old truck was so weighed down with onions and potatoes that they had trouble climbing the steep grades and had to stop halfway up every hill to cool off.

It was already sundown by the time we reached their secret bypass through the desert.

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Unfortunately the deep sand proved a little too much for the heavily laden truck. Not knowing the way, and feeling obliged to help, we endured the freezing cold to unload the veges and dig their truck out of the sand.

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We finally arrived at the town of Uyuni, about 7 hours and only 112 kms later, frozen to the bone and tired. We found the place we had been looking for, grabbed some pizza and then collapsed into a deep sleep in the van on the street.

Uyuni 07Room with a view

The next day we learned that our troubles were not over. Due to the blockade, there was no fuel in town. We thought we’d find people selling it in plastic containers, trying to make a buck. But no such luck, the town was dry.

Our only option was to drive 110 km further on to another town that was sure to have gasoline. We had just enough fuel in the tank to make it, but only just.

It turns out that the road from Uyuni to Atocha is a horribly corrugated gravel road that shook the van like crazy and jarred our bones for hours. This was where we hit the sandstorm.

Uyuni 08 Uyuni 09No gas here

We were stuck in the middle of the road and unable to see more than two metres in front of us. We were worried a 4×4 would come screaming through at any minute and take us out. It probably took us close to an hour to move the van back onto firm ground, but it felt like so much longer, all the while being blasted by gale force wind and sand.

We were sitting in the car catching our breath, and wiping the sand from our eyes when help arrived. Once again, a local who knew another way said “Follow me.”

He set off at a cracking pace through the desert as we struggled to keep up. We only got stuck twice more before finally making it through to Atocha.

Uyuni 12 Uyuni 13The windows were closed but this sand still found a way in

Once in Atocha we asked for directions to the gas station.  “Just drive through the river, about five kilometres.” We had to ask a few times to make sure we heard right. We did.

Uyuni 14The river/road to the gas station

We made some calculations to figure out how much fuel we would need over the next few days, unfortunately the gas station wouldn’t fill our spare containers so we had to siphon the full tank into our spare bidones and then return for more.

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After another chilly street sleep in the van we hit the road to return to Uyuni. Luckily we picked up a hitchhiker who once again knew another way. It was a lot longer in distance, but it stuck to firm roads all the way and got us there pretty quickly.

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Back in Uyuni, Bec got horribly sick with a stomach bug. The staff at the Toñito Hotel were great to us.  We’d been eating at their restaurant and using their bathrooms while we slept in the street outside. So they knew what we’d been through. They let us book in early to a room, even sending up soup and hot water to help Bec recover. A good rest, a hot shower and bit of friendly help were just what we needed at this point.

So, we finally made it to the Salt Flats on the day that the blockade ended, making all of our hassles over the past few days essentially unnecessary.

Uyuni 17 Uyuni 18 Uyuni 19 Uyuni 20 Uyuni 21 Uyuni 22 Uyuni 23 Uyuni 24 Uyuni 25 Uyuni 26Uyuni 34 We met Stefano on the Salar, he’s travelling around the world on his 250cc Yamaha

We chilled out in the middle of the Salar for the day and then found our way to Isla Incahuasi, the cactus covered island in the middle of the salt lake.

The sun was just setting as the hordes of backpacker-filled Landcruisers left the island. We set up our bed for the night and watched as the sun set in a soft glow over the distant mountains.

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The night was incredibly quiet and clear with the most amazing starry sky I have ever seen. It was also brutally cold. But, we were warm and happy under our four layers of blankets and sleeping bags, hardly aware that the windows were covered in ice and our water bottles were frozen solid.

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The sunrise was just as spectacular as the sunset had been.

As we were having breakfast and boiling cups of tea, the crowds of people arrived once again. Our cue to fire up the engine, hit the open salt flat and get out of there.

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Being out on the Salar was really beautiful and peaceful, but it was a bit of an anticlimax after all the hassles we went through to get there.

When we returned the main road was open for travel, blissfully smooth and trouble free. We put in a long day of driving and made it to Tupiza late in the evening. We wanted to get to the border early the next day.

Our last hurdle for the week was mostly our fault. I thought we could buy our Argentina visas at the border, but it turns out they are only available online. So after being technically stamped out of Bolivia, we headed back into town to get our Argentina visas.  The internet was so slow that the visa website wouldn’t even load. After hours of trying, we finally decided to call Mugsie in Canada and ask her to do it for us. We finally made it into Argentina, 7 hours after arriving at the border. Just in time for dinner and another cold night of sleeping on the streets.

We look back on it now and laugh, but this past week has been exhausting. Just a few too many obstacles and a little too much adventure. Hopefully we can relax a little now.

 

Posted from Mendoza, Argentina