Wednesday, 31 January 2007

Pucon

After a 12 hour bus ride straight through from Castro in Chiloe, we arrived in Pucon yesterday, a small town on the shores of quite a large lake, with the even larger Volcano Villarrica just the other side of town. We'd been warned earlier that Pucon was pretty touristy (it's kinda a love-it or hate-it type of place), and it sure is. Coming from the very relaxed Chiloe it was a bit of a shock to the system, there's definitely more of a 'seperate the gringo from his money' vibe to the place. The whole town feels like one big resort, and while it's certainly nice to be able to get real coffee and do some shopping, it isn't really our scene.

We're staying at Donde German, which has actually moved from where their website (and LP) has them listed. We didn't find out they where a lot further out of town until we arrived, but really this didn't matter - the main bit of Pucon is very small (six streets square) and it was an easy walk in. The place is better for the move as well - they've got a lot more room than the old place, so the facilities are great - big kitchen, living room and garden.

Pucon itself seems to mainly consist of tour operators, with every type of outdoor activity you'd want on offer - the main ones are volcano climbing and white water rafting, but there's a fair bit else available - from paintball to fishing to flying foxes to something called 'HydroSpeed' - sort of like white water rafting, except just using a boogie board. Kat shudders every time I mention trying it!

The nearby Volcan Villarrica dominates the skyline in Pucon, and the town has a traffic light style 'Volcano Warning' system setup - green means all OK, yellow means evacuate and red means duck & cover. Thankfully it's solidly on green at the moment, but it's pretty interesting how many people live so close to a fairly clear & present danger. Villarrica isn't the worlds most active volcano (wrong on that point), but it is South America's. It spends most of the day smoking, and the top has an eerie red glow to it at night - quite impressive!

Tuesday, 30 January 2007

Chilling in Chiloe

We've just finished enjoying 5 days post trekking in Chiloe. It is the second largest island in Chile at the northern end of the Chilean fjördland/ just off Puerto Montt. It is known for being very rainy and culturally unique as it was isolated until the last century from the mainland. Fortunately it didn't rain but we did get to see lots of rolling green hills.
If Moorea is quiet and good for relaxing then Chiloe is excellent. The main attractions are historic wooden churches and scenery. The rest of the local architecture is a fascinating mix of shingled and corrugated iron houses (dad this is the place for you!). My favourites were actually the strange half-half places.
Our hostess at Hostel Cordillera was very helpful and we had a lovely water view from the window of our comfortable room so it was easy to find a way to stay a few days in Castro.
One day we went over to the western coast to the national park. It is very windswept on the Pacific with a rough but picturesque beach and dense forests. I think it would probably be good if you did a several day walk in to see more of the park.
The rest of our time was mainly taken up with the fantastic seafood that comes from the waters surrounding the island. In fact I'm beginning to think our web page should have been called our big meal!
At the municipal market we spent about 4 dollars and got 1.5kg of shellfish to cook up for Australia day. Half the mussels were bigger than the palm of my hand! The side of hot smoked salmon that made such great leftovers for breakfast with scrambled eggs was even less.
On the weekend the island of Quehui was having a Festa del Mar. We cruised in a little ferry for about 2 hours to get there mainly with tourists from other parts of Chile. Along the channels of the eastern side of Chiloe are salmon farms and shellfish farms. The local economy now relies heavily in much of southern coastal Chile on the salmon farming industry. This remains a double edged sword with the environmental impacts of needing 4kg of other fish as food for every kilo of salmon and the refuse that is produced still getting close attention from many groups.
The festa itself was a fair in a town of only a few hundred people with food, folk music and the first day of games in the Queen of the Fair competition. The main focus seemed to be the big BBQs that the 4 queen teams were running. We sampled succulent spit-roast lamb and the local stew called Curanto before laying around on the grass for the afternoon. The Curanto was particularly interesting as the portions of shellfish, cured pork and chicken with mystery potatoey dumpling were cooked in between huge elephant ear leaves called Nalca (link for you mum) in huge pots of bubbling stock. All in all a slow day but definitely a "cultural experience".
We have now made the 12 hour bus journey up through more fields with glimpses of snow capped volcanoes to Pucón to climb the mighty Volcan Villarrica. For those maternal types concerned by Tom's comment about volcano activity I have taken a photo of the municipal volcano activity monitor. It is green for safe and minimal activity today!
For photos of the scenic isle and big meals see our photo gallery on smugmug. I'm sorry I'm not patient enough to insert them into here!

Monday, 29 January 2007

Photos

We've finally managed to get some photos up - they're over at http://goldbug.smugmug.com/. We've also gone and back-filled some posts on Santiago and Easter Island, now that we've had some time up our sleeve. Off to Pucon tomorrow, to go climb the world's most active volcano!

Wednesday, 24 January 2007

Trekking & TV

We're back in Orsono today having some R&R after doing two treks around nearby Volcano Puyuhue. The first trek we went one was called 'Pampa Frutilla' (Strawberry Field), a fairly easy trek we'd deliberately chosen as a warm up and to sort everything out with our gear. Over three days we went up (& back) to a pair of subalpine lakes next to a large meadow where wild strawberries grow. The trek was about 38km and 875m up, it was all in all fairly relaxed. All our equipment worked great, though we where a little overloaded (textbooks aren't essential trekking equipment!).

We then stayed in a nearby campsite, which is connected with the local Mapuche (indigenous) people. The day after the trek we where wandering around the campsite at lunchtime and a Mapuche ceremony was occurring near reception. Turns out a group of Mapuche from Santiago are travelling around the country and re-connecting with all the local tribes. It seemed a fairly big deal - there was a TV crew and some obvious big wigs there. Kat & I watched for a little while, and then despite not understanding anything about it we managed to get interviewed by the TV crew - in full-blown 'only showered once in the last 4 days' mode, much to Kat's horror :)

We then went off to a harder trek called 'Banos de Caulle' (Baths of Caulle), a 50km and 1420m up walk to some hot springs. The first day was pretty tough, especially as we did a side trip and climbed up to the crater of the volcano, so that was 1.6km up that day. The volcano is long extinct, with the crater now covered in ice - the view from up here was an outstanding 360 panorama. The next day was through a very desolate 'post-volcanic' landscape - a huge black 'river of lava' and then nothing but dunes of grey pumice. We camped near several hot springs, which where very welcome - the rivers alternated between very hot (thermally heated) and very cold (snow melt), so the trick was to find where two intersected, and then find the spot where the temperatures mixed correctly. Once you've found the right spot, then don't move!

We then did a side trip to some geysers the next day, which were a little disappointing - there where a lot of fumaroles (gas vent) around, which were cool, but we couldn't find any of the promised boiling mud or steam jets. It also started raining after hour 1 of the 4 hour trip, and didn't stop, leaving us pretty wet by the time we got back to camp. We'd planned on starting back down after lunch, but decided to stay in the dry tent instead. The weather then got steadily worse, till we had a huge thunderstorm going on around us - the sound of the thunder rolling off all the nearby peaks was pretty amazing. The wind was very strong, and in the evening suddenly shifted around, collapsing half our tent. We scurried outside to fix it, with an American couple (Carrie & Abran) we where trekking with also in the same predicament. Their tent actually started lifting off the ground (with all their stuff inside) the wind was so strong. A couple of well-placed large rocks over the tent pegs and we where back in business - though didn't get much sleep that night, as the storm didn't really stop till about 9 the next morning. The tent held up admirably the rest of the night though, and we made a successful break for it after breakfast. Now to eat real food for a few days!

Sunday, 14 January 2007

Navimag - not any more

We'd been planning on catching the Navimag Ferry between Puerto Montt and Puerto Natales in mid February, which is a very scenic trip through all the fjord-land off the south Chilean coast. However the main boat crashed just after Christmas, so we've had to shelf that plan. While they are still running that route, it's with a smaller boat which is also doing the other routes as well - basically game over. We went in to their main office in Santiago, but the fairly stressed lady there told us that if we didn't already have confirmed tickets, we had no chance of getting on board. We'll have to move to plan B!

Out of the big smoke

Today we wing down from lovely cosmopolitan Santiago to Osorno.
The trip down was very exciting (when we eventually took off) with great views of the glacier carved Andes and snow capped volcanic cones all the way down. We even saw the distinctive Volcan Villaricca near Pucon with it's distinctive plume of smoke in the distance.
Now that we're getting closer to actually using more than a quarter of the contents of my pack I'm very happy.
Osorno itself is pretty small for a provincial centre made up of mainly quaint two story weatherboard buildings except for the couple of main streets. That said it's probably about the size of Orange so not that small. The people have that great small town friendliness which makes somewhere which otherwise just a stopover perfectly livable.
Sorry no photos for the minute as the net connections are too slow to upload them and we've lost patience. Watch this space :-)

Saturday, 13 January 2007

Bananas

For the record the bananas are cheap in Tahiti in comparison to everything else but many varieties are like plantains - used in savoury cooking.
I'm afraid they're cheap and tastey here in Santiago too sorry guys :-)
My second top fruit so far have been the super cute little pinapple we got in Rapa Nui - Juicey sweet and just enough for two portions.

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Santiago - Wining & Dining

Food here is relatively very cheap, and the wine is also very good (& cheap). Consequently we've been having a great time hitting up all the top restaurants - we went to Astrid y Gaston on Thursday night, and then Zully last night. With mains ranging from $8-15, it's hard to spend money! Astrid y Gaston was exceptional, we had the degustation there - couldn't look at food until well into the afternoon the next day. Zully was also very good, but a bit too cool for school - we got there at 8:30, and where the first ones there (when making the reservation we actually tried for 8, but got told that was too early!). People weren't really showing up until 11, so we felt a bit like the pensioners dining at 5:30. We haven't really gotten into the whole siesta - eat very late vibe yet.

Santiago also has three very good wine regions within an hour or so by public transport, so we went and did a vineyard tour today, at Concha y Toro, Chile's largest winery. The tour itself was excellent - the vineyard is situated in some beautiful rolling hills with the Andes in the background and has an exceedingly palatial homestead as part of the grounds. The wine was also superb - while they only grow Cab Sav at the vineyard we went to, Concha y Toro (and Chile) is most famous for Carmenere, a grape similar to merlot that for a long time was only grown here, having been wiped out by disease in all other countries around the world. We even got some souvenir glasses at the end of the tour, which are very nice, but might be tricky with the backpacks...

Some photos from Concha y Toro, and their resident devil:









Thursday, 11 January 2007

Santiago - A tale of two cities

Yesterday we went out and did the tourist thing round the centre of Santiago - we did the LP walking tour, and also did a couple of things that had been recommended to us by some Chileans. We didn't come back that impressed - the few sites on the walking tour weren't overly interesting (or accessible), and the city centre seemed to just be fast food joints and discount clothing shops. We where also trying to find somewhere to buy a camera, and where remarkably unsuccessful - all the shops here seem to be very small, and specific. We where constantly going into places that looked hopeful, expecting there to be 10 stories we could browse through and finding... one small room, with most of the stuff for sale in the window.

We'd also been strongly recommended by some Chileans to go the Mercado Central (Central Fish Market) for lunch, as the seafood was supposed to be excellent. The market itself was pretty interesting, especially seeing what you could/couldn't get as compared to Sydney. There was heaps of Salmon around (it's farmed heavily here, and Chile is the 2nd biggest producer in the world, Norway being the biggest). However at least 50% of the floor space in the market was occupied by one massive restaurant (the place we'd been recommended) called 'Donde Augusto', an obvious tourist trap. There was some other smaller places in the periphery, and all of them had very aggressive spruikers trying to get you in. We ended up trying the place recommended in LP (nothing special), but I couldn't recommend the experience at all, reminded me too much of the strip in the Cross!

We chatted to our host in the hostal that night, and he told us all about how he never goes to that area of town anymore. It used to be the rich area of town, but got trashed pretty badly during the governmental troubles in the '70s. Rather than rebuilding, the better area of town just kept moving further and further east (towards the mountains), so the central part and anything west of there just become more and more de-gentrified.

The next day we decided to try our luck in the west, which was a completely different experience. A few suburbs on from us is Las Condes, definitely a more upmarket area - all skyscrapers and suits. We did check out some really nice wine shops (the best one amusingly having psytrance playing as muzak), but it was $400US to ship a case, so we decided not to. A real shame when some really nice wines go here for $5.

We also went to one of the malls out this way, which could easily rival anything in the US - it was a suburb all to itself! We managed to find many a camera in there, even a Nikon shop. All in all a very different experience of Santiago to the day before.

Monday, 8 January 2007

Chile - Santiago

An easy flight out of Easter Island to Santiago, though it was very full - so much so that Kat & I couldn't sit next to each other, though this meant we both ended with windows seats :) We grabbed a cab to our hotel (Casa Condell) with a New Zealand couple we'd met a couple of days before, and who where on the same flight - not that suprising given there's only 5 flights out of Easter Island a week.

The hotel is a nice change after camping for several days - a real bed (and some space) is quite welcome. We went out to grab some dinner after dumping our bags, and explored the local options. Food here seems (relatively) very cheap, so we ended up in a place that looked very funky - all the walls inside where covered in graffiti, and some customers already in there (Chileans eat very very late) was a good sign. However we showed our true gringo natures once inside by asking if they did food - the name of the place (and also prominently on the menu) was 'Chorillana', which we promptly ordered for two. Turns out that this is a mound of fried steak strips, onion and egg nestled lovingly on a mountain of chips - very much like this (except twice as big). Delicious!



Saturday, 6 January 2007

Easter Island - Ranu Raraku and Anakena

Today we went on a tour with Josie Nahoe Mulloy of Hoamaka Tours. We'd spotted her up at Orongo and were impressed by how knowledgeable she was. Josie is definitely the guide for people who usually don't do tours being relaxed, not watching the clock and passionate about her fascinating topic.
First we went to Ahu Tahai in town. Although we had been there before it was interesting to see it again with extra explanation of the canoe ramps that were used in special ceremonies and the ruins of the villages that stood in front of the Ahus. It was these villages that the Maois faced not the ocean. They were the centre of an ancestor worship culture and you can still feel the power of the immense statues.
Then we went to see Ahu Vaihu an unrestored Ahu. By the end of the 1800s according to records of European voyages to Rapa Nui all of the Maois on the island had been toppled. The exact reason for this is unclear but it appears the island's society was in a state of crisis. It is thought that the Maois were toppled by warring tribes as a way of destroying their mystical power base. Restoration of some of the island's hundreds of Ahus started in the 1950s and continues today.
Next stop was the climax of the day the quarry that was birthplace to all the Maois on the island: Ranu Raraku. Although when we arrived the place was crawling with tourist buses we did get some time to ourselves at the end which was quite cool and really gave us more of an idea of what a special place it was. There are still lots of partially carved Maois that can be seen on the cliffs almost as if the carvers went to lunch and are still coming back. This includes what would have been the largest Maoi ever if completed that is 22m long. The hillsides are dotted with Maois that have been stood up for their backs to be carved and have started to be moved down the hills towards the transport routes that led all over the island. It was a very organised process that had three main transport highways created that led from the volcano quarry of Ranu Raraku to all over the island where the Ahus were along the coast.
From the hilltop you can see Ahu Tongariki which was restored with the assistance of a Japanese crane company that donated a big crane for the restoration works from 1992-95. This is one of the biggest Ahus with 15 Maois sitting atop it.
We took a late lunch at Anakena Beach. The larger of the two beaches on the island with white sand and fringed by palm trees. The Maois here were quickly covered in sand after they were toppled and still have the carving on their backs visible. There are lots of families who bring their big Asado (Chilean BBQ) setups out here to relax on the weekend as well as everyone else other than me trying to soak up the sun and enjoy the waves.
All in all a great day that only had one downside the loss of my camera. (see Santiago for the excitement of replacing it) However thanks to Josie and the guys at Hotel Tau Ra'a it's been found and will soon be winging it back to mum in Australia.

Friday, 5 January 2007

Diving Easter Island

Today we went to dive in the "gin clear waters" of Rapa Nui. Even from the coast you have fantastic views of the deep sea floor through picture perfect blue.
We did two dives, one to a wall/dropoff with platform that was almost straight out in front of our camp site and the other, to some bommies off the front of Hanga Roa where a fake Moai has been sunk. Unfortunately there were no dives to Motu Nui which is the famous dive site here when we were around but the dives we did were good.

The visibility was a dizzying levels at over 30m both times. The hard corals had really interesting formations and the fish life while not as prolific as some places, was very friendly and colourful. We had a Jurel (there doesn't appear to be a translation for this fish) follow us around dog-like as you find groper doing in Sydney looking for sea urchins. The Moai while kitch is fun to see and now has sea urchins in it's eyes like the way there were shells in Moai's eyes originally which is quite cute.

The operator we went with Mike Rapu is right down on the harbour and we were the only two divers with the divemaster. They were friendly and relaxed but efficient and all the gear was in good order. They even were thoughtful and offered me an extra vest so i wouldn't get cold! The water temp was still about 21-23 so very comfortable. These are boat dives and it was easy to get back on the boat which are local fishing boats used by every operator here.
During our surface interval we saw the resident turtles of the bay that hang around near the fishing boats one of which is over 1m.

We also got an explanation for the large boxes of rocks you see in the boats. The locals have a particular way of tieing them to the line as a weight when fishing and then it slips out when they pull up the fish. The bigger rocks they use as anchors, very organic!

For sunset we went down to Tahai, the one first Ahu and Maois to be restored on the island which is within Hanga Roa. It is a complex with three Ahu (alters) with 5, 1 and 1 Moais on them. It is a great place to watch the sunset into the sea behind the statues especially as the natural amphitheatre of the site provides numerous spots for the hoards of people who come down here each night with their cameras. It was almost as much fun watching the crowd including a bunch of kids playing soccer in the flat in the middle and the horses and dogs that cruise by.

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Easter Island - Rana Kao & Orongo

Sunrise & Sunset are pretty civilised in this place - 7:30am and 9:30pm respectively, which fits in very nicely with my preferred sleeping patterns. It means that getting up before dawn is actually possible! We did this yesterday, and walked up the (extinct) volcano to the south of Hanga Roa, called Rana Koa. It´s about a two hour walk up, the track being clearly marked and also with various 'points of interest' along the way.

The crater is really spectacular - it´s a fairly steep ascent up the last section, and then once you pop over the top there's a huge lake spread out before you, which is quite unexpected. The crater has filled up with rain water over the years, and the lake is now about 1.6km in diameter. The view over this combined with the view out to sea on the other side is very beautiful, and makes the effort all worth while.

We then skirted round the right edge of the crater to a small village called Orongo, which is now part of the national park. This was the main site for the birdman cult - a religion that was significant on the island, but much later than the moai where constructed. It was big in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the focus was around an annual competition as to who would be the 'birdman' for the year. The competition was to climb down the cliffs here (which are almost vertical), then raft out to one of the two small islands off shore. The first person to bring back a birds egg was the lucky winner, and became the new deity. This wasn't always a quick race however - sometime the contestants had to hang out on the islands for up to several weeks, waiting for an egg to actually be laid so they could grab it.

Language wise it's been a weird mix of English/Spanish/French/Japanese over the last week or so, with conversations often flicking rapidly between them (depending on which the speaker is most comfortable with). Knowing a bit of each language, this is frankly doing my head in - my brain only has room for 'English' and 'other', so often when I'm trying to say something it's coming out correctly, but not in the right language! This causes confusion all round, especially for me...

Easter Island - Hanga Roa

We had a midnight flight out of Tahiti (that´s definitely one airport that needs air conditioning!), which actually worked quite well - the magic of sleeping pills!

Easter Island is thankfully a bit cooler than Tahiti, as we´re camping here, in a place called Camping Mihinoa. It´s in a great location, right on the headland with some fairly spectacular volcanic seascape just below us. It´s one downside is there´s no shade! Not that we're planning on spending any time in the tent during the day anyway, so not really a concern.

After dumping our bags and getting the tent setup it was then off to find our first moai (the statues for which the island is famous). There´s only really one place on the island that people live (population is ~4000), and there´s a couple of moai conveniently right there next to the beach. Seeing the statues with people surfing behind them in a fairly surreal experience!

We spent the rest of the day wondering around Hanga Roa - while tourism is obviously the main (only) industry, the town still has a very laid-back, small town feel to it which is very nice. We're doing the self-catering thing here, the kitchen at the campground is very well equipped. There's a supermarket in town with the basics, but the fruit & vegetable options aren't too good - most things are imported, and they don't seem to like the journey very much. However some of the Japanese backpackers at the campsite bought a 20 kilo tuna straight off the boat from some local fishermen, and we bought some off them - not bad for $7 a kilo! We ended the day with sashimi and sunset over the water.

Wednesday, 3 January 2007

LP says: Moorea -great place to catchup on sleep

First thank you to everyone who helped get us out of Australia. If I ever say we'll pack a house into the shed again please hit me!
Thankfully, lonely planet was right, Moorea just off the Tahitian capital of Pape'ete is a great place to relax. Sadly they are also right that it's expensive all over Tahiti but I think we've done OK especially thanks to self catering.
A brief taste of Pape'ete was probably enough but I had a great time at the morning markets. There was a wide variety of fruit and basic vege (esp taros and plantians) and half the women had floral crowns or lays on. I got a bit confused with the prices after bags of tomatos baby lettace and onions cost 300-500 Francs but the 1000TF (close to $15) watermelon is the sweetest I've ever tried. gotta laugh. I went a bit wild with the camera in the the whole aile of people making floral jewellery.
The rest of the city was pretty much closed down because it was New Year's Eve but we hung out in the lush Parc Bouganville near the harbour and read after a bit of a walk in the sauna like climate.
Moorea is a spectacular island with steep volvanic hills rising out of a gorgeous aqua lagoon. The relaxed atmosphere of Fare OaOa has been good for winding down and the new owner Martine and her husband and three cute little kids have been very welcoming.
Having only arrived on NYE at 5pm we were invited to join them and another french friend for a dinner. Martine is quiet the chef and we had red caviar on bagette, Tuna Tartare, foi gras, duck with red pepper sauce followed by (drool) french cheeses and a reine cake (like a pie with frangipaine in the middle with little person ornament to designate the "king" who gets a paper crown). This was all matched with wines and champane for the new year. Fantastic! we slept well.
The rest of our time has been taken up with chilling out at the big back table reading, going for a dip in the lagoon at the nearby beach at the Sheratin admiring their over the water bungalows and diving.
We went with the friendly crew at Moorea Fun Dive mainly because they were the only ones answering the phone on the first. It proved a good choice as they picked us up; were efficient and helpful and even suggested they could drop us off later back to our pension so that we could explore that bit of the island. I was concerned that shark feeding is quite comman around here but they didn't do it and we enjoyed a great couple of dives. One at the entrance to Opanohue Bay we went to was called Lemon Shark Valley the other Tatoi. Both were good dives and had visability of 20m. I think all Australian divers are a bit spoilt by how good our coral is but the tropical fishlife was great and we saw loads of sharks, some quite close but none interested in us. The Lemon sharks were 2-3m! There was also the mandetory turtle that always comes to visit me and mantarays; one really huge one.
For our last day we spent the morning biking up to the "Bellevidere" lookout that sees down alot of the north of the island. The one speed bikes needed to be pushed up the last couple of steep kms but definitely sped up our return journey. The road to the lookout goes up through the Opanohue Valley which has many Marae which were special sacred places for the polynesians before the introduction of christianity. They are quite mysterious stone platforms that were used for ceremonies and are all set in lush forest so a nice place to wander around.
If you made it this far thanks. I can't believe I wrote this much on this weird french keyboard. Half the letters and commas have moved.

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