Patagonia

Puerto Natales and Torres del Paine National Park, Chile

After a very enjoyable stay in Puerto Varas, Chile, we set off for the much-anticipated next leg of our trip. This would be the single biggest jump we had made to date and involved taking the first flight we had utilized since returning to the mainland from the Galapagos way back in late July. Truth be told I actually felt a twinge of guiltiness. I had really learned to love our bus rides and the intimate views of landscape that you just can’t get from 30,000 feet, and getting on a plane somehow struck me as cheating. On the other hand we were headed to an extremely remote part of the world, and the prospect of spending either three days on a ferry or swallowing two back-to-back twenty-hour bus rides was a little more than even this gipsy was prepared to handle. So, off we went, flying from Puerto Montt down to Punta Arenas and following the beautiful spine of the Andes the whole way. The views out the window provided a real taste of what was to come.From high above I could see incredibly imposing mountains, black and brooding and still covered in plenty of snow. In between the high peaks were great flowing rivers of ice that twisted and turned through the valleys, eventually ending in huge lakes filled with their own debris. We were flying over the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, home to the third biggest extension of continental ice after Antarctica and Greenland and therefore also the world’s third largest fresh water reserve. This was some seriously rugged territory, and I couldn’t wait to get a closer look at it.

We touched down in a barren, wind-swept landscape and caught a bus to Puerto Natales. Before I go on though a quick note about the wind is required since it is the most prominent feature of the land that can’t actually be seen. In short, it is powerful beyond imagination and absolutely relentless. One second you’re literally leaning into it struggling to walk forward as if some giant unseen cart were attached to your body. The next second you’re walking in the same direction it’s screaming, careful to step fast enough before it doubles your forward momentum with a powerful shove in the back. At night we would lie in bed listening to it howl, just waiting for what felt like the inevitable moment when the roof above us would fly away. It caused the few trees there are to grow in great twisted shapes and made even the smallest of lakes froth like the angriest sea. It was both terrifying and fascinating at the same time, and I now need not witness a hurricane in my lifetime, for I’m completely aware of how one operates.

Once in Puerto Natales we took up residence in Hostal Amerindia and hit the streets exploring the town. To be honest there’s not really much to the town itself besides a plethora of tour agencies and outdoor gear shops. It’s in the middle of nowhere and survives these days primarily as a base from which to explore the nearby Torres del Paine National Park. The park is pretty much what brings anyone to this far away part of South America, ourselves included, so we didn’t waste any time setting up an excursion to see it. Many people head there for the incredible array of hiking opportunities the park offers, particularly the famous “W” trek. We had neither the gear, stamina, nor time for 5-7 days in the backcountry though, so instead we settled for a full-day trip to catch the highlights.
As we approached the park we saw a few interesting creatures including some giant birds that look just like a smaller version of an ostrich and a species of camelid called the guanaco that resembled the llamas we had seen months before in Peru. Eventually we made our way deeper into the park and caught a glimpse of its most famous and prominent features which are the giant rock horns and towers of the Cordillera del Paine. These are enormous rock features carved by eons of action of the wind and ice. They dominate nearly every view from within the park and are surrounded by a series of lakes that seem to display every shade ranging between blue and green. Later we went a lake that stood at foot of a distant glaciers. The glacier itself was too far way to see fully, but the waters of the lake were filled with a couple of giant blue icebergs floating not far from the shore.

The other excursion we took from Puerto Natales was a boat ride through the narrow fjords that surround the town. The boat took us close to a number of hanging glaciers along the way, giving us a tantalizing taste of what we would experience the following week in the Argentinian part of Patagonia. We also got a chance to see some beautiful waterfalls and even a couple of sea lions resting lazily on some narrow cliffs carved into the rocky walls of the fjord. Midway through the ride the boat stopped at an estancia for lunch. An estancia is basically a large estate or farm. Most of them were once used primarily for raising vast flocks of sheep which provided not only a good chunk of the world’s wool supply, but also some downright delicious Patagonian grilled lamb. You know you’re in for a treat when you get off the boat and see this waiting for you:
The estancia put on a huge spread and kept bringing out the grilled lamb until we begged them to stop. During lunch we chatted up a nice couple from Spain while the husband of the pair made sure the staff wasn’t stingy with the unlimited Malbec. It proved to one of the finer feasts of our entire trip, and needless to say I may have napped a little on the boat ride back.

El Calafate and El Chalten, Argentina

We still had a lot of Patagonia left to see, so a couple of days later we caught a bus heading into Argentina. Our excitement level was running high not only because we knew the best part of the region was right around the corner, but also because we were about to gain some gringo reinforcements. That day our good friends Joe and Sara flew all the way down from Denver, giving up precious vacation time and the Thanksgiving holiday to share in our South American adventure. We were really honored that anyone would bother to come so far to hang out with us and couldn’t wait to see them. They showed up in El Calafate like two magi with a sack full of snacks that would last us for weeks after they left and a bottle of duty-free tequila with a somewhat shorter lifespan. We made our base at Posada Karut Josh and got right down to business.

Our first outing together was a trip to the nearby Perito Moreno glacier, a wall of blue ice three miles wide and the most stunning natural phenomenon I have ever witnessed. A million words could be typed in a vain attempt to fully convey the experience of seeing it, so instead I’ll just present you with a few pictures.

Our tour began with a boat ride across the lake passing in front of the glacier and reaching the opposite shore near its base. There we received a brief lecture on glaciology in general and the Perito Moreno specifically before being fitting with crampons. Then we hiked up onto the glacier itself, exploring a few of its cracks and crevices, drinking the pure melt water straight from its many flowing streams, and peering into a couple of the sinkholes where water drained and disappeared into oblivion. The hike ended at a spot where they had set up a little table on the ice and served snacks and poured glasses of scotch over ice that was probably thousands of years old. After returning to the shore of the lake the boat took us back across the other side to a series of balconies where we had about an hour to watch the slow but unending advance of ice. Occasionally a massive chunck of the wall would calve off preceded by what sounded like a canon exploding and splashing down into the water below.

The next day we rented a car to do a some independent exploring. We drove through the countryside dodging unusually large hares that darted across the road until we reached the scenic shore of Lago Roca. From there we went back to town via a different road so we could stop to examine the Glaciarium or museum of Patagonian ice. Inside were several interesting exhibits and films on the formation, geography, and history of the exploration of the Patagonian ice fields. Perhaps the most memorable part of the Glaciarium though was the Glacier Bar located in its basement. It’s a bar that’s literally comprised entirely of ice…the walls, the floors, the furniture, even the cups. They had you put on these funky thermal capes and mittens before you enter for what is supposed to be just a twenty-minute visit. On the day we were there they certainly weren’t checking the clock, and we had our fun for about half an hour at the all-inclusive bar before the cold got the the best of us.

We did one last organized tour in El Calafate that consisted of a 4×4 trip in the hill above the town. The weather wasn’t the greatest that day, but our driver was a hilarious local who drove us around for a few hours showing us lots of interesting sights. We saw a bunch of fossils and crazy rock formations along the way, and he even whipped up some tasty steak sandwiches for us when we stopped for lunch.

There was still another town in the area was wanted to see, and the next day we pack up our rental car and made the two-hour drive north to El Chalten to complete the remainder of our week with Joe and Sara. El Chalten is a tiny little town in a very remote setting, but its position as the gateway to the northern sector of Glacier National Park means the place fairly buzzes with loads of tourists eager to tackle its superb hiking trails. In fact, it bills itself as the trekking capital of Argentina, and folks come from all four corners of the globe just to get a peak at the incredible Mt. Fitz Roy looming above the town. Before we hit the trails we decided to check out another big glacier. We hooked up with a boat tour taking us across Lake Viedma to the base of a glacier by the same name. We weren’t able to walk upon this particular glacier, but the cruise itself was longer and took us through a series of enormous ice bergs that days before had calved off the glacier. The next day we were ready to hit the trails, so we packed up some snacks and some lunch and set out. The great thing about the hiking around El Chalten is that trails all start right from the town itself. All you had to do was walk down to the end of the street, find your trailhead, and start hiking up. We chose one of the easier hikes since none of us had done much serious hiking for some time. Still though, the trail was fun and the scenery was great as it wound its way up through the forest. After about an hour we came to an alpine lake set amongst the trees and peaks. The patagonian wind was definitely stirring that day, but we pressed on a little further hoping to catch a peek of the Fitz Roy through the low-hanging clouds. We still hadn’t seen the mountain yet after being in town for a few days and we were determined to catch it before we left. The trail continued on through a flat valley between a series of high rock walls. Eventually we decided to turn around and head back down but not before sighting another hanging glacier off in the distance. The Fitz Roy had eluded us so far that day, so we went into town to grab some grub. Back in El Chalten we sat enjoying a post-hike pizza. Suddenly there was a flurry of activity as people practically leapt from their tables and dashed outside, cameras in hand. The clouds were finally parting, and the Fitz Roy was slowly beginning to emerge as the sun went down. You would have thought a UFO was landing as both diners and pedestrians on the sidewalk alike stopped dead in their tracks to gaze at gray rock spires coming into view.

And, with that final lucky sighting, our time in Patagonia with our dear friends came to an end. The next morning we made an early dash back to the airport in El Calafate (careful to conserve our remaining fuel as there was no gasoline available in El Chalten for the entire four days we were there) and parted ways. Joe and Sara were bound for Buenos Aires and an unplanned two-day layover there thanks to an erupting volcano, and Kelly and I were bound for the city of Ushuaia at the extreme southern tip of the continent, where you’ll find us in the next chapter. See you then.

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Puerto Varas & Chiloé Island, Chile

Puerto Varas

When our time in Bariloche was up, we headed back east again through the ashen wasteland and over the Andes back into Chile. For those of you keeping score at home this would account for our third and final entry into that country. We were bound for Puerto Varas this time, a nice little town at the southern edge of the lake district nestled against the shore of Llanquihue Lake and within view of the towering and beautiful Osorno Volcano. Originally we had planned to explore this area from the nearby city of Puerto Montt, but one of our guidebooks mentioned how this lesser-known town was a better choice, and having little important to lose we went there instead. After seeing both towns we couldn’t have agreed more, as the friendly confines of PV were much more to our liking than the gritty, rundown port town of PM.

While searching for a place to stay I came across some reviews for a fine little B&B in town, and quite randomly one of them just so happened to mention that the owner was from Indiana. The deal was sealed. If anything, I thought, it would probably provide a few laughs, and after a few months on the road I could definitely use some of that famous Hoosier Hospitality. Our host, John Joy, picked us up in the town square where our bus had dropped us off. A couple of days before he had asked us if we had any distinguishing characteristics so he would know us when he saw us. I told him to look for “tall, dark, and handsome…well, two out of three ain’t bad.” It worked, though possibly because I also told him to look for my companion, “a petite woman, and the only blonde in Chile”, and soon he delivered us to Tradicion Austral, the charming home he shared with his wife Teresa and their three children.

This cozy house would serve as our base for the next week or so. We spent a couple of days exploring both Puerto Varas and another little town on the other side of the lake called Frutillar. Both retained their strong German historical influence which leads not only to some interesting architecture, but also to some delicious German Kuchen and beers. If that weren’t enough, the proximity to the ocean gave us the opportunity take in some excellent seafood. We gorged ourselves on huge plates of conger eel smothered in shrimp sauce, crab casserole, and squid in garlic and chili at a tiny local dive called Dónde Gordito whose claim to fame was being one of the places Anthony Bourdain visited while filming his episode in Chile. When we weren’t practicing the fine art of glutony we were exploring the beautiful natural surroundings. On one particularly glorious, sunny afternoon we climbed aboard a local bus that took us to the area behind the volcano. There we took in the spectacular Petrohué Waterfalls (pictured above) and their stunningly clear, blue-green waters. We also hiked for an hour or two on a trail that provided some great panoramic views of the volcano while traversing a fascinating area of former lahars.

By far the best part of our visit to Puerto Varas though was the excursion we took with John. Aside from being an excellent and affable host at his B&B, he also operates a world-class fly fishing and adventure outfit guiding folks from all over the globe through the innumerable rivers, streams, and lakes all up and down the heart of Patagonia trout country. One fine morning we packed up and headed out for a float trip on the Petrohué River. With spinner rigs in our hands and oars in John’s, we spent the day plying the clear and swift waters in search of rainbows, browns, and the occasional salmon. John’s expert advice and innate knowledge of the river meant it wasn’t long before we were reeling them in. The action was non-stop, and by the end of the day the fish were practically begging for mercy. We literally lost count of how many we had hooked after just the first couple of hours. I’m pretty sure I caught the greatest number of fish that day, but the prize for the biggest individual fish went to Kelly when she landed a gorgeous rainbow that would make any angler back home in Colorado green with envy. I mean, just look at that beauty. It’s almost half as big as the smile on her face!

Chiloé Island

During our stay in the Puerto Varas area we also took a side trip down to Chiloé Island for a few days. A couple of bus rides and one quick ferry trip later we found ourselves on a misty, emerald island that looked quite different from the Chile we had seen thus far. And for good reason, too. Though it’s only separated from the mainland by a narrow stretch of water, the island has its own unique culture and heritage based on a distinctive mythology of witchcraft, ghost ships, and even forest gnomes. It also looked as though a big swath of Ireland had been uprooted and plunked down in the middle of South America as the harsh and rainy weather had forged a landscape of green rolling hills covered in a patchwork of farm patterns and thick forests. We set up shop in the northern city of Ancud at a nice little place situated right on the water and set about trying to take in a much of the place as our brief stay would allow. Mostly we wandering the hilly streets checking out the really old wooden houses and a few the churches the island is famous for and again sampling more than our fair share of the local seafood. One night we returned to our hotel and were relaxing with a bottle of wine on the enclosed patio overlooking the bay when all of a sudden Kelly leapt from her chair. “Dolphins! I see dolphins!” she exclaimed. I thought she was going to have a heart attack. Sure enough, just off-shore you could see two dorsal fins rhythmically breaking the water and then disappearing again. We sat for a few minutes and watched them enter the bay and then slowly exit on the other side. I’m not even sure if Kelly slept that night. Our interest in the local wildlife piqued, the next day we set out with a guide who took us on a tour of the island in his 4×4. He drove us through some beautiful scenery along the way until we eventually reached a sweeping bay where we boarded a small boat and took to the rough surf. Not far from the beach we encountered a series of small islands that were home to several colonies of Magellenic penguins. These little guys are the largest of the warm-weather penguins, and they were just beginning to make their annual return to their breeding grounds. We saw probably a few dozen but were told that in another few weeks there would be hundreds. On the trip back to shore we also passed another fan of the local seafood, a sea otter who was floating on his back in the water while cracking open mussels to find the sweet meat inside.

We wished that we had made for time to see the rest of Chiloé, but eventually we had to leave to get back to the mainland to catch a flight. That’s just how a trip like ours goes sometimes. One day you’re asking yourselves “why the hell did I ever plan this many days in this place?”, and the next day you’re wondering “why the hell did I only plan this many days in this place?” Our next destination however would leave no doubts in our minds about the value of time spent there. Be sure to join us again for the next chapter, when we enter the unimaginable landscape of Patagonia.

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Bariloche, Argentina

After leaving Chile’s Lake District, we carried on south, making a brief stay in the city of Valdivia. Both the tour books and the locals had spoken highly of this place, but to be honest we didn’t really find it to be all that entertaining. Probably the most interesting aspect of the entire area was the ever-growing German influence we were beginning to notice. Back in 1845, the Chilean government passed the Law of Selective Immigration whose primary goal was to “bring people of a medium social/high cultural level to colonize the southern regions of Chile”. Basically they wanted to get some people in there and make a sturdy claim on the land before the Argentinians got any wise ideas about maybe just sauntering a little west from their own territory and planting the flag. It just so happened that around this time the Germans were experiencing a little bout of political turmoil in the form of the Revolutions of 1848. Chile was looking for people with then-modern technology and know-how to develop agriculture and industry, the Germans were looking to get the hell out of Germany, and thus a beautiful marriage was made. The result is that 150 years later the place the full of German place names, street names, architecture, food, and beer. Even the stray dogs are german shepherds!

This Teutonic trend would come to dominate our perception of the area and would reach its nadir in our next stop, the beautiful Argentinian town of (San Carlos de) Bariloche. Once again we dove west across the thin Andes range, leaving behind the friendly confines of Chile to make what would be our second of three separate incursions into Argentina. Crossing the Andes is always an exciting and beautiful experience, but this one would provide its own unique twist. Back in June of this year, the Puyehue volcano roared back to life after some fifty years of relative dormancy, spewing a column of ash nearly 40,000 feet into the air. It buried towns on the Argentinian side of the border and closed airports as far away as Melbourne, Australia. We had known this fact before we even left home, and knew it had the potential to spoil what would ordinarily be one of the most spectacularly beautiful parts of our entire trip, but hey, how often do you really get to see the the devastating effects of a volcano up close? As soon as we approached the border crossing located high in the mountains we began to notice a thin gray dust covering every surface. It grew thicker and thicker as we went west until eventually it stood in huge piles where it had been plowed off the road. There was a sickening beauty to it that is hard to explain. We stared out the window of the bus with a slack-jawed countenance, on one hand marveling at the transformative power of the pumice that had rained down for days, on the other hand realizing that the vast forest through which we traveled would reap dire consequences from being buried alive.

Eventually the ash began to taper off though, and as we rounded the shores of Nahuel Huapi lake a couple of hours later we finally entered Bariloche. The center of the city was built to resemble an alpine town, and were it not for the Spanish-speaking locals you’d be hard-pressed to believe you weren’t smack in the middle of Switzerland or Bavaria. Once again the German influence was apparent. Chocolate shops on every corner, St. Bernards in the square complete with the little barrels under their necks, and cuckoo clocks in the shops. It’s no secret that the post-World War II Perón regime in Argentina was more than a little friendly to some Germans who once again needed a reason to get the hell out of Germany, and only a few months ago a book came out making the unlikely claim that Hitler and Eva escaped after the war and lived out their final days in Bariloche. Nazi sympathies aside, both the town and its surrounds are truly a sight to behold. Soaring peaks ring the town, and their sides reach right down to the shores of a host of pristine alpine lakes. In the winter it’s a world-class ski destination attracting skiers and snowboarders from around the globe, and in the summer visitors flock from all over to tackle its endless miles of hiking trails, fish, go horseback riding, and kayak. Kel and I rode a couple of different chairlifts up to some scenic spots to soak up the views. Our favorite was from the top of Cerro Campanario which apparently was once named by none other than National Geographic as one of the top ten views in the world. We rode the lift up, then hiked a couple of hours down a dirt road back into town. On another afternoon I tried my hand at kayaking for the very first time. Though the wind that afternoon proved to be a bit difficult and tiring to maneuver in, all in all I think did pretty well and might even be interested in investigating the sport a bit further one day. Our final excursion in the area was an afternoon boat ride across the blue waters of Nahuel Huapi lake to visit a couple of islands inside a national park. One of the islands had giant sequoia trees on it which I’m quite sure were the biggest and tallest trees I’ve ever seen in my life.

Bariloche proved to be another great little side trip into Argentina. One day the wind blew strongly and filled the air with ash from across the lake, but aside from a little grit in the teeth and a bit of dust in the eyes and throat we emerged largely unscathed. After getting our fill of all the alpine scenery and all the delicious chocolates and Argentinian beef we could handle it was finally time to pack up and head back over the border into Chile one more time. Stay tuned for the next exciting episode, in which Keith encounters another Hoosier, and Kelly encounters a smile-inducing rainbow trout.

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Chilean Lake District

After spending a week in Santiago resting, resupplying, and enjoying the company of good friends, I was anxious to get back to the wander. Four months into this trip my powerful lust for the open road has somehow yet to diminish, a fact often both shocks and annoys Kel who has now taken to calling me “Gipsy”. I’d object if I did’t think the title fit so well. We caught a southbound bus out of Santiago heading towards the beautiful Chilean lake district, journeying for two days and pausing only to overnight in the cities of Concepcion and Temuco to break up the ride. The scenery along the route was stunning and helped build our anticipation of what was to come. We had entered a rich emerald green pasture land, and peering east though the windows of the bus we could see the beautiful spine of the Andes with its long procession of snow-capped volcanoes guiding our path. At long last we arrived at our first destination. Villarica is a small village nestled on the shore of a lake by the same name. This would serve as our gateway to a spectacular arrangement of deep blue lakes, raging rivers, towering waterfalls, ancient forests, and even more magnificent volcanoes. For the next few days our base would be Hosteria de la Colina, a very nice B&B run by two ex-pats from Oregon and Montana. Glen and Bev, the proprietors, were excellent hosts, and Glen’s limitless knowledge of every backroad, village, trail, and lake in the area proved invaluable on numerous occasions.

Our first excursion took us to the nearby lakeside towns of Lican Ray and Coñaripe. One great thing about the lake district is that the entire area is served by a network of small buses that only cost a couple of bucks to ride. So, to get to these other little towns, all we had to do was walk ten minutes from our B&B to the center of Villarica, look for the bus displaying the name of the town we were interested in, and hop on. In Lican Ray we took a little hike along a peninsula that jutted out into Calafquen Lake. It had several different vantage points along the way with each providing a new and beautiful view of the lake and the mountains that stood behind it. At the end of the hike we passed through part of a village of the Mapuche people, a group of indigenous inhabitants of south-central Chile and southwestern Argentina. The Mapuche have an interesting history. Despite lacking a state organization, they managed to successfully resist several attempts by the Inca to conquer them, and when they were done with that some of them then proceeded to hold off the Spanish for another 300 years. Tough folks indeed.

After our hike we grabbed another local bus over to Coñaripe to spend the rest of the afternoon. From there, after negotiating a ride from a very nice man with a rickety little van that had definitely seen better days, we headed up to one of the many surrounding hot springs. Now, let me just say that I’ve been to a hot spring or two in my day, but nothing I’ve ever seen prepared me for this one. Termas Geometricas hot spring complex is by far the most beautiful and luxurious I’ve ever visited. They had 17 different pools in all, each one set within a narrow rocky canyon and connected by wooden walkways. These spotless, slate-lined pools hung next to the cliff side and were surrounded with natural vegetation that had an almost jungle-like appearance. There was also a changeable sign at each one indicating that particular pool’s temperature which was checked several times daily for accuracy.Luckily for us the complex was pretty empty when we arrived, so we had the whole place almost entirely to ourselves, hopping around from pool to pool like two Goldilocks in search of just the right temperature. After a couple of hours of soaking we were like two relaxed raisins. Our driver (who waited patiently for us in the parking lot the entire time) took us back down the hill, and we bused it back to Villarica.

Although the buses were serving us quite well, we were anxious to explore some more remote places and also have the ability to just pull over on the side of the road and take a picture or go for a hike whenever and wherever our hearts desired. We talked to Glen at the B&B about recommending a local rental car agency, and he offered to just rent us his own 4×4 truck for the same price as would have landed us a little econobox from any rental shop in town. This struck us as a fine idea, so the next day we set out for another adventure, scoffing at our complete lack of the requisite international driver’s license. This time we headed up towards the high mountain border with Argentina. The pavement eventually ended and we drove up a dirt road, marveling along the way at the many pristine alpine lakes and rivers. This was also the home of the giant araucaria trees which are living fossils whose species dates from the time of the dinosaurs and some of which may be 1,000 years old. We parked the truck and went for a short hike through a bamboo forest in the shadow of yet another volcano. Lingering spring snow soon made the trail impossible to follow, so we headed back in the direction we came, taking a side trip down another remote road to an area with three huge waterfalls. On the way back to the Villarica we stopped to explore the town of Pucon which is well regarded as the premier tourist destination in the lake district. This town is THE summertime party place for Chileans, and it’s chock full of all manner of restaurants, bars, clubs, and hotels. Since it was still a little to early in the season for party time, we decided to look for the next best thing we could think of…mexican food. I had read that it was possible to find an honest-to-goodness real burrito in Pucon, and sure enough after looking around a bit we finally came across a little restaurant called Latitude 39. It’s run by a couple of very friendly gringos from Oceanside, CA, who drove their truck from there all the way down to Tierra del Feugo a few years ago. At conclusion of that epic voyage they decided to settle in Pucon and now dish up the incredible tacos and burritos we had both been craving for months. It was love at first bite! While hanging out there we met a few other Americans, all nice people who had come to the area for one reason or another and just never left. We hung out with them for a couple of hours chatting about their lives in Chile while watching the smoking volcano that hovers above the town. Eventually we had to return Glen’s truck though, so swapped a few email addresses and said our goodbyes.

Our third and final adventure in the lakes district was my favorite and will probably wind up ranking among my top experiences of the entire trip. We had read many rave reviews about nearby Huerquehue National Park, and having a couple of days to kill in our schedule we decided to head there one morning for some hiking. Two quick and cheap bus rides later we were dropped off right at the park entrance where we paid our fee and began walking in. About a mile and a half later we reached the refugio where we would stay for the night. I had emailed the guy who ran the place the night before, and as luck would have it the last available private room was available, sparing us the potential hell of bunking up in a dorm room with lord-knows-what other oddball backpackers. Refugios are apparently quite common in the Chilean backcountry, but this was our first experience with one, and although we had no idea what exactly to expect, we definitely weren’t expecting much. Maybe a bed comfy enough to crash on for a few hours, maybe a simple meal we could choke down to hold us over until we got back to our B&B, but not much more than that. We arrived in time to find the owner Patricio having breakfast on the deck with some other travelers. He was extremely welcoming and friendly, looking remarkably like Chile’s own version of Jerry Garcia and immediately inviting us over to the table to have a quick snack of toast and coffee. We hung out there for about an hour, talking with a nice couple from Barcelona who were on their way out and another Australian couple who would also be staying there that night with us. Our bellies full, our veins coursing with caffeine, and our packs loaded with a simple lunch Patricio put together for us, we were finally ready to tackle the popular Los Lagos Trail, a dirt path that led a couple of miles up the valley to a series of alpine lakes and waterfalls. It was overcast and misty clouds gripped the mountains at low levels, but our host assured us this was a good thing because it would “add to the mystique of the lakes”. He couldn’t have been more right, too. The hike in was gorgeous, taking us up a well-marked path a couple of hours through stunning dense stands of old-growth araucaria and pines and huge ferns. As we neared the trail’s apex we began to encounter snow, so we grabbed a few sticks of bamboo to help steady ourselves for the final push to the lakes. Minutes later we were there, face to face with the most beautifully serene setting, a strand of three shimmering, crystal-clear lakes, each one more enchanting than the last. We explored around up there for a couple of hours visiting each lake, having our lunch while sitting on a boulder and snapping lots of pictures that would never hope to do the scene even the slightest bit of justice. On the way back down we took a couple of side trips off the trail to see some of the enormous waterfalls that were fed by the lakes above, eventually arriving back at the refugio and resting our chilled, tired bones in front of the warm wood stove. Patricio asked if we would be having the refugio’s dinner that night which we agreed to since we hadn’t brought any food of our own and were hungry from the hike. We figured he would slap together a couple of sandwiches or, if we were really lucky, whip up some simple spaghetti or something, but that was not to be the case this night. He then proceeded to go into the kitchen and spend the next FOUR HOURS crafting what would one of finest meals we’ve ever had. We weren’t exactly sure what he was making, we just knew was that the smells kept getting better and better. While he busied himself there, we whiled away the time in front of the fire swapping travel tales and pictures with the two Aussies and sampling a few of the many fine local brews from the impressive selection our host kept on hand. Finally it was time to eat, and Patricio dug into what turned out to be his enormous wine collection and produced a few bottles. We all sat down at a his giant wooden table and gazed in awe at what lay before us. Inside a huge metal pan was a curanto, a traditional dish from the Chiloe archipelago in Chile. It consisted of several different types of shellfish, pork loin, chorizo sausages, chicken, potatoes, and herbs all cooked up in a delicious broth of white wine and garlic. We were absolutely floored. For the next couple of hours we feasted like kings, listening to old jazz and funk records on vinyl while opening bottle after bottle of incredible Chilean wines and hearing Patricio’s stories about how he came to own the refugio, his history as an Emmy-nominated documentary film maker, and his passionate love of cooking. It was one of the most perfect evenings we’ve ever had, and when it finally ended we crawled into our cozy bed with full bellies and happy hearts.

The next morning we said goodbye to the Australians who were off to the next leg of their own South American adventure. Patricio’s cooking skills again delighted us when he presented a sampling of jams and duck liver pate, all of it homemade, to accompany our simple morning toast. Later on, with the resident pooch eagerly guiding us to each new location, we spent a little while exploring the rest of his property including the private lakeside beach and sauna hidden in the woods. All good things must come to an end though, and even though I could have stayed there for another month, we bid farewell to our outstanding host, slipped on our packs, and began the walk back to the park entrance to catch the bus back to Villarica, wondering the whole way if the last 24 hours had even been real.

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Mendoza, Argentina

My oh my did we enjoy our time here! We took a four day time out from Santiago and decided to visit wine country. The 5 hour bus ride is straight through the Andes mountains, over the border into Argentina and down into a valley. There was still snow on the mountains and the views for this ride were spectacular! Mendoza is only about 250,000 people but the city makes 80% of Argentine wine. Our hotel felt quite posh in terms of the standards we have been used too on this trip and immediately I felt like I was on some fancy vacation. I even got to watch both Sunday and Monday football. Woohoo – I do miss it!

We strolled around the Plaza and all the different cafe’s just inviting you for wine and plates of meat and cheese called Tablas. The temperature was in the low eighties and it felt like heaven. Most days we would walk around and find a place of interest that we could begin tasting flights of wine. It was a fantastic way to taste many of the wines from different wineries without going to each and every vineyard. Someone told me there were hundreds of vineyards….not sure if that is true but there were a handful of valleys and each valley had many, many vineyards. I liked the wines from the Uco Valley the best I think. Our favorite excursion was a tour that Keith set up for us. Below is an idea of what our wine tastings looked like – I felt pretty high class :). The picture to the right is a picture of the tablas.

For the tour, we were picked up at our hotel and our guide took us to four different wineries ending at Ruca Malen vineyard with a five course menu paired with wine! The other two couples on our tour were on their honeymoons (one from California and one from Canada). Never thought of this as a place to honeymoon but now I can see why. One of the wineries had an aroma room which helped me identify the different aromas of wine. It also gave you the aromas for defective wine and now I think I may even be able to better identify if a bottle is corked. Who says there is no learning when wine tasting!!! From 9 am to 6 pm we were wine tasting so after we were dropped off I took the nap of a lifetime. As you can see from the picture below we were all pretty happy at the end of our meal!

We were both sad to leave Mendoza as it gave us a GREAT introduction to Argentina. Keith and I have this game we play of whether or not we would return to the city we have just visited. This is only the second city I have said that about. I have really liked all my travels but you have to realize our love for travel is so great that to return somewhere we have already been is a big deal. So friends and/or family starting pinching your pennies because this is a grand trip for about 6-8 people :)! Fantastic!!

We have traveled throughout the Chilean lake district and are now on a side trip in Bariloche, Argentina. We have our very first flight of the trip in Mid November to meet our friends Joe and Sara in El Calafate, Argentina-the beginning of our Patagonia adventures. I am really stoked about this part of our trip. It’s always been a wish for me to see Patagonia and we will be there through the end of November. Please know that internet could be sparse and I may just detach from the blog awhile. No worry warts please and know that we are having a grand ol’ time seeing glaciers, penguins and hiking through some scenery that will definitely put anything I have ever done to shame. Until next blog……..

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Valparaiso/Santiago

Valparaiso
Valparaiso, an hour north of Santiago, is a city with soul. It is so different then any of the other Chilean cities we have visited thus far. The population is approximately 800,000 so it is not like the small towns we have been visiting in Chile. It is an important port for Chile and also has several large navy ships docked in the bay. Keith and I sat and stared at the activities at this port for a couple of hours and it was quite interesting. The city is broken up into several different neighborhoods they call Cerros. We stayed in Cerro Concepcion. “Valpo” – as people call it – is riddled with hills divided into neighborhoods that climb up the side of the bay. The streets are labrynth’s of cobblestone, winding up and down each neighborhood. Additionally, Valpo is a cultural mecca for artists and the city allows them to freely express themselves on the city walls and coloring of the homes. It’s all very cool and is what I think gives Valpo it’s soul. The weather was a perfect 70-80 degrees so much of our time was spent purposefully getting lost in the maze of these neighborhoods. The art was so impressive. Another interesting factor was because of the steep incline of some of these streets there are close to 30 feniculars to more easily get around taking a direct route. We stayed four days in this unique area at a charming B&B. As we sat sipping on cocktails during a fantastic seafood meal one afternoon we looked out onto the bay and commented how lucky we were in life.

Santiago

I was very excited to visit Santiago because Dave and Rachael Schmitt, college friends of mine, live here and we were going to have the pleasure of staying in their home. We had not seen them since our trip three years ago to visit them in Moscow, Russia. I always get a bit intimidated when entering a new city especially a large one such as Santiago. You just don’t know your way around so it takes me a bit to get my bearings. With Santiago it was WAY better than expected. This city of 6 million was the easiest yet to navigate. They have an easy subway (metro) and bus system that made me wish I utilized mass transit more in Denver. Rachael and Dave lived up in the hills which is the suburbs of Santiago so we were able to easily use this transit system to explore all we wanted. We took an excellent free walking tour of the city and learned about the history of Chile and walked four hours to all the different iconic places Santiago has to offer. The city is sprawling but because it’s split out into different areas it makes it less overwhelming. In some parts of this city we felt like we could have been in California or Colorado. I’m talking Applebees, TGIF, Dunkin Donuts, Starbucks….you get the picture. There is a lot of University life so in many areas like Bella Vista the crowds were young and the bars open late! We took a fenicular up Cerro Cristobal to see the views (noted in picture above), we ate amazing seafood at their fish market and the most fun, for Keith, was our run in with a tear gassing. Currently there is rioting about the education system (fighting for public education to be on par with private education) throughout Chile and demonstrations are common. This occured one day as we were riding the subway. They told everyone to shut the windows of the train and as we walked up to the city you could see the cloud of tear gas and people’s eyes tearing and noses running. It stung my eyes a bit but nothing terrible. Of course, Keith wanted to go directly towards the rioting and I said “no way!”

We had heard throughout our travels that Santiago was somewhat of a boring city in comparison to some of the other South American cities but I have to say we really liked it. Surrounded by the Andes the views cannot be beat, the ease of travel in and out of the city center was unmatched and the people continuously surprised me with their kindness. I mean everyone even said thank you to the bus driver as they got off the bus! It also was wonderful to have a home to chill out and we did that ALOT. Many days we just sat around in our PJ’s to feel the normality of not planning a darn thing, eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and having a beer on the patio. It was great to spend some time with the entire Schmitt family. I would disagree with people who indicate that Santiago is nothing to write home about…I absolutely think it’s a place well worth the visit. As we said to Rachael and Dave…very liveable city!

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Bahia Inglesa/Elqui Valley/La Serena

Bahia Inglesa
Bahia Inglesa is a popular summertime Chilean beach vacation spot. Since it was still early Spring when we rolled into town though, it was rather quiet and very cold while we were there. One morning, as we were taking a stroll down the boardwalk next to the beach, we were randomly chatted up by a friendly German gal named Julia. She was interested in hearing more about what we had seen in Ecuador because she and her boyfriend Peter were considering moving there, so we planned a happy hour for later that evening to have a few drinks and swap stories. As you can imagine, socializing can be scarce on some of our journeys, and when I do get the chance I love it! Over the best octopus ceviche EVER we learned that these two native Germans had just moved here from Pisco Elqui which coincidentally was our next destination. A few pisco sours and a couple of bottles of wine later, they offered to just drive us there themselves the next day, and we wound up planning a weekend trip with them and their two fantastic dogs. We all packed into the car the next morning for the five-hour drive south. Along the way they showed us wonderfully pristine spots along the coast which we otherwise never would have seen. The other treat was that along the highway the desert was in bloom and we saw white, purple and blue flowers the whole ride down. What a beautiful sight!

We stayed in Pisco Elqui which is a small, remote town nestled in a pretty little valley. Pisco vineyards lined each side of the valley with a river dividing it down the middle. It was gorgeous! Peter took us on various 4×4 tours up and down the valley, and we couldn’t have been more content and entertained. We ended up staying there for four nights in a super cute and comfy cabaña. The flower gardens were in full bloom with roses and jasmine and the whole place smelled amazing!

We met many of their friends who all were so kind and generous. When it came to say goodbye we felt so lucky to have met these people who showed us a part of Chile we otherwise wouldn’t have known about. Thanks Peter and Julia!

< Vicuña
Since we were not quite ready to leave this tranquil place, on their way back to Bahia Inglesa they dropped us off at another paradise down the valley called Vicuña. Here we relaxed during the day in front of our very own pool with two friendly, large resident dogs and continued to enjoy the beautiful sunshine. One night we had yet another AMAZING observatory trip. Not only was the sunset we witnessed from the observatory the best one I have seen yet on this trip, but the telescope the two guides running it were phenomenal.

La Serena
This was a coastal city at the base of the Elqui Valley. We stayed here for a couple of days and explored. Not as peaceful and warm as the valley but we still enjoyed ourselves thoroughly. We walked along the coast a bit and had some really good seafood too.

All in all, good times in these not-so-talked-about, slightly hidden Chilean gems. If you ever find yourself in this part of Chile, we definitely recommend getting a little off the beaten path and checking them out.

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San Pedro de Atacama/Antofagasta

Welcome to Chile! At the end of our three-day 4×4 trip in Bolivia our vehicle dropped us off at the frontier with Chile. Imagine climbing at 14er in Colorado in the middle of nowhere only to come across a border crossing at summit. That’s pretty much what it was like. What was weird though was that crossing into Chile from Bolivia was like flipping a switch. Warm weather, good food, and modern infrastructure? Yeah, we were definitely ready for some of that.

San Pedro De Atacama
San Pedro was a dusty border city that surprisingly had quite a few spas and expensive hotels. Immediately we could tell we had left Bolivia. From the paved roads to the people looking much more European, we were fascinated by the quick change that a mere 30-minute drive had produced. The most difficult change was the language though. Chileans really should consider their Spanish a different language, at least that’s how we felt at first. They tend to drop the “s” if it’s at the end of the word, and the large amount of slang and rapid-fire delivery made for good times in the communication arena. Anywho, we warmed up in the desert and took a couple of very interesting tours. One was called the Valley of the Moon. It felt a bit like Moab but with sand. Really gorgeous territory and we hiked around a bit through valleys with walls made of salt. The sunset we saw in the desert is also something everyone should experience.

One evening we went to our first of many star gazing observatory trips. We went far out of town and into the desert, and I got a great lesson about the sky and how to locate some interesting objects. There were several telescopes there and for the first time I got to see Jupiter, various nebulae, a star cluster, and even another galaxy up close. I learned a ton and of course Keith knew most of what the guy was saying, but I do believe he enjoyed it as well, even though at one point he had to correct the guide.

Antofagasta
Next we took a bus ride down along the coast and through the Atacama desert to this quaint city. Here was a town that until recently was small but has now become a booming coastal city. We were introduced to some friends of friends and were treated to our very own personal tour. Niko and his sister, Cecilia, were so hospitable, and we got to learn the in’s and out’s of this beautiful city from the locals’ perspective. It was a treat and we will always remember both this experience and the fantastic new life-long friends that we made.

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Salar de Uyuni 3 day 4×4 Trip

After we left Copacabana we rented an apartment in the capital of Bolivia, La Paz, and there is not much to say about adventures here. The city is located in the bottom of a bowl surrounded by snow capped mountains and volcanoes. It is home to about 1 million folks so the city was definitely more hustle and bustle. The air is thin at 12,000 feet and we used this time for some good old fashioned rest and relaxation.

Our next main goal was to get to Uyuni, Bolivia, which it home to the world´s largest salt flat called the Salar de Uyuni. We took what was to be a simple 4 hour bus ride from La Paz to Oruro. As we were bumping along in our much-in-need-of-a-bath bus someone made an announcement very quickly in spanish which neither Keith or I could understand. People were clearly agitated and as we drove about 5 more minutes we started seeing lines of tour buses, cars and trucks stopped on the side of the road. Some folks were hanging out bus and car windows looking clearly annoyed and other people were walking with their bags in the direction we were driving. I was getting quite anxious as I tried desperately to hear what people on the bus were saying. Our bus pulled off the road and everyone started filing out. I found the only other gringos on the bus and thankfully one of them, a French woman, knew how to speak English. She proceeded to tell us that there was a political road block which, come to find out, is quite common in Bolivia. Your choices were to stay on the bus and go back to La Paz or grab your luggage, walk about 15 minutes along the road and another bus will be waiting for you on the other side. I´m thinking “are you flipping kidding me? And what is the likelihood another bus will be on the other side?” BUT we proceeded to do just that. Walking down the middle of the road with Bolivians screaming on both sides of the road block was quite surreal and there was a lot of commotion. I can now look back and laugh but at the time I have to admit-I was a bit scared. Sure enough on the other side was our bus and the driver clearly seeing my eyes wide open stated, “it´s okay.”

With that behind us, the next day we had an 8-hour train ride to Uyuni. The ride was quite beautiful as we passed lakes with flamingos and a beautiful sunset. Uyuni isn´t much to write home about either. Only a destination where most people pick up their tours to Salar de Uyuni. These are done in 4×4 Land Rovers and the reviews were such that I was a bit anxious about picking a quality tour company. You have to ensure the drivers are sober, food and water are provided, you go into freezing weather so accomodations are key. You are also in a car for almost 3 days and who you end up with could make or break your trip. Thankfully we went to lunch and heard an English couple talking next to us and asked them if they had booked their trip yet. Long story short together we found a tour company and by paying a bit more only 4 of us were in the jeep versus the usual 6 they stuff in, and Ben and Jen were super fun jeeping partners for our 3 days.

Day One – In my opinion this was the coolest day! We jeeped through the salt flat which I have never seen before so the beauty and uniqueness made me smile. For lunch we stopped at an island called Isla Pescada where we had an amazing lunch made for us and then we did an hour hike to the top of the island where you had a 360 degree view of the salt flats. Unbelievably beautiful. We played and played with pictures on the salt flats. That night we arrived at a village where another jeep tour met up with us with four folks from Australia and we all had a ball together as our drivers were friends so we caravaned the rest of the trip.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Day Two – We began by seeing views of Ollague Volcano and many different lakes. The coolest thing was that each lake was pristine in its own right. One was super turquoise blue, one was green and one was red. All of the lakes had bunches of flamingoes which seemed so abnormal considering in many of these places we were as high as 14,000 feet and it was COLD at night. The second night we stayed in a dormitory style room that didn´t even have running water so we were happy to oblige to the 4:30 wake up call.

Day Three – In the morning we arrived at Sol De Manana where there were steam vents which were fun to touch. Not hot-it surprised me. Then we went to Lake Verde which was stunning as well. After that the jeep took Keith and me to the Bolivian\Chilean border and dropped us off to meet up with our transport to Chile. We said goodbye to Ben and Jen and are so thankful we met them!

All in all we spent two weeks in Bolivia. It was the poorest country we have been to thus far and in that respect I saw some tough things. We were ready to move to the country of Chile.

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Peru Wrap-up

Please forgive us for running a bit behind on our postings, but the past couple of weeks have been fraught with the vaguest of internet connections. We’re in a good spot now though so I’ll attempt to summarize our time in Peru, which believe me is no simple task.

When it was all said and done we wound up spending about five weeks there. In short, we loved just about every minute of it. About 95% of our time there was thoroughly enjoyable, with only the most northern and southern extremes being areas I would pass over were I to do it again. Looking back, there are two themes in particular about the country I’d like to share.

The first is that Peru is a place with an incredible abundance of culture and history. Everyone has heard about the Incas and they are of course the crux of Peruvian tourism, but the slightest scratch below the surface reveals a wealth of other historical cultures to explore. The Incas were the inheritors of Andean civilization and culture, not the originators. They were the Johnny-come-latelies in a long line of interesting civilizations including the Chimu, Moche, and Huari to name a few. This is particularly evident in the northern area of Peru, near the lovely seaside town of Trujillo, where they are just now beginning to excavate multiple pyramids and temples that are some 1500 years old. The local authorities are wisely attempting to capitalize on this, slowly building up the tourism infrastructure and getting the word out that they too have a fascinating array of sites to explore. Their ultimate goal is to capture their share of the huge volume of tourists who typically enter Peru and then head straight to Cusco and Machu Picchu, and at the rate they’re going I have little doubt they’ll be successful in ten years’ time.

The other notion I left with was the sense that Peru, while undeniably still a developing country facing many challenges, is a place that’s actively working to improve itself. It’s a country on the up-and-up, and there’s a palpable feeling of national pride that permeates the land and a sense that progress is being made, though still sometimes at not quite the speed some would press for. All this is evident upon even the briefest of interactions with the locals, from the professional guides we hired to random strangers on the street. They seem to genuinely want you to enjoy and explore and learn about their country, and it shows. For example, one afternoon we were buying tickets to enter a museum. The lady behind the counter was rattling off some info in Spanish when a nice man in line behind us (who was cursed with the unfortunate affliction of wearing a Chad Ochocinco jersey) steps up and begins translating her words into English. Even though we actually already knew what she was saying, we still thanked him for his assistance. “No, no” he replied, “it’s my pleasure. I want you to enjoy my country.” And enjoy it we did, señor.

Things we saw:

  • Ruins and terracing. You can’t swing a dead cat in Peru without hitting an ancient ruin, and we never ceased to be amazed by the endless expanse of agricultural terracing.
  • Carbon copies. Almost all business is still recorded on the old style carbon duplicate forms. Dinner at a restaurant? You get a hand-written bill that’s the second page copy of the form. Buying a couple of batteries at a kiosk? Same thing.
  • More dogs. Like in Ecuador, only friendlier. While hiking through the Colca Canyon we had a dog “guide” us for two whole days, and another dog hung with us for a couple of hours while we explored some ruins above Ollantaytambo.
  • A bunch of the same type of shop all next door to each other. If there’s one shop selling something (ice cream, books, trophies, car parts, you name it) there are four or five of them, all in a row.
  • Trash. Ecuador had a litter problem, the Peru has a serious trash problem in some areas. There were parts of the countryside that were without exaggeration carpeted in trash. There appears to be no organized collection outside of major urban areas. People simply carry the bag a short distance away from their home until they’re tired or bored and then place it on the ground. Sooner or later a dog tears open the bag in search of food, and then the wind carries the contents for miles.
  • Fire, rain, sunny days that I thought would never end.

Things we didn’t see:

  • Car seats. Not a single one in the entire country. People just drive around with their kids on their lap, or sandwiched between them and another passenger if riding a motorbike.
  • Small change. This actually became both a running joke and the source of much aggravation in Peru. No one could seem to explain it to us, but for some reason folks never had change there. Shops, restaurants, cab drivers, museums, no one. You’d go into a shop, buy something that costs eights soles, hand them a ten, and then they’d have to run all over the block to hunt down the two soles (about 66 cents) in change. The size of the establishment made no difference, either. It was fascinating in its ridiculousness.
  • Vegetables. Other than a lot of potatoes (supposedly over 600 varieties in Peru) and a little bit of corn, you’ll hardly find a meal served with vegetables in Peru. If you’re “lucky” enough to encounter a salad, it will pretty much consist of some shredded lettuce, a meager slice of tomato, and maybe a few shards of onion on a good day.

Best meal: Probably our anniversary dinner in Cusco. It was sort of an Italian/Peruvian fusion restaurant and one of only two times on the entire trip when we’ve experienced anything even remotely resembling North American levels of service. There was also an alpaca steak served up in a Swiss/Peruvian joint in Arequipa that was darn good.

Worst meal: Anything served in the city of Nazca, where all dishes in all establishments are prepared with no less than a pound of salt. Also, all of the attempts at pizza I gambled on and lost. I knew going into them they were the sucker’s bet and was rewarded accordingly each time. In general the food in Peru wasn’t bad, but after a couple of weeks you begin to notice that every restaurant has the exact same five or six dishes, and all of them come with fries and/or rice.

Etc.: Finally, no description of Peru would be complete without at least briefly mentioning the horn honking. The Peruvian people are for the most part an easy-going, mild-mannered, care-free lot. That is until they get behind the wheel of a car. Then it’s as if they have 30 seconds left to live, and anything that impedes their forward progress in the slightest is an affront to their very existence. It started out gently in the north, humorous and interesting in a quirky sort of way, quickly grew into a deafening crescendo in Lima where it battered the senses 24 hours a day, and then finally diminished the further south we got. When it was bad, it was BAD. In the smaller towns a lot of it was due to the complete lack of control at most intersections. Two cars approach a corner with neither light nor sign, so they both honk to sort of jockey for intersection supremacy. A lot of it was also due to the fact that in some towns 90% of the cars on the road are taxis, and taxis don’t wait to be flagged down, they simply honk at every single pedestrian they pass. In Lima half the time I couldn’t figure out why they did it at all, even after much careful observation on my part. It seemed like that was just the way you drive there, with one hand clutching the wheel and the other riding the horn, mostly in situations where it served absolutely no purpose.

In all seriousness though, please don’t let these tales of honking madness or vegetable scarcity discourage you. It’s hard to think of a country in South America with more fascinating history, greater diversity of both people and geography, and friendlier natives than Peru. I really can’t recommend it enough. Even after five weeks I was in no great hurry to leave, and with two visits now under my belt there still remains a good chunk of the country unseen by this gringo. I have a funny feeling I’ll be back…

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