Day 120: Huayhuash Highlights!

The feeling of travelling on your own is a bit frightening. We’ve been sharing all of our great experiences for the last 4 months. At the same time, total freedom is what we were both longing for. Moreover, we might meet pretty soon again in the United States for the burning man festival. Anyways, here’s my first real independent post!

After we got back from Machu Picchu, both Australian Tom and I decided to stick around in Cuzco to witness the Inti Raymi-festival in Cuzco. The event is held in the colossal fort of Saqsayhuaman (try to remember that name), 2 km outside Cuzco. The whole ceremony is quite lively and mainly consists of a lot of people dressed up dancing around and celebrating the once majestic Andean culture. Very interesting, but the urge to travel on was quite big.

Traditional dancing for the Inti Raymi

After a short stopover in Lima, mainly to pick up my credit cards and finally get my permanent passport (with the temporary one I am not allowed to fly into the States) I continued the trip towards Huaraz.

The only thing I wanted at this very moment was being close to mother nature again. I discovered that the hiking part of the trip has given me the most satisfaction, whereas cities somehow seem to have a numbing effect. So I decided to go for the nine day Huayhuash trek in the Cordillera Real. David already gave an extensive report on the history and specificities of the hike in the previous post on the blog, so I’ll try to stick with my personal experiences and in particular the things that made my hike special.

The cosy Churupp hostel is a perfect hangout to energize before starting one of the best hikes in South America. After having a haircut (that made several people refer to me as TinTin) Tom S. and I soon met two hiking companions, Eric and Adam. Later on, Sonia, a German girl was added to our group.

Huayhuash Hikers

Australian Tom: Besides the fact he has the smelliest feet known to man, a perfect hiking companion. Most of the time he ran up the hill with the elegancy of a kangaroo on speed and was never afraid to climb the “extra mile”. Even though this would mean ripping up his pants. Has a great taste of music. Can’t stand losing, especially whilst playing Yaniv, the Israelian game we played every evening. When Tom’s winning the game, it’s all about skill, tactics and strategy. When losing, it’s 80 percent luck.

Eric: a Proud canadian. Absolutely obsessed with camping gear, especially MEC is high-end and rock solid material according to him. The Nalgene water bottle he was carrying all the time seems to be the absolute pride of canada (Allthough it is “made in USA”). His water filter came in extremely handy though. Less useful were his nightly farts (allthough they kept us warm during the cold nights) and other weird noises during the night. Has a never disappearing smile on his face and has no clue how the whole Taylor Swift album got onto his ipod.

Adam: British guy and proud Londener with a Ricky Gervais accent. No, I am not having a laugh. Has the tendency to shoot papparazi pictures all the time. And mostly they are great quality as well. Worked as an engineer in a famous UK recording studio where he met the cream of the crop within the music industry.

Sonia: 100% German. Had tremendous trouble with the altitude during the hike. Consequently gave up the 6th day. “Schade”. Nicknamed “La Tortuga”. Complained about her walking sticks all the time. In German, forgetting that “Deutsch” is not exactly the main language in South America. So appointed me as being her official translator, great. When finally arriving on top of the hill, we would cheer her up and ask how she felt. Her reaction: “no comment”. Altitude can drive people crazy I heard. It can, I realise now…

Edgar: known for his catchphrase: “Tranquillo amigo”. Even if you would by acccident slip over a rock, cursing the whole mountain to hell. Other famous slogan: “muchos problemas”, most of the time when talking about Sonia. Next to his guiding skills an excellent cook and superb guide with an extended knowledge about any possible mountain or pass in the Cordillera Real.

Isaac: our faithfull arriero (or donkey “driver”). Catchprase: “Sjaloom”, the nickname for all Israelians doing the hike. Allthough large groups of them get over here and start hiking, most of the guides and arrieros do not seem to be very keen on them. Maybe because of the fact they are quite noisy and bargain rudely until they get “special price”. Even if this means running out of gas or food the 5th day of their hike.

From left to right: Edgar, Eric, Adam, Belgian Tom, Australian Tom

Huaylights

A summary of my personal best experiences during the trek:

– unbelievable views whilst doing the trek. When climbing towards the one after the other mountain pass, your breath gets cut off right away. Physically it is quite hard, but once reaching the top, the view makes you wanna cry, scream and immediately you forget all muscle pain and shortbreathedness. Here are a few shots:

After climbing the first real pass of the trek

Paso San Antonio

– Lots of condors flying above our heads while being at an altitude of more or less 5000m

Condors flying on top of our heads while having lunch

– Taking a dive in one of the many magnificent lagoons we encountered during our hike. The water temperature is not as freezing as in the Patagonian glacial lakes, but far from tropical.

Taking a dive in the ice cold water

– The thermal baths you get to take a plunge in on day five (or day six, clearly the altitude affected my memory) at the campsite. After having walked for several hours you enjoy the warm water source (temperatures around 38 degrees). Around you, an astonishing view, but most of all, the sensation of your muscles relaxing and the feeling of being one of the luckiest persons in the world. Waking up the next morning at 5, to get a dive in the bath before leaving for one of the hardest days on the trek is hard, but once you enter the bath, you easily forget how ridiculously early your alarm clock went of. Australian Tom and I were the only ones being able to struggle out of our warm and cosy beds.

Australian Tom taking an early morning thermal bath

Huayhuash horses/donkeys and other oddities

– For some reason I got nicknamed “the mule whisperer”. Maybe because of my compassion for the animals, carrying all tourists heavy bags up the mountains during the whole hike. The altitude and heavy carriage generally wears them out, so they only reach the age of 25. So here’s my little tribute to them.

The mule whisperer

– The altitude (the trek’s altitude varies between 4200 and 5000m) has some weird effects. While ascending you’re out of breath in no time, allthough you’re walking fairly slow. Apart from that, I had the craziest dreams. Other effects: peeing every 10 minutes and extremely cold temperatures at night.

– Whilst hiking we met with some extremely sympathic road workers. After a short chat, we learned they used to be mountain guides that climbed nearly every single pass in the cordillera Huayhuash. We all thought it should be the other way round (first doing heavy road work before guiding tourists). Absolutely amazing!

Retired mountain guides, now road workers

A short summar: once again a wonderful experience within wild nature. A lot of time to think things through, but above all to realize what a lucky bastard I really am!

Stunning view on the cordillera Huayhuash

Currently I am stationed in a town called Huanchaco where I am getting surf classes. Afterwards, I’ll travel through (coastal) Ecuador. First on the menu is the nature park Machalilla, in search for mating whales. But more on all that in a next update!

All the best to all of you and hear you later!

Tom

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Day 110: Cordillera Huayhuash

It was too early morning when I silently left behind both Toms in their dorm room in Cuzco. A little feeling of anxiety fell over me once I got in to the taxi that took me to the airport, from here on I would be travelling by myself. When you’re looking for the ultimate feeling of freedom, even one of your best friends can feel he’s holding you back at times. This is what we both chose for, let’s make the best of it now.

After picking up my credit cards in Lima, I boarded a bus going to Huaraz. This settlement in Central Peru is surround by three impressive mountain ranges: Cordillera Blanca, Cordillera Negra and Cordillera Huayhuash. Again I was setting off for another trip in nature. Definitely one of the introspective discoveries I’ve made during this trip, I’m far from the city boy I though I was. Instead I’ve fallen in love with the wild nature and the outdoor activities to which it challenges it you. Out of the 110 days I’ve been travelling now, I’ll have spent some 35 whilst trekking through national parks and nature reserves. Not what I had expected at the start of this trip.

Cordillera Huayhuash

This mountain range is located some 100 kilometres south of Huaraz and despite its small size – it’s only 30 kilometres long – offers some of the best hiking in the world. For years hiking through this area had been impossible due to terrorism activities in the area. A revolutionist group of terrorists, namely the Shining Path or Sendero Luminoso, was fighting the Peruvian government from this remote location since the early eighties. After a radical counterattack by government forces at the end of the nineties, safety has been restored in the area and since the beginning of the new millenium tourism activities have slightly been taking over the region. Locals jokingly say that the only terrorism that still remains are the constant flow of Israeli hikers (or “sjaloms” as they are nicknamed here) that are furiously bartering for lower prices. Apparently I’ve been adopting a cost-conscious way of travelling as well, since during one of my negotiations the tour operators shouted to me “You’re haggling harder than any Sjalom I’ve ever met”. I guess this is where the economical thinking of my mum’s side of the family shows up.

Hopping through the cordillera

Hopping through the cordillera

After hearing different people talk about the amazing hiking around Huaraz, I had started looking up information about the region. The most popular trail around here is a four-day hike, called Santa Cruz. However, once I ran in to the following quote, I immediately added the hike through the Cordillera Huayhuash to my bucket list for this trip.

Huayhuash is dangerous. Hikers have died there. This is arguably the best hike in the world but is appropriate only for robust, experienced high altitude trekkers.

Since I wanted to get to the Galapagos Islands as soon as possible, I went out looking for hiking buddies shortly after I arrived. While looking at the notice board in Cafe Andino I started talking with Cody, who was traveling in South-America for 6 weeks before starting law school later this fall. It turned out that we did not only have the same age, but also shared the same hiking plans. We joined forces and had to make an important decision straight away. Setting off by ourselves and having to take care of hiring all the camping gear, wearing everything ourselves, cooking a decent meal every day and navigating through the barren landscapes of the cordillera … or we could go through an agency that could set us up with a guide, an arriero (donkeyman who manages the donkeys carrying all the stuff), gear and food. Taking in account the harsh experiences in Patagonia and the slightly tired state of my body, I pushed to go for the more comfortable second option.

However an even bigger decision awaited us once we got to the agencies. Basically there were two options: a cheaper tour where we’d join a bunch of Israeli hiking enthusiasts (one thing I really respect them for is the vast number of them that spends most of their travels hiking) with the downside that we’d hear Hebrew most of the time and that the level of quality would be very basic … or going at it with a smaller group (more expensive, more comfort and less Hebrew), for which we’d need at least one more participant to make it affordable. We were definitely in favor of this last option, we just didn’t have any idea where to find another hiker. The clock was running close to four o’clock – our dead-line – when we ran in to Hugh, another American who’d landed in my dorm room earlier that morning. A short information session later, we could convince him to join us. And so we were ready to hike around the cordillera the following day.

A happy hiker (with a new haircut) in the middle of the mountains.

A happy hiker (with a new haircut) in the middle of the mountains.

Eight days of hiking

After some issues finding a decent arriero on our first day, we had to change our hiking plans and limit ourselves to eight days. Together with my newfound American friends, Edgar our guide from Huaraz and Teddy our arriero from the area, we set off for an amazing experience. Trying to cover every aspect of the hike would be impossible, but I gladly leave you an impression of how day five (without any doubt the best one out there) went by.

At half past five in the morning – half an hour earlier than the other mornings – my ipod takes me out a night of short, consecutive pieces of sleep. Whilst Bob Dylan’s Hurricane is taking up volume, I wriggle myself out of the two sleeping bags I’m sleeping in before my two tent companions are woken up. Outside the sun is already lighting up the sky from behind the mountains, but the temperature is still very close to freezing. I quickly put on my clothes and struggle to open the tent. Just before I can close it, an awoken Cody asks me if I’m going to live up to my promise of last night. “Yes,” I tell him “I’m off for a swim”. In the bigger cooking tent next-door I can hear Edgar already preparing breakfast, but I speed by and head for the natural baths that are two minutes walking away. Upon arrival I see that I’m the only one there, neither my hiking buddies nor anybody of the group of Israelis has made it out here. After taking of my clothes I quickly get in to the pool and enjoy the gentle warmth covering my body. Sitting in these thermal baths (yup, that’s why I’m so brave) at 4300 metres high, whilst the sun is slowly colouring the magnificent surrounding landscape, I think I must be the luckiest guy in the world.

Our campsite

Our campsite

That’s the feeling I’ve been looking for every day since the start of my travels. Getting to a place and soaking in the experience with all my senses, before bursting out in laughter and thinking just how lucky I am. It’s been amazing how easy it is to find a moment like that every time.

After a delicious breakfast that consisted out of pancakes and a local quinoa based variation of oatmeal, we started the hardest day of hiking planned for this trip. We had convened with Edgar the night before and decided to change the original route to take on a tougher but more scenic path. We’d be crossing two passes that day and the first one was straight ahead of us. It was only six o’clock in the morning when we took on the gradual ascent to Paso Cuyol. Soon we got in our typical walking pattern, where Cody would speed away, I would be doing the climb at my own pace, with Hugh shortly behind me and Edgar somewhere in between. The morning bath had been good for my muscles and I comfortably made it up the pass. At 5000 metres of height we had a magnificent overview of the cordillera ahead of us. We rushed back down to the valley, because we had a long day ahead of us. Once we were back down at 4200 metres, we went through our lunch packs to find some energy for the climb ahead of us.

Getting up Paso Santa Marta would be more challenging. The ascent wasn’t as friendly this time and the previously joking conversation soon gave way to deep breathing and silent cursing. In under two hours we overcame the 900 metres of height difference to the pass, while slowly working through the scree. The closer to the pass, the finer the scree became, until it looked like I was way my way up through an almost vertical desert. The only orientation we had were the “apacheta” (or rockducks as the Americans call them), while the Incas build them out of respect for the “apu” or mountaingods, we gladly used them to find our way up on the pass. However once we got up the pass the view was a so rewarding: the summits of the cordillera covered in eternal snow topped off a vertical wall that reached down to a magically blue glacial lake far below us in the valley. An overwhelming experience, similar to stumbling upon Glaciar Grey in Torres del Paine so many months ago.

Paso Santa Marta

Paso Santa Marta

After soaking in the experience and several tries to make a picture that could slightly represent the experience, we took on the steep descent down to the valley where we finally had lunch. From there on we continued our way through the Quebrada Calinca for another three hours, before finally making camp on the football field in the tiny town of Huayllapa. After ten hours of walking, 1600 metres of ascent and 2200 metres of descent, we could finally rest our legs. At least that was until the local volleyball team challenged us for a game. We teamed up with two of the local “mamitas” and Briza, a four-foot tall, seven-year old talent at the reception position. Just before darkness took over the pitch we could finish our third set, unfortunately losing the very competitive game with 1 – 2. After a welcome snack of popcorn and a filling diner, we decided to make a walk around town and not before long we stumbled upon a local folkloric party. Without any doubt the perfect end to a perfect day.

Other highlights:

– Getting here just in time. The years of terrorism threat are behind us, but other danger for this beautiful area is looming ahead. In the last couple of years prospectors have found large quantities of silver and gold in the Huayhuash mountains and two mining companies have already installed themselves in this area. In the coming years this area is going to be carved up by roads and industrial trucks will be cruising through it.
– Being confronted with the tiny houses of the migratory sheep herders. This region is still host to migrating families and their live stock, who live in tiny houses built of rocks, slabs of grass and reed. They move between different locations depending on the season to live in what for us would be primitive conditions.

Houses of migrating sheep herders

Houses of migrating sheep herders

– It wasn’t untill I got here that I realised this was the setting of “Touching the void“. This “real life story turned book/movie” is set here and covers the amazing survival of Joe Simpson during a climbing expedition. Some short contemplation about this definitely makes you respect the mountains that much more.
– Having an escort of 10 andean condors fly by on our last day of hiking. Condors are wonderful animals and we had been spotting one every other day of our hike, mostly far away near one of the summits. On our last day however we were walking over a mountain ridge when suddenly ten of them appeared around us, drifting away on the thermal currents. Some of them got so close we could actually hear them soaring by, similar to the noise of a fast kite passing by. Incredible.
– The unbelievable height of this hike. Almost all of the days we spend between 4200 metres and 5000 metres, mostly camping in the lower valleys and having at least one pass close to 5000 metres planned every day. If you put this in perspective to the European mountain ranges (I’ll not even mention the highest Belgian “mountain“), with Mont Blanc set at 4810 metres, it’s sometimes hard to fathom.

All in all this hike has been an amazing experience and has certainly lived up to the expectations I had before setting off. For me it’s right up there with our nine-day hike in Torres del Paine.

Sunrise at Lago Jahuacocha

Sunrise at Lago Jahuacocha

Right now I’m on the Galapagos Islands, maybe an even more mythical experience of which I’ll be blogging in a following update.

David

Day 100: The wrap-up and the break-up!

The wrap-up

We’ve been lagging behind a bit on our blog, so the first part of this post will try to wrap up all the different story lines of the last couple of weeks. It will cover a lot of different experiences we’ve had and perfectly reflects the great diversity of South America has to offer. It is also the last post we probably will be writing together for a while. But more on that later.

First some jungle boogie! You might know the song from the soundtrack of Tarantino`s masterpiece Pulp Fiction. But apart from that it describes our adventures in “la selva” quite well.

We met up with Australian Tom again and decided to go for the death road in La Paz combined with a boat trip towards the jungle village Rurrenabaque. La Camina De La Muerte is a 69 km road that connects Bolivia’s capital La Paz with the Amazonian rainforest region Yungas. It got its name because of the 200 to 300 travellers who got to their final destination taking this road. Nowadays there is replacement route between La Paz and Coroico, so none of the buses, trucks and other means of transportation take this road for the moment. But it still is impressive to see how narrow the road and how steep the abyss is. While heading down, the road was wet and there was a thick fog hindering us. Nevertheless we made it and all got back down in one piece.

Posing along the death road

Upon arrival in Coroico, a bus took us to a bit further where we took a swim and relaxed after the adrenaline rush we just received. The next day we spent mostly on the bus towards the starting point of a 3-day jungle tour. Highlights: swimming Tapirs, bullet ants and especially the amazing jungle scenery around the Madidi national park. Only hustle were the thousands of sandflies and mosquitos that seemed to like our gringo blood very well.

Tapirs taking a swim

The two Tom’s went back to La Paz to tackle the infamous Huayna Potosi. In the meanwhile David continued his jungle expedition and set off for a pampas tour. A bit afraid about being packaged in a typical gringo trip, he soon discovered that it was a great experience. The wildlife was abundant (pink river dolphins, black cayman, howler monkeys, anacondas, capibari, parrots, …), the fellow travellers were interesting, the location was superb, the activities were had a dare-devil feeling (hunting for anacondas, swimming with dolphins and cayman, fishing for piranhas, poking a tarantula, …) and once more the sunsets were astonishing.

David challenging cayman to take a swim

While David was preparing his tour through the Pampas, the two Tom`s tried to find a spiritual experience in the Bolivian jungle. In Rurrenabaque they contacted a Shaman that would take them into the jungle for a nightly Ayahuasca-trip.

Ayahuasca (Quechua-translation: vine of the soul) is extracted from different plants that can be found in the South-american jungle. It has been used for thousands of years by indigenous tribes, specifically helping during consecratory celebrations and as a medecine. Allthough the “magic potion” is considered a quite strong entheogenic substance, usage is perfectly legal.

We left the town of Rurrenabaque around 5 pm and jumped on a boat that transfered us to the other side of the river. From there on, we jumped into the 4 by 4 of our Shaman and got to the entrance of the Madidi national park. After having paid the entrance fee, we jumped out of the vehicule and walked for 45 minutes straight into the jungle, until arrival at the desolate spot where we would try the Ayahuasca. The tents and hammocks were put in place, so everything was set for our spiritual experience.

The Shaman, together with his assistant, explained us about the trip and got out the bottle with the dodgy-looking yellowish jungle brew. He poured in some of the juice and explained that it was better to down completely as fast as possible. I followed his advice and quickly swallowed the lightly sparkling and weirdly tasting substance. I soon realised there was no way back and relaxed until the first effects kicked in.

After about half an hour a slight euphoric feeling is noticeable. Little by little, the sensation grows stronger, and soon I entered a weird imaginatory fantasy world. With closed eyes, bright colours can be witnessed, together with all sorts of thoughts. As if you are travelling through your own mind for several hours. The sounds on the background (crickets, birds and other animals) gave everything a strange “jungle touch”. A few hours later, I struggled towards the hammock from where I underwent the rest of the trip.

The nex morning I woke up with my head still a bit buzzing, but the overall feeling was good. Soon, the dizzyness disappeared again and I felt great after going through this amazing “spiritual” experience.

As mentioned in the previous post, David had no trouble in transfering his enthousiasm about the climb of the Huayna Potosi. So, Tom and Tom decided to take up the challenge as well. They both returned to La Paz, where they had to stay a couple of days in order to acclimatize to the altitude.

David already described the experience of the climb very adequately and pretty soon TomTom found out that the way to the summit is hard, extremely hard, but o so rewarding.

Tom-Tom on top of Huayna Potosi

Next morning we traveled further towards Isla del Sol, a beautiful island on Lago Titicaca, the world’s highest navigable lake. After a short guided tour, we hiked back on the island from south to north, ending up eating the local delicious speciality “Trucha” for the third time. The views and colours from the lake are incredible, thus the perfect scenery for another jumping picture.

Jumping Belgians on Isla Del Sol

When in Peru, one can not miss out on visiting Machu Picchu. Of course it is quite busy, but undoubtedly with good reason. There are several options to get to the astonishing site. We choose for the 5 day Salkantay trek. Advantage is that it is not as touristy as the classical Inca Trail. Moreover, the days before getting to the final destination are beautiful. On top of that, we were quite fortunate with the group we ended up in. A nice mix of nationalities (Polish, Brasilian, Canadian, Russian, Portugese…) and personalities. We are pretty sure that we will never forget some of them!! Cheers to Joss whom we initially met in Patagonia, but saw back again at Machu Picchu.

Jumping Brit, Australian and Belgians at Machu Picchu

The break-up

In the meanwhile we have been travelling more or less 100 days together. A great time, with unique experiences, adventures and events we will remember for the rest of our lives. Both of us feel like we couldn’t have picked a better partner to set off on this adventure.

But like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid found their downfall in Bolivia, so have we in the neighbouring country of Peru. After having tasted so many new things, we both have different ideas and plans on how to fill in this trip. Rather than giving up on these aspirations, we think the moment has come for us to split up. We’ve been lucky to travel together for so long without any big conflicts or differences of opinions. But right now we both feel like doing our own thing. And what we mean with that can be found in the next paragraph.

Whilst David is heavily anticipating the arrival of his wonderful parents in Colombia in mid July, he still wants to squeeze in the wonderful trekking of the Cordillera Huayhuash in Northern Peru as well as diving with the incredible creatures of the Galapagos Islands. That’s only possible by speeding up the pace of travelling, so right after coming back from Machu Picchu he took an aeroplane to Lima to pick up some credit cards and took a night bus to Huaraz to prepare for his plans.

After leaving Colombia around mid August, the future is still a bit hazy. But that’s the amazing advantage about setting off to travel for a year without the boundaries of pre-booked tickets. If everything would go as currently planned, that future would look a bit like this: taking a flight to Miami, hitchhiking across the States to end up in Burning Man, crossing the Pacific and having sushi in Japan, taking a couple of weeks in Thailand to improve my diving skills, finally hitting India to buy a Royal Enfield that takes me all the way to Anapurna base camp in Nepal. It will be a miracle to fit in all of that before coming back home, but it seems like a beautiful future to me.

Tom on the other hand, is taking a bit more time to get to Colombia, where he is meeting up with a friend the beginning of august. This leaves him enough time to plan in the Huayhuash trekking, the north coast of Peru and Ecuador.

After having passed by the US and the Burning Man festival, the idea is to hit the West Coast of Australia and to search a temporary employment, preferably something inspired by nature (e.g. fruit picking or working in a vineyard). Afterwards, he is aiming to buy a pick up truck with the earned money, as well as a surf board to travel around the country for a few months. Visiting New Zealand, the Fiji Islands, Tasmania or Papua New Guinea are options as well.

The fact that we are travelling independently implies that we’ll each be posting our travel stories and experiences independently. So, we are definitely not giving up on our enthousiastic readers!

All the best!

David y Tom

Day 83: Bolivian headaches

Hello everyone,

Since we weren’t really enjoying our time in Uyuni, the decision was made to head out of this town as soon as possible. This gave us two mayor options; the first was heading straight away to La Paz, Bolivias capital and mayor gringo stop-over; the second was to make a detour passing Potosi and Sucre on our way. We chose for the latter option given the historical importance of these two cities. Potosi was the miners city that provided most of the silver for the Spanish invaders and Sucre was the birthground of the independence of Bolivia.

A scenic busride through the Bolivian Altiplano made us forget about Uyuni and took us into the lively centre of Potosi. The world’s highest city is located at 4060 metres at the foot of Cerro Ricco. It was here that a local herder, who was looking for a lost llama, found the abundancy of silver. According to the legend however, Mother Earth (Pachamama in the local Quechua dialect) warned them that this source was intended for the foreign visitors. The Spanish conquistadores were more than happy to take up this role and for centuries to come would drain the mountain of its rich supplies and ship them back to Iberia. Up until now thousands of miners are still working here hoping to find a rich vain. The conditions however are extremely miserable and the life expectancy of a miner who starts to work is just over ten years.

Upon our arrival in the city, we decided to head towards the “Casa de la Moneda”, one of the better museums in South America. Luckily we met up here with Senora Carmen, who informed us of three important things that would define our time in Potosi: the llama sacrificing at the mines, the ritual procession to Manquiri and the guides training programme she was setting up.

Llama soon to be killed

She was running an amazing touristist guides office called “Bolivia Explorer”, where local miner kids are trained to become tourist guides one day. Upon hearing of this initiative, we decided to use them for our trips in and around Potosi. This turned out to be a great choice since we were always surrounded by six guides (or friends as you might call them) who had extensive knowledge of the local habits as well as giving us a lot of opportunities to practise our Spanish.

In the morning we met up with our guides and headed towards the mine. Basically we each had 3 motivated Bolivians near our side explaining us everything we wanted to know about Bolivia. Upon arrival at the Cerro Rico, we bought the necessary accesoiries for our visit to the mines: coca leaves, cigarettes, pure alcohol (or at least 96%) and dynamite. Yes, the things you normally buy before visiting a mine. After entering we both shivered: the smell is a horrible and unhealthy one. The gangways are narrow and give a claustrophobic feel. We soon met a miner and after offering him some coca leaves we took over his work for 5 minutes (which felt like two working hours). We continued our tour and passed by “El Tio”, the miners personification of the devil. Miners worship this devilish creature by putting a burning cigarette in its mouth and throwing coca leaves and some pure alcohol on it, hoping for good luck and a lot of minerals and silver. With mixed feelings we headed back out: on the one hand it is interesting to get a glimpse of how these people live, on the other hand the horrible circumstances under which these people work gave a very miserable feel.

El Tio

But the really shocking events were still to come in the next few hours. Every year miners slaughter a llama in front of the mine shaft they are working in. Once again they are asking Pachamama to be generous by pouring llama blood on the entrance of the mine. And guess what… Yes, we were there right at that time. In front of our eyes the “pobre llama” was sacrificed. In the meanwhile, we socialized with the miners and bravely accepted the huge amounts of aguardente they made us swallow. The llama was skinned and the guts were removed. The meat was put on the barbeque (read: used bed frame) and we were kindly invited to join for diner. David ended up eating three pieces of the poor animal, while Tom – for some reason, probably the height – was not very hungry anymore at that time and got up with a beating headache the following morning.

Pobre Llama

The next day we met up with our guides again for another unique Bolivian cultural experience. Once a year, locals take on a procession from Potosi to Manquiri, a small village some 30k away. We often talked about travelling “off the beaten track”, this was undoubtedly the closest we could get (being the only 2 gringo’s around). And we were not exactly camouflaged: David was by far the tallest person the locals ever saw (and will probably ever see), while Tom was referred to by the same people as “el choclo” (literal translation: “the cornhead”). At several little stands all sorts of toys were sold: houses, cars, babies, dollars… These objects are brought into a church where the priest blesses them. Locals believe to receive the real-life equivalent afterwards. David immediately tested his luck and had a miniature baby blessed. Results guarateed within the year! After having tasted mondongo, a local dish, we sipped some chicha, a corn-based drink and wandered around at the chaotic procession.

David's toy babywish

Tom sipping some Chicha

We left Manquiri and joined our guides to continue the festivities on the countryside in our recycled old-school Asian private minibus. At the countryside, we were received as kings (two Belgians travelling that far to join in on the local tradition!) and drank, danced (with 60+ familiy members) and partied until the wee hours of the following morning. The blasting sounds of the local marching bands were still resonating in our slightly inebriated heads when we went looking for our mattresses that were conveniently located in the shack/bar of the farm, another headache was bound to follow.

Our private bus to the campesino's crazy party

After these amazing cultural experiences, we continued our trip and had a stopover in Sucre. The city – former capital of Bolivia – is charming with lots of beautiful colonial buildings, nice bars and restaurants. We met up with Australian Tom again and went to the 201st anniversary of the first independence movement right away. It turned out to be an incredible party with a great live concert. Until… Tom got his wallet pick-pocketed. Thus all of a sudden Tom was without documents and neither one of us had working credit cards. Due to the loss of his documents, Tom headed to Santa Cruz (the only city in Bolivia where there is a Belgian consulate) and ended up in a headache-causing-nightmare called “administration in South America”.

While Tom was on his own expidition to get a new passport, David decided to take on a challenge of his own. Upon arriving in La Paz I headed straight towards the local mountaineering organizations to find out about the possibility to climb Huayna Potosi. This peak is located in the proximity of La Paz and at 6088 metres high it is one of the easier 6000-plus meter peaks to summit. Because the easiest route to the top isn’t very technical, unexperienced climbers have a decent chance of getting there. However the effects of altitude sickness are not to be underestimated and in the end only approximately 50% of them makes it.

The advice given in the different agencies ranged from “I’ve got a group leaving tomorrow morning, you should join!” to “You need at least 8 days to acclimatize, luckily I’ve got a group leaving then!”. In the vain hope that the time in Uyuni and Potosi would suffice, I decided to go for the first option. After some last minute shopping (altitude sickness pills, sunglasses, gloves and snacks) and a well-deserved night of sleep, it was time to meet up with the rest of the expedition: five doctors-to-be from the UK, Andres a proud Universidad de Chile supporter out of Santiago and our four guides. Together with all of our equipment, we crammed ourselves in a little mini-van to take us to base camp at 4700 metres, where we’d spent the afternoon getting used to walking on glaciars using crampons and ice-axes. After acquiring these skills, we advanced to ice climbing which was not only great fun but also very tiring. Nevertheless it was mandatory to master this technique, because in the last 100 metres to the peak a piece of 30 metres of almost vertical ice wall had to be conquered.

On day two of the expedition we had to pack all our stuff and get to the Campo Roca which was located at 5130 metres and would be our start off point for the final ascent. It took us just over two hours to get there and a slight headache was already bothering some of us. Most of the afternoon was devoted to eating and resting to prepare ourselves for the climb ahead of us. After an early dinner we retreated to the dormitory at six in the afternoon trying to catch some sleep. The altitude sickness as well as a growing nervosity only gave us a couple of restless hours, before getting up shortly after midnight to prepare ourselves. We put on our gear, tried to squeeze in a bit of breakfast and gave eachother some peptalk, before setting of in groups of three (two people plus one guide). Carlos, who would be our guide for the summit, tied up Duncan and myself on a safety rope and off we went.

View from Campo Roca - Huayna Potosi behind me

It wasn’t before long that the altitude sickness really kicked in. Our heads felt like they contained a little gremlin beating the inside with a sledgehammer and our stomachs weren’t really interested in all the chocolate we tried to absorb. But some mutual support and an urge to get to the summit kept us going. After a while I went into a simple trance of “Stick, left foot, right foot, stick, left foot, right foot” that kept me going through the cold, silent night. Every fifteen minutes or so we had a short break to catch our breath, drink some water and enjoy the magnificent scenery that was developing around us. Each step brought us a little higher and a little closer to the summit. After a while we saw the tinkling lights of La Paz far below us and the magnificent Cerro Illimani (6438m) was the only thing in the wide environment that was still higher than us. All of the sudden we stood in front of the Polish ridge, the final difficult part before we would reach the summit. With newly found energy and motivation we tackled this last part. We used our ice climbing skills to conquer the steep wall and then had to carefully cross a footwide ridge to finally arrive at the summit.

On top of the world!!!

It had been a body wrecking experience to get there, but the experience of getting at this point was so rewarding. I felt so proud about not giving in to the natural urge to stop and go back. The view on top of the summit was just amazing: ahead of us lay a field of clouds that was only pierced by some of the nearby summits whilst the sun was slowly rising above it; behind us we could see the city of La Paz slowly waking up whilst Lake Titicaca could be seen as well. It must have been the most amazing sunset I have ever seen and while we were on top of the mountain all the physical ailments seemed to have magically disappeared. After twenty minutes in this magical environment, it was time to descend again. It was a harsh trip going down again as we were confronted with our fatigued body, screaming headaches and rising nausea. Another headache in Bolivia and this time it felt like the worsest one ever.

It wasn’t until I got back in to La Paz that I finally started feeling fine. I met up with the Toms again and had no problems convincing them that they should also try to summit this mountain. However this would have to wait till we came back from the jungle, but more on that in a next update.

Hear you later!

Day 65: The desert sessions

Readers who have followed the rock and roll scene in the late nineties and early noughties will be familiar with the term ‘Desert sessions’. Josh Homme, lead-singer of the Queens of the Stone Age, gathered several of his musical friends for jam sessions in the middle of the Mojave Desert. After a period of isolation and contemplation they came back with some great inspirational music.

We followed in the footsteps of some of our musical heroes when we headed for the Atacama desert in the north of Chile. An overnight bus took us from the Chilean beach side into the town of San Pedro de Atacama, which has developed into the backpacker’s Mecca for this area in recent years. The tiny pueblo is brilliantly located in an oasis that is surrounded by deserts that haven’t seen rain in years but is nourished by underground rivers that collect the melted snow of the neighbouring Andean peaks. It consists of little more than a couple of blocks filled up with hostels, tour agents and restaurants. We were definitely on the Gringo Trail. Nevertheless it’s the ideal operating base to discover the surrounding salt flats, geyser fields, lagunas and valleys.

Laguna Cejar

Laguna Cejar

Not allowing time to pass by, we immediately took two of the bikes – that our hosts at Inca Huasi provided for free – to check out the nearby Valle de la Luna. The sensation of biking through a desert is just sensational, although the altitude and omnipresent dust certainly didn’t make it an easy ride. Enjoying sunset on one of the dune ridges in the the valley was downright amazing, with the last rays of sun projecting a beautiful pink hue over the low hanging clouds that topped off the moon-like landscape. Following days were spent on excursions that took us to the Laguna Cejar, Ojos de Salar, Salar de Atacama and the Tatio Geysers. Because of the large distances to be covered and the tourist nature of Atacama, we were forced to join tour groups to see these attractions. It didn’t really feel like the way we preferred to travel, so by the end of these two days we felt a little bit disappointed by it all.

Our first Salar

Our first Salar

Our original plan was to head out of this desert-town on Monday towards the salt flats of Uyuni, unfortunately it had been snowing in the Bolivian Altiplano during the last couple of days so our departure was delayed for a day in order to clean up the roads. It turned out to be a great delay, because we took out our bikes again to ride towards the La Corniza. After taking a scenic but bumpy road that was constructed in the 19th century to connect San Pedro de Atacama with Calama, we got up to a little tunnel that took us in an out-of-this-world scenery. With nobody around we felt like we were dropped on a lunar landscape, so we happily biked further. Route indication was non-existing and our orientation had been heavily pertubated by the winding road towards the tunnel, but our instincts told us to drive straight ahead. We continued through dried up stream beds, steep canyons and vast desert landscape. At lunchtime we did some rock-climbing and got up to a plateau that gave us a majestic outlook over this amazing scenery without a single sign of human interference. This was the way we loved to travel: off the beaten track, not following a guide like a herd of sheep but breaking a sweat to arrive in a place where we’re all by ourselves and can be surprised by an amazing landscape and then not be afraid to scream out how f***ing great this all is.

Jumping in La Corniza

Jumping in La Corniza

After spending the night gazing at the stars (as well as freezing our toes off) in the Observatory, an early wake-up call got us out of bed for a three day adventure in the Bolivian Altiplano. At the border we were introduced to our companions for the coming trip: Chris, a very likeable investment banker(no this is not a contradiction) out of the UK; Francis, our medical whizzkid out of Singapore; Alex, freshly released of the New Zealand army, Bobby, a creative globetrotter out of Australia and Epi, our Bolivian driver. All of us got in to a 4×4 Toyota, which was surprisingly comfortable and besides lacking a functioning dashboard has taken us safely throughout the Altiplano.

Chris - Alex - David - Tom - Francis - Bobby at Salar de Uyuni

Chris - Alex - David - Tom - Francis - Bobby at Salar de Uyuni

It took us three days to get to our final destination Uyuni, but these are the things that we’ll remember for a long while:

1. Salar de Uyuni: without any doubt the highlight of this trip. The image of the otherworldly sunrise is something that is burned in our visual memory forever. Amazingly beautiful.
2. Geyser bathing at Salar de Chalviri: this was so much better than our experience at Tatio Geysers. This time the water was truly warm here and the family of vicunas passing by in the background just made the image complete.
3. Dark Side of the Moon: without any doubt the best soundtrack for this trip.
4. Cold nights: if you want to have a decent night sleep in a refugio at 4200 metres of altitude, you’re better off when you nick a pair of sheets from the empty room next doors to be covered in nicely.

Sunrise in the Salar

Sunrise in the Salar

Upon arrival in Uyuni, a sinister feeling crept upon us. The city was rather dead and signs of poverty seemed to be everywhere, it just didn’t feel comfortable. For a moment we were afraid that this would be representative for the whole of Bolivia. A well-deserved good night sleep and our arrival in the city of Potosi the following day luckily changed that whole idea, but more on that in a coming update.

Hasta proximo …

Tom y David

Tom y David

Day 59: Still on the road!

Beloved readers,

It´s been a while! But lately we`ve been staying in quite desolate areas without any (workable) internet connection. But.. we do not want to let our dearest fans down, so especially and only for you an overview of our activities.

We arrived in the charming town of Salta after taking a bus out of Cafayate. At the Inti Huasi hostel the beautiful “lady of the house” Mariena welcomed us. She tucked us in, after giving us a great massage accompanied with some honey-flavored milk whilst reading our favorite bed time stories. (For David Pocahontas, Tom opted for the sad part in Bambi again). Anyways, could be that we were dreaming or hallucinating, but we slept like roses and woke up with our batteries fully charged. The next day we started off with a visit to the charming town of Salta in the meanwhile further planning our trip . We decided to head towards La Quebrada de Huamaca.

The bus dropped us off in Tilcara, a nice little Quebrada-town. One of the most well known natural sites around town is “El Gargante Del Diablo”. The name seemed quite attractive: we were at least expecting a devilish landscape with a huge waterfall cutting trough a frightening and amazing valley. We asked directions to a friendly man, living in Buenos Aires but camping somewhere nearby. We ended having a conversation lasting for more or less 15 minutes and got to know where exactly each of the man’s family members are living for the moment, how they arrived over there, what their favorite dish is etc,… Finally, the man sent us in the wrong direction. Some moments later we got on the right trail only to find out that the falls were not as satanic as the name made us expect them to be. For Dutch-speaking readers: a bit of a “tegenvaller”. The scenery, however, was well worth the hike: hills covered with cactuses and backed with spectacular snow-white peaks. At noon we walked back towards the city and stepped inside one of the cosy restaurants to taste some of the local specialities: locro and a stew of cabrito. We headed back to the station and got on the bus to Purmamarca, known for its “Cerro de siete colores”: a rock formation with several colors depending on the type of sediments. And again our timing was perfect. After having found our hostel for the night, we witnessed another amazing sunset. We finished the day in style with a party in a local pub together with a diverse crowd of people we met in the hostel.

David in front of the Cierro de Siete Colores

But… both of us were longing for the next stop. The scream of the seaside and the Pacific Ocean were getting louder and louder. After a short night’s rest, we continued sleeping on the bus towards the city of Calama, famous for its copper mining activities. In town we had a dinner (Pichanga – nice and greasy Chilean food) and a drink in what seemed to be one of the local dodgy pubs (a 100% male public and short skirted girls as waitresses). Around midnight we switched onto the night bus to Arica, having another 8 hours bus drive ahead of us. However, early in the morning whilst stepping out of the bus, the scent of the ocean and the clear bleu skies welcomed us and made us smile. Pretty fast we forgot about our tired muscles and wrecked bodies. Once arrived at the hostel-with-sounding-name “Sunny Days”, we got a warm welcome by Ross, born and raised in New Zealand. The breakfast was surprisingly extensive. Crispy bread! Fresh fruits! Quinoa!

Planning on how to fill in the days in Arica, blessed with Chile’s most consistent waves and warm sea currents didn’t take long . We looked into each others direction and simultaneously screamed out loud: let’s go surfing!. Ross recommended to get some classes with Yoyo, the local eccentric surf guru. Shortly after we were standing on a surfboard, with our teacher explaining about how to simply use the energy of the wave to move along the ocean on a board. Sounded pretty inviting and easy. Fully motivated we jumped in our wetsuits and into the salty water only to find out that “using the energy of the waves” is not as easy as initially assumed. The whole afternoon we drank a lot of seawater and used muscles we did not know the existence of. Finally we witnessed the sunset in an alternative and cool way, this time lying on our boards with cramped muscles but surrounded by flying fish, several types of water birds and jumping sea lions.

Back in the hostel we found out how demanding surfing really is. We climbed in our beds early, to head to the beach again the next morning for another surf session. Yoyo picked us up at the hostel Chilean style (thirty minutes late). We passed by his house and in the meanwhile got a glance on his collection of sufboards and pictures with him flanking world’s most famous surf champions and various celebrities (amongst them Fernando Alonso with his Renault F1 racing team and Kelly Slater). Shortly after we were floating in the water again, leaning on our boards waiting to catch some waves. The motivation, persistence and hands-on approach of Yoyo worked out quite fine, and soon we found ourselves riding some (tiny) waves. Surf’s up!

The next day we packed up and headed towards Iquique, more south along the pacific coast line. The city is famous for its paragliding and huge waves. We dived into the city and arranged ourselves a paragliding trip. The next morning we could not hide our excitement when we were picked up by the pilot of the day and took a cab and collectivo up the hill overlooking both desert, city and beach landscapes. After a short explanation Tom got to be the first to be wrapped up into an old school gangsta’ style paragliding suit. Soon David followed and the both of us found out how birds must feel when they are using the thermic currents to fly high up in the sky.

Tom flying high up in the sky

In the afternoon the both of us split up. David went to check out the Unesco World Heritage site of the abandoned miners village of Humberstone. Constructed in the late nineteenth century, it was one of the worlds main nitrate sources; around which a complete town with swimming pool, theatre and hospital was built. After the discovery of synthetic nitrates in the 1930’s, the town was swiftly left behind to be rediscovered as a ghost town many years later. With no other tourists around and a howling desert wind that was rattling the old doors, the whole place had a mysterious and creepy feeling. Whilst the sunset slowly took over the desert and the old miners’ village, it was the perfect location for some great photography.

The abandoned miners village of Humberstone

Tom on the other hand desired a more active afternoon and wanted to further improve his surfing skills, so he got an extra surf lesson on the beach with Lalo (not to be confounded with Lala), a surfing buddy of Yoyo. After a short but effective crash course of one hour, Tom was left on his own, to find out that 1. The waves in Iquique are way too high for a beginning surfer 2. Getting into a wave the wrong way or with a bad timing pretty much feels like falling into a superpowerful washing machine 3. Sea water does not taste better than mineral water and 4. The ocean deserves all our respect and waves are big and respectful objects that are to be feared.

Surf´s up (or down)

In the meanwhile we´ve entered Bolivia via the salt flat of Uyuni after passing through the wonderful San Pedro de Atacama desert area. An extensive report on these amazing places will be provided in our next blog post. We want to finish with thanking you all for thinking of us!

All the best!

David y Tom

Day 51: Hippies busy winetasting on the couch & other oddities

Hi there,

We’ve collected some of our braindumps of the last days and have put them in one big post. They don’t really form a coherent story, but on the other hand we didn’t want to withhold you any of this information. For those who are only interested in certain topics: the first part goes about a great hike we did around El Bolson, the next bit treats the weary bus trip we are making while getting up North, then we have a short update on the vineyards of Mendoza, before handling the great re-discovery of couchsurfing and the last article is just covering the final fait-divers.

Hiking in El Bolson.

We left Futaluefu early in the morning to cross back in to Argentina for a final time on this trip (no doubt that we’ll come back here someday, there is so much left to discover in this amazing country). We arrived in Esquel and didn’t like it that much, we ended up doing a hike towards a nearby lake, spent a night in a peaceful hostel (at least before a group of 15 noisy Israelis arrived) and took an early bus towards El Bolson the next day.

This little town is gloriously located in an Andean valley surrounded by two long chains of mountains. It’s renown for two reasons: one is the warm micro-climate that makes this a great place for agriculture, the other is being the hippy town of Argentina. Although the first became abundantly clear to us when we were soaking in the good weather, the latter is less noticeable. People were very nice and there was a larger offering of organic foods, but the little market in town seemed to offer the same things as in other places while the radio kept offering us abundant doses of generic commercial music. We were lucky to find a great place to stay with Augustin and his wife. He’s an artist who has been living in the city for all his life and has build two lovely guest-houses on his property. Being the low season, we had one of the houses for ourselves at the cost of staying in a hostel, true luxury.

After having an abundant brunch we set off on a two day hike the following morning. The friendly people of Club Andino de Piltriquitron, the local hiking community, had suggested us to go to Refugio Lindo from where it was possible to get to the 2.200 meter high summit in a day trip. Since we’ve been trying to make our provisions increasingly more luxurious on these hiking trips, this time we were taking along lots of fresh fruit and veggies, different types of salami and a bottle of nice Malbec. It wouldn’t take long before we would regret our gastronomic aspirations, the ascent towards the refugio meant overcoming a 1400 meter height difference and our calves were suffering heavily under the load. When arriving at the refugio, we met our friendly host Ariel, dropped of our load and set off with rejuvenated legs to a nearby cascade. The bright mountain light inside the shady refugio sleeping room inspired us for a nice photo-session.

Photoshoot in Refugio Cerro Lindo (now known as Refugio Belgas Lindas)

At night we sat along the glowing wood-stove, enjoying our salami with vegetable risotto (a classic dish since our adventures in Torres del Paine) and finishing off a game of chess along with our bottle of wine. The next morning we got Ariel to guide us to the summit of the Cerro Lindo, a glorious four hour hike along slippery waterfalls, crystal clear glacial lakes, snowed down slopes and amazing viewpoints. When standing on top of the mountain, we had to fight the furious winds blowing around us but were rewarded with a superb scenery that reached from the Chilean part of the Anders to the Tornador volcano next to Bariloche over a hundred kilometres away. On our way back we were surprised with an extremely colourful fall-scenery covering the valley, which very much resembled the work of a great pointillist painter.

Two Belgians on Cerro Lindo

Busy getting busted on the bus.

Greetings from the bus station of Neuquen, where we’re awaiting our connection towards Mendoza. We have to disappoint those of you who were thinking that a city with such an inspiring palindrome for a name would make us to stay longer, but we’re only using this place as a connection point. Sometimes travelling is not more than that, being on the road from one place towards another. It’s what we’ll be doing for much of the coming week. The idea is to make the connection from San Carlos de Bariloche, passing through the city of Neuquen, stopping briefly to bike through the vineyards around Mendoza, hitting Tucuman for a historical crash-course on the independence of Argentina, before stopping in exciting Salta, from there on we make a quick visit to the Unesco world heritage site of the Quebrada of Huemaca, finally we’ll cross the Andes and get to the beachtown of Iquique. Taking in account some breaks along the way we should get there by the Monday morning, in a timespan of 9 days we will have bussed 4260 kilometres and have spent 65 hours on a bus.

4260 kilometres from San Carlos de Bariloche (Argentina) to Iquique (Chile)

In most of the countries around the world this would be a hellish experience, not so in Argentina which has a great bus service. The long-distance busses offer “camas” which are luxurious, fully reclinable seats which come with a little blanket and pillow; during the ride you get offered a hot meal and drinks; the only down-side might be the blurting folk music dvd’s which are played constantly and are hard to ignore.

So why the urge to get up North so all of the sudden and skip the most of central Argentina and Chile? Multiple things have made us choose for this, but the principal ones are:
1. a desire for great weather; since winter was slowly taking over Patagonia starting to cover a lot of places with a tiny layer of snow
2. a need to get back into civilization; despite all it’s marvellous nature Patagonia clearly lacks a cosmopolitan vibe we haven’t experienced since our first days in Buenos Aires
3. trying to get to cheaper parts of South America; Argentina and Chile are two of the most developed countries in S-Am and we’re slightly starting to feel this in our wallets; we’re hoping that Bolivia and Peru will be nicer to us in this respect
4. time for a change in scenery; we’ve hiked through so much beautiful national parks and reserves with all their enormous glaciars, mirror-like lakes, carved-out canyons, funny guanacos snowed-down summits and thrilling waterfalls, that we’re sometimes no longer amazed. If we were to translate a Belgian cliche, we no longer see the forest through all the trees. A different landscape will hopefully rejuvenate our senses.

Winetasting in Mendoza

An overnight bus dropped us off in Mendoza early in the morning. We went straight away to the hostel that was recommended to us by a Dutch couple and got some extra hours of sleep. Just before lunch we set out to discover the city. Mendoza was destroyed by an earthquake some decades ago, which gave them the opportunity to redesign the complete city lay-out. This resulted in wide avenidas, tons of parks and some very nicely restored buildings.

The following day we left the hostel with a South-African couple we’ve met in the hostel towards the city of Maipu. In its surroundings you can find the largest and most famous Argentine vineyards. We hooked up with Senor Hugo who’s the local bike dealer and gave us some fine rides. It wouldn’t take long before our Flandrien roots would take over and in no time we had lost sight of our South Africans, a pity since they were very nice company. We continued on our bikes and visited two of the family bodegas on our way and tried out some of the local Malbec and Torrentos wines. We finalised our tour by visiting the Trappiche vineyards, which are the biggest exporters of wine in Argentina. There, our lovely guide showed us around and made us try some new grape varieties.


Wine tasting in Mendoza

Couchsurfing in Yerba Buena, Tucuman

After travelling for almost fifty days in hostels and hospedajes, you sometimes feel like you’re living in a separate world designed for travellers only. All day long you meet amazing people from all over the world, who have great advice on where to go next, which activities to do and which hostel to stay at.

So we decided to pick up an old habitude, couchsurfing. During our time in Brussels we had hosted some guest from all over the world and David had already used it during his travels in New York and Bulgaria. We hadn’t tried so before since the CS-community isn’t that big in Patagonia, but around Tucuman there seemed to be a lot of people who were willing to host two Belgian gringos. Julio was the first one to respond and he turned out to be an amazing host. Together with his family, Julio lives in the nearby city of Yerba Buena. Upon arrival we were received with extreme friendliness and had no choice but to join the family for lunch. In the afternoon Julio took us up to the pueblo of San Javier from where we had an amazing view of the city. We settled down and ordered some tea. Unfortunately David had to wait a bit longer for his “té de menta”, because weirdly enough the waiter kept forgetting this part of the order. Later at night we felt like the two newly adopted sons of the family while we were sharing the empenadas, for which Tucuman is famous. We’re so grateful for this great reception and wished we could have stayed longer, but bearing in mind this great experience we definitely plan on couchsurfing more often.

Two Belgians jumping over Yerba Buena

Some random facts

– While being in Yerba Buena, we started feeling slightly ashamed with our hair-do’s that had gone wild in the last couple of weeks. Travelling through the wilderness of Patagonia we appeared to be tough gauchos, in our current civilised environment we looked like weary, homeless religion teachers. Julio set us up with the local barber, who transferred David in an up-to-date version of Freddy Mercury (with mandatory moustache) and Tom in a slightly more sophisticated version of himself.

After visiting the barber

– On our way from Tucuman to Salta, we made a detour in the tiny village of Cafayate. We settled in the cosy hostel El Balcon and went biking through the nearby Quebrada the next morning. The weather was great (28 degrees Celsius) as was the company (Benjamin from France and Jose from Brasil) and the beautiful environment, the bikes were a bit dodgy though (2 flat tires and one broken gear between the four of us).

Two Belgians in the Quebrada

– We’ve updated our travel map.

– Great news for everyone who’s ever been in desperate need for a ingenious flower composition, a wide choice of in/outdoor plants or wants to express his creativity during some of the best flower arranging courses in the world, as they can now find Bernadette De Winter on-line. Music by Miles Davis, webdesign by David.

¡Mucha suerte y hasta luego!