Friday, April 30, 2010


Here are two other videos we made in the Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi.

The first is Jace beside Lago Mascardi:

The second is a BBC report parody we did at Mount Tronador:

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Volcan Villarrica

We first heard about Volcan Villarrica from an Aussie bloke named Clint in a hostel in Mendoza. He described for us a one-day adventure tour he had been on, which involved climbing an icy slope to peer into the flaming mouth of an active volcano. From that moment, the idea had me hooked.

Volcan Villarrica is just outside of the small town of Pucón in southern Chile, you can see her smoking plumes from the centre of town, and from there she looks so close you feel as if you could reach out and touch her with your fingertips.

Shortly after our arrival in Pucón, Alix and I booked a guide for our ascent to the summit. All we would need is drinking water, lunch and some snacks. "Wear a pair of hiking pants and a thermal top. Everything else will be supplied. It is a four and a half hour hike to the top, and the weather is good to go tomorrow, the day will be very clear."

7am the next morning, we piled into a minibus. We were fitted with outerwear, snow boots and helmets, carrying packs and ice axes to dig into the snow. Four of us were in the bus, Alix and me, a bespectacled Brazilian man and an attractive Japanese girl, very slender and very small.

We climbed steadily and soon we piled out of the bus at a ski lift station at the base of the volcano. The steaming mouth at the summit still looked like it was 'just over there'. A ski lift ride later and we had ascended to around 1800 metres, with about one kilometre, vertically, remaining to ascend.

We began our march in single file, falling in behind our guide, Joaquin. Joaquin's safety brief was exactly that- brief. "Hold your ice axe by the head, like this, and dig it into the high side of the mountain for good support. If you dig it into the low side, you may fall. If you fall, hasta la vista."

Our guide, Joaquin

After an hour's trudge we passed the derelict remains of the old ski lift station, shut down some time ago for a reason I wasn't curious to ask about. We were switching up the mountain in long sweeping curves, but the switchback turns were soon to get much tighter. The heavy snow boots were beginning to take their toll on slender legs, the small Japanese girl slipped once, and then again.

The white snow became flecked with blue ice around the same time we climbed above the line of the clouds. Our boots began to slip on the ice. Joaquin sat us down on the snow and visited each of us to fit our boots with crampons. My crampons concerned him; they didn't seem to fit my boots properly. Soon I was sliding around dangerously on the ice, my crampons slipped off my bootsoles once, twice, three times.

It was taking all of my concentration to traverse the icy slope and the shady crampons weren't helping. Each time the crampons slipped, Joaquin patiently refitted them to my bootsoles, wrenching the straps as tight as he could while humming quietly to himself. At first I recognised the tune he was humming but I couldn’t quite place it. It was the theme tune to the Sylvester Stallone movie, Rocky.

Eventually Joaquin swapped my crampons for his own. The sketchy ones I had hired seemed to fit his boots better than they fit mine. Alix was having some trouble with her crampons as well; they were slipping, but only a little. Each stop to refit crampons to bootsoles might have been an irritation, but the unspoken truth was that it was a welcome opportunity to suck back the thin air and admire the spectacular view from above the clouds.

It is hard to describe the warped sense of scale you perceive on the side of the volcano. Even with the assistance of a fancy digital camera, photographs do not do justice to the panoramic views; eight or nine photographs stitched end to end would only begin to approximate the vista from above the Patagonian clouds. Nor can our photographs convey the incredible extension of physical space on the icy ground, when the distance to the volcano summit is no longer perceived with your eyes or your mind but with the weight in your legs and the shortness of your breath. The Japanese girl and the bespectacled Brazilian man were no longer with us; they had both given up and returned to the safety of level ground prior to the final ascent to the summit.

Pucón is under the cloud below

The next cover of Mountaineering Monthly

The summit looks so close, but note the tiny black dots on the far left of frame. Those are other hikers about an hour's hike further up the slope.

The final ascent was a physical and mental challenge. The rewards were an incomparable view of the surrounding mountains and a victorious sense of exhilaration. We saw some lava spewing from the mouth of the smoking volcano, but the glimpses were brief and we neglected to properly photograph them. It didn't matter because we had made it to the summit, and that was enough of a thrill.

The way back down the mountainous slope was quite swift when compared to the way up. Having achieved our goal, the fear of slipping and falling pretty much melted away. Parts of the descent were still dangerous, and the tour guides had rigged ropes for us to descend with on the steeper parts, where the danger of slipping and sliding to terminal velocity posed a significant risk. On other, safer sections of the descent, we slid down the mountainside on our backsides, a method of movement known in mountaineering jargon as ‘glissading’. Having removed our crampons and fitted ourselves with a kind of nylon nappy designed specifically for the purpose, we slipped down the snow slopes until we were once again below the snow line, using our ice axes to steer and to brake. Occasional bursts of laughter punctuated our gluteus toboganning as people pointed out a particularly fast or messy descent.

A roped section of the descent


Finally, we stowed our ice axes and walked the remainder of the slope, the terrain having changed colour dramatically from snowy white to a rich, volcanic black, the dirt very soft and pleasant to walk on for weary legs and tender feet.

Thousands of people climb Volcan Villarrica every year; it is a mountain hike, not a technical climb. Most people who started the ascent walked to the top that day. But this isn’t always the case, and many hiking groups are forced to turn back or run the risk of calling on a volunteer emergency rescue squad from Pucón to fetch an unfortunate hiker from her icy slopes. Some days the blue ice that rings the volcano mouth is too treacherous for anyone to hike to the top. On other days the wind speed hits sixty or seventy kilometres per hour and the danger of being swept off your feet and down the mountainside is too great to continue. On still others, the cloud cover is so intense that you simply can’t see where you are walking and have no way of knowing if your chosen direction is the way up, or the way over a rocky precipice. But none of those things had happened this day. We had made it to the top, and we were proud.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The trail to Monte Tronador

15 hours on a bus from Mendoza to San Carlos de Bariloche left us hungry and short tempered, and the hostel bed at Marco-Polo Inn was a welcome pause in our trip to the base of Monte Tronador, the 3490m extinct volcano that serves as one of the majestic features of the Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi.

Monte Tronador, her summit at such height it is nearly always obscured by cloud

This national park is one of several parks in Argentina's lake district, a beautiful and dynamic landscape of lakes, forests, mountains and glaciers. Bariloche is the main city in the lakes district, here around 100,000 people live on the banks of the enormous Lago Nahuel Huapi.

While Bariloche seemed like a nice enough place, we did not come here to see people and buildings. One night's rest after our arrival we obtained maps, food, water, propane gas and a vehicle and planned a rough travel route to explore the national park itself.

Our first real challenge was with the vehicle. In Argentina almost all cars, and undoubtedly all cars you can hire, have manual transmission. I have never driven a manual car before, and the last time Alix drove one was 15 years ago: when she had a few lessons. With an inspiring enthusiasm for adventure, Alix decided she would rise to the challenge and drive the manual car we hired on the steep, pothole-filled gravel roads winding through the mountains of the Parque Nacional.

Alix with the car at Playa Negra in the national park

Our first destination was Cascada Los Alerces, a crashing waterfall set between two lakes in a beautiful mountain forest. Our first camp site found us on a tiny knoll next to a rapid flowing river; resupply of fresh, sweet-tasting water was not going to pose a difficulty here.

The tent is up!

The view from our "balcony"

In the morning, we visited the waterfall itself. Fortified by a sleep-in and a leisurely breakfast at our night camp five minutes away, we felt vastly superior to the tourists who waddled, bleary-eyed from their tour bus. After the soporific 2-hour bus ride from Bariloche they must have endured to reach the waterfall that morning, the tourists had ten minutes or so to take a photo and get back on the bus for another sleepy journey to their next postcard moment in an otherwise long, minibus-riding day. In our first vlog you can see the grumpy face of an unimpressed tourist in the background behind Alix.

From the Cascada we continued climbing up the mountain road to our main destination at Monte Tronador. Her top obscured by the autumnal clouds, this enormous spire is a deceased volcanic goddess, she is attended in death by seven retreating glaciers and a thin but spectacular waterfall with the awesome name "Garganta Del Diablo"- the Throat of the Devil.

Looking up at the "Throat of the Devil"

Surrounded by beauty

Close to the base of the mountain inclement weather is no small matter. We quickly set up camp at Pampa Linda, the base camp of Mount Tronador before the temparature dropped to a few degrees celsius and the rain began a steady, unrelenting drizzle that lasted several days. Looking down on Pampa Linda from the lookout "Mirador De Valle" the next day, a brief break in the clouds cast a rainbow across the valley and brought out the local bird of prey- a small falcon named the chimango.

Alix looks towards Monte Tronador and the sound of approaching thunder

The steep, wet hike to Mirador De Valle was worth the view and the rainbow

A chimango comes out to see the sun

After a day's slog through the rain and wind in search of picturesque beauty that was drowned in the wet we left Mt Tronador cold, hungry, damp and satisfied, in search of a warm bed and some well deserved hot food.

In retrospect, our decision to camp out in the mountains in April was driven more by ignorance than bravery, more by our desire to extend beyond minibus tourism than by a true appreciation of the conditions we would encounter. What we did learn in the majesty of the mountains is that Monte Tronador is a sleeping beauty who is not to be visited whimsically.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Observations on Argentina, Part 2

6. Maté
Everyone here seems to be on it. You see people in the hostels, on tour buses, wherever, with their maté cups (in various styles, usually gourds) with the metal straw, a thermos flask of hot water and containers of dried yerba maté and sugar (or liquid artificial sweetner, which the Argentinians also seem to love). It's caffinated, so probably addictive, which is why they're all so into it.

7. Sheets
All the hostels we've stayed in here have flat sheets instead of fitted sheets over the mattresses. Why?! Flat sheets are not long enough to get tucked in properly to the ends of the bed and always end up coming out and getting tangled up.
Fitted sheets, people. Learn 'em. Get 'em. Love 'em.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Observations on Argentina

1. Shoes
You all (should) know that I love shoes. There are a lot of shoe stores in Mendoza with beautiful leather heels, boots, etc. and I found it very difficult to pull myself away from the windows, let alone stop myself going in the shops, while we were there. Fortunately, the Argentinians are quite boring in their shoe colours and most stores only have black, white or brown shoes, beautiful as they are.

2. Change
People seem loathe to give us change in this country. And they never seem to have any! The ATMs only dispense AR$100 notes but it is very difficult to get change for them, even after you spend AR$124 on dinner at a nice restaurant, as we did our first night in Mendoza. They had to go out to get change from AR$200.

Tasca la Plaza on the Plaza de España, where we had an awesome meal (tapas) on our first night in Mendoza

3. Sweet food
The Argentinians clearly love their sweets. Mendoza is full of pastelerías (pastry shops) serving tortas, media lunas, and lots of other pastries and cakes covered in sugar, cream and/or dulce de leche, cafés serving coffee+pastry deals for breakfast, as well as many ice cream shops and vendors on the street corners selling caramel roasted nuts, sweet popcorn and lollies of all kinds. Bariloche is full of chocolate shops, as well as pastelerías and cafés. Breakfast at the hostels consists of pastries, coffee or tea, and sweet orange cordial. Someone give me bacon & eggs, or even a roll with ham & cheese! And where can I find real OJ?!
Even the red wine is sweet. Weird.

4. Crossing the street
Only if you dare! There seem to be very few pedestrian traffic lights, so you kind of have to watch the traffic lights and guess/estimate/pray-to-God as to when the right time to cross is. It's made harder by the fact that here, the red light for cars means "if you're at the line or within 5m, you can go through... actually, make that 10m... but if you're 15m away from the line, you really should stop... maybe... unless you're really in a hurry." And don't get me started on indicating, or complete lack thereof.

5. Bowling for Bariloche
You can get handguns (and sport rifles) at the camping/fishing store. Enough said.

The Road to Mendoza

Crossing the Andes was not an experience we had considered much. We had thought about how much it would cost, what mode of travel, whether to go by day or by night, how long it would take. We thought of Mendoza, Argentina as our destination, but did not think of the crossing of the Andes as an experience itself. Perhaps we should have, because the road to Mendoza is both a geographical and historical marvel.

The first thing you notice when you approach the Andes is its highest peak; while the spine of the mountain range is a barren blade of greyish brown, a single peak is capped in white. This is Aconcagua, at 6962m above sea level she is the highest peak in the world outside of Asia and her snowmelt is one of the primary sources of the river system that runs into Mendoza.

The Andean border between Chile and Argentina is formed naturally by the Andes mountains themselves, but where exactly one country ends and the other begins has been a source of history between the two nations. Aconcagua is definitely Argentinian, because her water flows to the Argentinian side of the range, but border definitions have not always been so clear.

La Cumbre Pass is the name of the valley through which the road to Mendoza winds, a steep mountainous climb on the right side leads you to the historic monument named Christ the Redeemer of the Andes. This statue was erected in 1904 to celebrate the peaceful resolution of a border dispute between the two nations which came very close to war. If it wasn't for the efforts of a wealthy and highly religious Argentinian socialite, who arranged for the statue to be erected here, Chile and Argentina, both deeply catholic countries, may have resolved their differences by killing each other. Instead they decided to have a parade with gun salutes and lots of hugging and cheering.

In Uspallata pass, also on the way to Mendoza, is a bridge named Picheuta. Back in 1817 a General with Republican ideas named San Martín formed an army with the intent of kicking the Spanish out of South America altogether. It was here at Picheuta that a sentry of San Martín's army first contacted the Spanish army that occupied the Chilean side of the Andes. Later, San Martín went on the liberate Argentina, Chile and Perú from Spain, San Martín is a bit of a hero to the Argentinian people in particular. A statue of Genral San Martin is found at San Martín Plaza in Mendoza, being the place where his 'Army of the Andes' was raised in the first place.

The bridge at Picheuta

Statue of San Martín in Mendoza

When your time passing through the Andes is almost done, you pass the Potrerillos dam, which dams the Mendoza river to form a large artificial lake. Mendoza has very little rainfall, but the combination of persistent sunshine from the arid climate and plentiful water supplied from the snowmelt of the Andean peaks makes for perfect conditions for growing grapevines, a fact that Mendocinos (people from Mendoza) have taken full advantage of.

Mendoza and the surrounding region supplies 80% of Argentina's wine, the vineyards are irrigated by a series of free flowing channels originally created by the Hualpa Indians of the region, and further developed by the Spanish for the agriculture of grapes, olives and lots of other fresh produce.

Mendoza is famous particularly for its Malbec wines, a variety we don't see much of in Australia. Malbec is similar to Shiraz but softer and lighter in character, and Mendoza is responsible for supplying very fine Malbecs at rediculously cheap prices when compared to Australian wine. At the Carmine Granata winery, Marina explains to us that the 2007 Cab Sav we are anjoying is selling for 18 pesos per bottle, and the Malbec for 28 pesos, or around $6-$9 Australian a bottle. For 280 pesos you can pick up a bottle of the 1999 Nicolas Granata Malbec, national and international gold medal winner and regarded by the people who decide such things as the second best Malbec in the world.

So for us, the road to Mendoza ends with a warm welcome in the form of some of Argentina's finest wine and food, the only tinge of sadness being that almost none of the wine here is exported to Australia. We will have to drink enough of it while we are here.

Jace wonders if he can fit the barrel in his pack. Scrap the pack, just take the barrel!

Meanwhile, Alix enjoys as much as she can

The fabulous spread at Casa de Cuno ends our tour of the Mendoza wine region

Saturday, April 10, 2010


With a mischievous smile, Lucho explains that we might get another 'replica'; an aftershock of the earthquake.

Apparently on Monday night we had an earthquake of 4.5 magnitude, but Alix and I slept through it. The authorities on these matters predict a much larger earthquake will hit Santiago again within the next 12 months, and with the recent quake in Indonesia it would seem that the earth is scratching at her fleas with some vigour these days.

Understandably, the earthquake is the great topic of conversation in Santiago right now. Just hearing the different stories of where people were and how they reacted when it hit is fascinating, and surrounded as we have been by a wonderful array of family and friends the opportunities to do so have been several.

In a few short days we have met Lucho and Carmen's daughter, Daniela, and her family with husband Juan José and her six children. We visited Daniela at her beautiful home in Calera de Tango, where we drank lemonade and Juan José cooked BBQ pork- an excellent cut of meat they have here called malhaya, it is a thin, flat band of muscle that fits snug to the pig's stomach, and when cooked and salted it is lean and delicious. Daniela's house was quite undamaged in the earthquake, the only thing I noticed was a crack at the bottom of the swimming pool, which must have turned into a spa bath for a few minutes; when the quake was done the water level had dropped a foot or so from the spillage.

Daniela & Juan José's home is like an Italian villa

Lucho draws a turtle family for Poppy

Even dogs play soccer here

Cristo, the Modern Cowboy

The cowgirls, Poppy & Joséfina, with Lucho and Carmen


Negrito gets every last bit of salt and fat from the malhaya plate

La familia

We have also had the opportunity to meet some of Alix' relatives here in Santiago; the human connecting power of Yahoo!Messenger allowed Alix to meet her cousin Diego in cyberspace for the first time in 2005, and we were delighted to be invited to Diego's family home in Las Condes for dinner. The photo below is Diego and his family. Diego makes a cracking Pisco Sour.

Pablo, Jace & Diego behind Violeta, Alix & Verónica

Many of the museums and galleries a tourist might have visited while here are closed due to the damage the earthquake has caused, so instead of visiting the museums to see what is inside, you may visit them to see what happened to them instead. The other effect of the quake is a noticably large police presence on the streets, outside the Palacio de la Moneda there are police on every corner and more in two man patrols, there is even a riot bus casually parked a block away in a quiet side street.

All this authority has obviously had a calming effect, the people in Santiago are courteous and polite, the city is an orderly commercial machine like most other big, productive cities. Piñera is, Carmen describes, "a technocrat. We are sick of politics in Chile. Chile has no need for politics, what has politics ever done for us? Chilean people just want to get on with their lives."

In Santiago today you can see short term 12 month loans for 0.45% interest, so economic stimulation must be a high priority of the technocratic government. For the tourist the price of things, when compared with the knifing you receive at the cash registers of Sydney, Australia, is refreshing; two meals of steak or chicken washed down with a half bottle of excellent red wine served at your table with home made chilli relish and fresh crusty bread will set you back 8800 Chilean pesos, which translates to $18.39 in Australian money.

Most noticeable is the price of fresh produce, with mestizo farmers coming to market each day in the old fashioned way and hawking their wares. On the streets of Valparaíso you can pick up very cheap fruit and veges, especially avocadoes which seem to be a local staple; they have several different varieties here and the cheapest price we saw was 12 kilos of avocadoes for 1000 pesos, or about $2.20 Australian. Guacamole for everyone!

Palta = avocado; aceituna = olive

Apart from the avocadoes, Valparaíso, on the Chilean coast an hour and a half Northwest of Santiago, is quite an interesting place to walk around, the whole town is built into the sides of eleven different hills and the houses are seemingly all jumbled on top of each other like the city of Ankh-Morpork in Terry Pratchett's fantasy novels.

Further up the coast, we visited the aristocratic playground of Zapallar, an exclusive sea resort where the beautiful people of Santiago spend their summers swimming and sunbathing, playing tennis and polo, and generally being pampered by life. Don Olegario Ovalle, a ranch owner who owned the Zapallar bay decided he wanted to create the Zapallar resort, so he contacted his 18 closest friends and made them an offer; he would give them free land on the coast on the condition that they would build their houses within two years. And so, the most exclusive resort in Chile sprung up out of nowhere inside of 24 months, and though there are more people there now, it has remained Chile's most exclusive ever since.

Here we visited the summer house of friends of the Vargas', their beach-front mansion, in an old fashioned America-does-French-Country style, is a snapshot that appears frozen in 1905 when Don Olegario made the historic offer his friends couldn't refuse.


The beautiful people in Zapallar

The lounge room

Quaint ashtray holders

Closer to Santiago is Isla Negra, the small town where Pablo Neruda, Chile's nobel prize winning poet wrote his poems in his wonderful house. Owing to Neruda's obsession with things nautical, the rooms of the house are designed to look like the insde of a ship and it is furnished with an astounding collection of bowsprits, ships in bottles, insects stuck with pins, navigation instruments and other interesting paraphernalia. If you want to see more you will have to visit; photography is strictly forbidden inside the house itself.

Neruda started with the stone cottage on the left and added to it over the next 35 years to house his ever-increasing collection

The bar, housing one of the many bowsprits as well as a lot of bottles

Back in Santiago, Lucho kindly gave us a bit of a city tour, we ascended Cerro San Cristóbal and took a photo of Cerro Santa Lucía from the summit, somehow providing the impression that our time here was coming full circle as it complimented the photo of San Cristóbal we took from Santa Lucía some days before.
It was very hazy due to smog so Cerro Santa Lucía is not very clear

From San Cristóbal we visited the architecture school of the Catholic University, the school is built into an traditional Chilean farmhouse that was built by one Francisco Antonio Avaria in 1780. This hacienda was owned by the Martinez family as a working farm when Luis, a friend of the Martinez', was a youth, and Luis remembers visiting here in its working days. The building was sold very cheaply to the University in 1952, it is a two-storied open square of white-washed adobe enclosing a courtyard orchard of orange trees, the perfect scene for a movie with sombrero gunfights or puffy-sleeved sword duels. The building must have been well constructed as it has only the same minor damage from the earthquake as the concrete structures elsewhere in the city.

Lucho stands next to an adobe wall showing some of the earthquake damage

The courtyard with orange trees

To land in a foreign country and be welcomed by family and friends has opened the gateway to our journey in the most wonderful and warm way, and has inspired us with confidence to explore this New World.