Thursday 30 January 2014

Ushuaia for a while


Ushuaia- 'The end of the world!'- well the most southern town in Argentina anyway.  The Argentinians make it sound like it is super hard core, but the latitude is equivalent to Newcastle, and there are plenty of settlements further south.  Although we were only there for five nights in total it felt like we had spent at least two weeks there. This was due to the fact that it was a small town packed with tourists, zero accommodation and the whole time was spent trying to find a bargain Antarctic tour. Hours of walking around, chats, research, phone calls and many let downs from agencies meant we felt incredibly deflated. After all, the only reason we had travelled all the way to Ushuaia from Buenos Aires was to get on a boat to Antarctica. The Submarinos (hot milk with a large chocolate flake) and the coconut chocolate cake took the edge off of the disappointment and my cold for a short while...

It's not a bad place to be stuck at all - beautiful mountains all around, bracing fresh air, glistening glaciers in sight.  But it's definitely a change from relaxing in the sun on a lazy Pacific island!

We were on a mission to find a last minute space-available slot for the two of us on a trip down to Antarctica for a "reasonable" price.  It's something we'd budgeted for, and we were ready to pay a certain number we'd had in mind.  But, the deals were not to be found.... (easily).

There are about half a dozen actual operators that run the ships, about a dozen agents in town that all flog the very same trips with cut-throat ruthlessness, and innumerable agents overseas that resell the rest of that same inventory for crazy prices all around the world.

The various agents all did plenty of bait-and-switch, bad-mouthing competitors, using stalling techniques whilst they'd wait for stock to be released from the operators, general run-around, and bare faced lying that drove us nuts.  We'd think we were booked in on a good deal - and even provide credit card details... then get an email the next morning saying "sorry... but for a few (thousand) dollars more...".  Ugh.  It was all extra complicated as one of the ships broke down a few weeks ago and cancelled a sailing - so all of the excess stock on other boats was GONE. There was a week of this, and it was soul destroying.

In a nutshell, we did get sorted in the end for a sailing in a few weeks - for a very good price indeed.  But the trick is to go straight to the operators.  Don't bother with the agents.  Only the actual operators have the lee way to work with you, and as soon as they release inventory to the agents - you can get it too.  And if you're nice to them, you can get right in at the head of the queue as they certainly don't mind holding onto the 20% commission that would have gone to the agents!

Saturday 25 January 2014

Buenos Aires - Supersized


Everything just seems a bit BIGGER in Buenos Aires. Impossibly generous steak sandwiches, towering ice creams, the widest street in the world, and spiralling inflation.  Well, it's certainly good to have some of the 'ole "blue" greenbacks to hand here.

The best steak, the cheapest red wine, the most amazing bar from the 1860s and giant ice creams to rival any Italian gelato- what more could you ask for?!

Wednesday 22 January 2014

Valparaiso and Santiago


Certainly a change of pace to arrive into the busy urban cities on the mainland... We both got nervous as the bus from the airport sped along at a whopping 60mph.  Nothing moves so quickly on the islands!

Santiago seems a nice enough place - good weather, helpful people in the streets, and a huge park right in the centre of town with hills and trails.  But the coastal city of Valparaiso is really neat - scrambles of tiny lanes on hillsides, brightly painted walls and murals, creaking tiny funiculars like elevators, and views to the hillsides speckled with the tiny multicoloured corrugated tin homes in the barrios where the other half live. 

Probably well over half, really.  It's easy to get sucked into the brand portrayed by the pleasant tourist-friendly lanes in the central area with the expensive cafes, fancy heladeria and snazzy restaurants.  Chile apparently has the second greatest division of wealth in South America - and this is a port city after all.

As we strolled down a "cute" brightly painted windy lane in the tourist district, I spotted an oddity written on a door.  "Tourism is the Devil" was scrawled in pencil on an old sheet of A4 tacked up with yellowed sellotape.  Without breaking stride, I glanced at the sign and quietly whispered its message to Phillippa - who asked me just as quietly "where did you read that?"  A scowling voice from a miserable woman with a big dog emerged from the doorway shouted back - "On our door!"

Nevertheless, it's been a great place to visit - especially the suburb of Vina del Mar where we checked out some awesome skim boarders on the beach and again enjoyed the Pacific Ocean.

Valparaiso is the Latin American version of Brighton with its colourful houses, art, steep hills, vibrant cafes and restaurants and it is next to the sea (the Pacific sea- so it was not the end of the Pacific Moon!) It also has a seedy underside to it too from the graffiti, dead dog on the roadside to the rough port area.There is even a hotel called The Brighton which is perched on a hill with panoramic views where we drank Pisco Sours. A perfect place to spend my birthday.

Santiago was not as vibrant as Valparaiso but we enjoyed a trip out to Concho y Toro Winery where we visited the Devil's Cellar and sampled the wine. The views of the Andes were lovely from the Parque Metrapolitano. We even got to eat blackberries straight from the bush, walking back down from the park as we had missed the last tram. 

Saturday 18 January 2014

Rapa Nui


Easter Island: the final destination on our Pacific Island Moon, and what an island to end it with! A tiny speck of land in one of the most remote inhabited locations. The island was so different geographically to the majority of the islands we had been to more recently, but quite similar to parts of Hawaii's Big Island. Amazing to think that the Polynesians navigated around the Pacific in outriggers using only the stars, the currents and wildlife to find new land. At our camp site, our tent was a few metres away from the surf. It was awesome to watch the sunset and crashing waves on the first night that we arrived and to go to sleep with the sound of the ocean. 

We decided to do one dive during our time on the island and were lucky with the weather conditions. The dive was incredible purely for the visibility. We could see at least 50m in the water. Underwater we saw a (modern) Moai which had been sunk as a tribute and as we swam a big silvery Jack and some rainbow wrasses faithfully followed us along as our companions, which was fun. 

On our final night and day we hired a motorbike to go on a Moai exploration. In the evening we drove up to see one of the Volcanic craters. It was a pretty spectacular site. Further along the road we saw the spiritual area where the people of Easter Island used to follow the Bird Man ritual. As we looked down and out to sea we could see the island that the men had to swim to in order to compete in the Bird Man Contest. There was something about the area that really had a powerful presence and it was awesome to be there completely alone, after the park had closed. 

At 6am on the final morning we woke up and jumped on the motorbike to ride in the dark across the island. As we reached our destination there were only a few other people waiting. We were all there to see the spectacle of the sun rising behind 15 Moais at Ahu Tongariki. It really was quite special to see their distinctive features come to light in such a spectacular location. As the sun rose, the moon was still bright in the sky. It was a full moon (Wolf Moon) which indicated to us that it was our lunar anniversary. Ty and I continued our Moai hunt and somewhat unintentionally punked into the quarry where the Moai were all carved from the side of a volcanic crater.  The rangers hadn't opened the gate to the park yet, but we followed some trails up onto the outskirts of the volcanic crater- Rano Raraku- to see the perfect light illuminate so many faces on the hill side. This really was a magical morning on a mystical island. 

The Moai are just awesome.  Yes, they're the stuff of childhood fascination - with their intensely mysterious origins and eerily unimpressed expressions casting eternal thousand yard stares.

Of course the Moai were what I was most excited about seeing - no doubt.  But the real interesting thing that captured my imagination about this island is just how totally extreme the experiences of the civilisations that grew and existed here over the last 1000 years have been.

The very fact that the island was found in the first place boggles the mind - it's so impossibly far remote from where the Polynesians might have set sail from.  And when they arrived, there could not have been much regular trade with other nearby islands or archipeligos - there are no neighbours for thousands of kilometers.

And it's amazing to think that the people here thrived and developed great technologies allowing them to allocate immense surplus resources to build the hundreds of Ahu and Moai that were moved across the island and erected.  All at the expense of the island's natural resources, perhaps - not very Pono at all, it might seem.  But that, too, may be trivialising the situation a bit - who knows what happened in the last 300 years or so when the Moai production halted and the existing Moai were all destroyed and pulled down in generations of warfare as the land became insufficient to sustain the people?  The population plummeted, and new systems like the bird man cult emerged to bring some sort of order to the embers that remained. Truly apocalyptic.

Even at the time when the first European visited, on Easter Day 1722, most of the Moai seemed to be standing and the land fully cultivated - even though the trees were already gone and the population had already been in decline.  By the time Cook visited in 1774, all of the Moai were destroyed, and he described a society in warring shambles.  Things only got harrier into the 19c when slaving ships from Peru arrived and missionaries got to Work.  Things even seem a bit fiery today now as in 1990 and 2009 islanders barricaded the airstrip with rubbish and old cars to protest against the Chilean government's policies.  Could the arrival of the Europeans have been some sort of a catalyst to the spiralling of the situation?  I am in no informed position to speculate at all, but what is certain is that this young volcanic island has been host to some intense human experiences.

It's been fascinating and humbling to visit this farthest corner of Polynesian settlement.