30th birthday Shenanigans – Futaleufu and Santiago

All I wanted for my 30th birthday was to start the decade as I mean to go on. And I think I accomplished that! But planning for my big milestone was no easy feat… although we knew the location was going to be somewhere between Chile and Argentina, we had no idea exactly where – the beauty of an Oasis Overland itinerary is that it’s a bit flexible. When I asked Kim, our tour leader, where she thought we’d be on the 24 March, she said ‘oh – it’s a drive day and a bush camp’. Huh. Not exactly the thrilling birthday day I’d hoped for!IMG_9102

But that’s where I was wrong. We rocked up to the ‘bush camp’ on the 23rd – and it happened to be an actual campsite in Queulat National Park in Chile, on the shores of a stunning fjord. After a beautiful sunset, naturally, to celebrate my last night in my twenties, I stripped down and went skinny-dipping! The result? The definition of chilly in Chile. Brrr. Luckily, there was a roaring fire to warm us all up – and plenty of good Chilean red wine.

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I spent the first morning of my thirties in true adventurous style – no make-up, hair unbrushed, in the same clothes I’d been wearing for three days… but hiking up to a famous hanging glacier inside the national park. As hummingbirds flitted past and droplets from the distant waterfall coated my skin, I thought, this is what I want my thirties to be: pushing my boundaries, hiking more, seeing more of the world’s wonders.

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The long drive that followed the hike was made hilarious by a bespoke birthday playlist, lots of singalongs and a truck decorated in my honour. I really have to thank all the people on our truck, Dadingo, for making my day really special!! At Futaleufu, our destination, we signed up for my birthday present – white water rafting the notorious Grade 5 Futa river rapids — and after dinner, Lofty presented me with a bottle of champers (yay!) and the truck gave me a big chocolate birthday cake. Yum.

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The Futaleufu river is home to some of the biggest rapids in the world… just not at the time that we visited! Even though the water was low, we still had an awesome time. I’ve been white water rafting a few times now, but I never get over the rush. On a beautiful sunny day, sitting (and, on occasion, screaming) down a river is just the most fun. We were in very good hands with our guide, Julio, who was an Olympic kayaker for Peru! I have no idea if the Peruvians are good at kayaking, but he took us down the most ‘perilous’ lines on the river to get maximum rapid impact – but still, only one of us fell out of the boat (and not me!)

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But my birthday fun didn’t end there! I’m skipping a couple of destinations (to return to in the next blog post) to Santiago, where Lofty & I celebrated in proper style. Using Starwood points accumulated during all our wedding spending, we booked a night in the swanky W Hotel Santiago, with its gorgeous rooftop pool. After a lazy morning wandering around the parks and fish markets of Santiago, we sauntered over to the hotel. Nothing like spending an afternoon feeling like a big spender after all those nights camping!

I’d also heard that the sushi in Santiago was amazing, due to its proximity to the coast and strong Japanese influence (lots of Japanese fishermen cross the Pacific to fish the abundant coasts of Chile). We couldn’t get into the W Hotel restaurant but we did manage to get a reservation at Asian Temple Lounge inside the Intercontinental down the road. And it did not disappoint. We had grilled octopus carpaccio, tuna and salmon sashimi, seared tuna steaks and elaborate sushi rolls. It was absolutely to die for – and dirt cheap too! I’d definitely come back to Santiago. One day was not enough.

30, you’re going to be alllll right.

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Exploring Patagonia – Argentina & Chile

The W-trek (see previous post!) was our baptism of fire into Patagonia, and over the course of the two weeks we’ve really come to know this region well. We’ve criss-crossed the Chilean-Argentinian borders more times than I can count, with each destination offering something new and beautiful to explore.

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Take the Perito Moreno glacier, which we visited from El Calafate. This enormous valley glacier is renowned for giving visitors great spectacles of ‘calvings’ – where the ice crumbles from the front of the glacier. I’d seen a version of this already in Antarctica, but I was looking forward to seeing it from even closer up. We’d actually missed the biggest calving (where an entire ice bridge collapses and the glaciers starts receding again for a bit) by only a week – bad timing that seemed to haunt us all the way to Pucon.

Luckily, Perito Moreno didn’t disappoint. We started out with a boat trip, which enabled us to get really up close and personal with the ice. We saw a couple of small calvings from the boat, but what was most impressive was how blue the ice was. I’m not sure that we expected such a rich colour.

Off the boat, we walked some of the catwalks on land that offered several view points of the glacier. We stood and watched in anticipation, our eyes scanning the huge wall of ice. It’s not enough to wait until you hear the thunderous ice cracking – by then, it’s too late. But after a few minutes, there was a little crumble of ice that seemed to open up a waterfall – like the glacier had sprung a leak. We trained our cameras on the place: something was definitely afoot. The ice creaked and groaned. Then, finally, a piece the equivalent to a three storey-building broke off and plunged into the water, directly in front of us. Epic, epic, epic.

From El Calafate, we moved to El Chalten, home of Mount Fitzroy at the top of Los Glaciares National Park. This was where we could get even closer to the ice, but unfortunately for me, my knee was playing up after the W-trek and I didn’t want to aggravate it any further. Still, Lofty got to go ice-climbing on Argentina’s largest glacier – Viedma – abseiling down into crevasses and picking his way out. Me? I wasn’t jealous at all. Of course not.

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Lofty climbing a crevasse in Viedma glacier

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I mean, please don’t feel too bad for me. While in El Chalten, I did a small walk to a viewpoint of Mount Fitzroy, ate an enormous banana-and-chocolate covered waffle and spent two hours in an amazing spa having four different types of treatments. Not too shabby whatsoever!

Mt Fitzroy viewpoint

 

 

 

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Doing the W – Torres Del Paine, Patagonia, Chile

Let me preface this blog post by saying that I am not a hiker, and neither is the other intrepid #alwardsontour, Lofty. But still, there was something about tackling three days of the world-renowned W-trek really appealed to us both, even though it meant diving in at the deep end: carrying our tents, food and clothes on our backs for over 60km. Call us crazy but it ended up being a great experience, and a real accomplishment to boot.

After the flat, monotonous scenery of the Chilean/Argentinian Steppe, driving into Torres del Paine was something of a shock to the eyes and the system. We drove past stunning glacial lakes, milky blue in colour, and huge granite peaks that seemed to pierce the sky.

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We only had two-and-a-half days to do the W-trek, which most people do in four. While a few very hardcore members of our group managed to get around the entire thing, the group I was walking with made the executive decision to cut back on one arm of the ‘W’ – so I suppose technically we did a cursive ‘U’ shape! We missed the trek to Glacier Grey as we knew we were going to see some very impressive glaciers later on in El Calafate and El Chalten.

The first stop was to pick up all our gear in Puerto Natales. We decided to rent a two-man tent (possibly the smallest tent known to mankind), a stove (which we shared with another couple), a cooking set (small pot, forks, spoons and bowls) and waterproof trousers. We also carried our sleeping bags, thermarests and lots of food and snacks! As for clothes, we brought one set for hiking and one for sleeping (a tiny bit gross, but hey – we were glad not to carry any extra weight! Underwear being the exception, of course!) We would pick up water along the way from glacial streams and otherwise camp at designated stops along the way. Tuna and rice would provide the mainstay of our meals – not the most exciting, but definitely nutritious.

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The ferry dropped us off on the evening of our first day at 7pm. We set up camp for the night – and truly found out just how small our tent was – and treated ourselves to our only cooked meal of the hike at Refugio Paines Grande. Already the scenery blew us away – as did the wind. The wind howled all night, threatening to blow us away in our teeny tiny tent! Not the greatest sleep start to the hike, but somehow we managed to get up in the morning bright and early with big smiles on our faces, ready to start our big adventure!

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Hiking with heavy packs is hard. Especially when you don’t wear the packs correctly! I hiked the first hour with my shoulders burning – once I readjusted my pack so that the majority of the weight sat on my hips, the shoulder pain instantly disappeared. Magic. Thankfully it was only 2.5 hours to the next stop, Campo Italiano, where we could dump our main bags and just take lunch up to the top of the middle arm of the ‘W’ – the Frances Valley.

The Frances Valley was definitely the most beautiful hike of them all, and if anyone else out there is short on time in the W, I would suggest doing this over Glacier Grey. For us, it was the most interesting hike – taking us through thick forests, past hanging glaciers that occasionally carved – creating miniature avalanches that thundered through the valley, and all the way up to a stunning view point called Mirador Britannico. We ate salami and cheese in front of huge granite cliffs, under a bright blue sky.

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We then had to hike back, to the unwelcome sight of our big packs. Although we’d already been walking for a little over 6 hours, we still had 2 hours to go until we could rest. Those last two uphill hours were definitely the hardest! We’d done over 20 miles (according to my Withings watch) and, having not done that much exercise for a long time, I was drained and emotional and in pain by the end. Arriving at Refugio Los Cuernos was a revelation, and a glass of Chilean Sauvignon Blanc/Riesling mix later, I was one happy girl once again.

Waking up the next day was… interesting. I don’t think there was a leg muscle that wasn’t crying out in pain! And we had a 4.5 hour hike to start off our morning. Joy. Still, because we had done so much walking the day before, we had saved ourselves a lot of time, and the walk was a beautiful, (mostly) flat stroll next to a stunning blue glacier lake. We really lucked out with the weather.

Waking up the next day was… interesting. I don’t think there was a leg muscle that wasn’t crying out in pain! And we had a 4.5 hour hike with full packs to start off our morning. Joy. Still, because we had done so much walking the day before, we had saved ourselves a lot of time, and the walk was a beautiful, (mostly) flat stroll next to a long glacier lake.

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Our reward for finishing the first part of the hike was a picnic lunch by the Hotel Torres, a posh hotel that would be our final destination the next day. We had made really good time so there was even a chance to grab a power nap in the sunshine on the grass. All I can say is that it was so necessary before the next part of the hike, which was undoubtedly the hardest: a 2 hour straight uphill scramble, with packs, to the Refugio Chileano.

And we still were not done. From Refugio Chileano, we had 3km to Campo Torres, our campsite for the night. That may have been the longest 3km of my life! Carrying packs all the way, for 23km, after having hiked far more than that the day before, was almost too much. The scenery on this part of the hike was also a lot less interesting than the Frances Valley.

However, there was going to be a pay-off… we just had to get to Campo Torres. From there, we ate dinner and hit the hay early, ready for the MAIN EVENT the next morning: sunrise at the Mirador Las Torres.

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Scrambling up rocks in the dark, in the cold, is not the most fun, but this was the event we had all been waiting for. We huddled together on our thermarests, waiting for the sun to hit the Torres and turn them fiery red (p.s. if you’re doing this, I thoroughly recommend bringing a sleeping bag up too! It gets reallllllly cold up there!). At first, it looked like we had the weather on our side. We had bright stars and a cloudless sky, and gradually that sky lightened to reveal the Torres. But as soon as the sun came up over the horizon, our luck changed. Thick bands of cloud remained stubbornly fixed on said horizon, blocking the rays, and then a fog descended over the Torres themselves, so that when it came for us to take a group selfie they were almost totally obscured! Boo. Still, we couldn’t control the weather: we could only control the fact that we’d made it up there in time to have a chance to see it, and we were proud of ourselves for accomplishing that. Maybe next time!

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Thankfully the way back was downhill, downhill, downhill, all the way to a hot lunch and a cocktail. It was hard on the knees (one knee in particular is still suffering a bit!) but a 30-minute leg massage sorted my muscles right out.

We’d done it! 2.5 days, over 60km, boom.

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Bushcamping, or, Just in case you were getting a little too jealous of our adventure…

(*More pictures to come when I have better internet!*)

We are now a week into our overlanding adventure and it’s been a baptism of fire! While we were lulled into a false sense of security by two nights in the beautiful coastal town Paraty (more on that later), the three nights and three long drive days that followed was our proper induction into overlanding life.

Our first bush camp stop, somewhere outside Sao Paolo

What is typical overlanding life?

  • Drive days that last between 8-10 hours
  • Pulling over on the side of the road for pee-breaks (and learning to overcome squatting fear for girls – watch out for spiders!)
  • Becoming way too well acquainted with the affectionately known ‘shit shovel’
  • Sharing close quarters with 25 people who have not showered for 3 days
  • 25 people who are also covered in DEET thanks to all manner of biting, flying insects (this one probably unique to this part of the world!)
  • Eating whatever the cook group manages to scrounge together for you (normally pretty delicious despite catering for multiple food preferences, gluggy spaghetti and lack of ingredients!)
  • Deciding whether to pitch your tent on a sand pit, ant hills, cow dung or stones
  • Doing all this in the sweltering heat and high humidity

Good times. And I’m not even being sarcastic! It is good times. It’s not for everybody (at some points, I wondered it if it was for me). Yet nothing bonds a group together quite like bushcamps, and we were well stocked with beers and plenty of good, hearty food to keep us going. Long drive days are broken up with intense games of mafia, naps, lots of reading and even more writing (that last one reserved for me and the diarists!). I’ve blitzed through The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge (so fantastic), How They Met, and other stories by David Levithan (which I read on Valentine’s Day – perfect) and Code Name: Verity (very different to what I expected and much older, but had me tearing up at the end). The nights tend to be short – early to bed and early to rise. The bushcamps vary: the first night, we attempted to pull into a campsite but had to camp outside instead (the campsite was actually a nudist retreat – only three days into the trip, we weren’t quite ready for that much openness!); the second night, we camped near what smelled much like a sewage treatment plant (by far the least pleasant stop); and the third night, we suffered a disaster by being kicked out of our first site by locals – only to find paradise in the form of a campsite in a stunning, Jurassic Park-like landscape with ACTUAL showers and ACTUAL toiletseats. True-to-goodness bliss.

And that’s probably the best part about bushcamping on those long journeys: it makes the destinations so much sweeter.

Take Paraty, our first stop after Rio – and our slice of paradise before the bushcamping began. It’s an absolutely stunning old colonial town and world heritage site with cobblestone streets, cute churches and wall-to-wall cachaça stores (that’s the alcohol that fuels the decidedly lethal caipirinhas).

After exploring the town, we climbed aboard a boat for a little exploration of the little islands and beaches dotted along the coastline. Now this was truly amazing. The water was beautiful and teeming with fish. The sun shone brightly (so much so, many people got burned… including Lofty, who won the first ever truck ‘numpty’ award for his ‘interesting’ suntan marks). We had a yummy lunch and spent the day swimming and sunbathing and sipping cocktails. Not too shabby for a bunch of soon-to-be-shabby overlanders.

But the reason for all the drive days that followed? The Pantanal – the world’s largest swamp. Sounds pleasant, doesn’t it? Despite the reputation, it was magic. But more on that in the next blog post…

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Surviving (and thriving) at the Sambadrome

I can’t believe how quickly our time in Rio has disappeared already! Tomorrow we leave on the Oasis Overland truck ‘Dingo’ for pastures new, and I have little idea what to expect. I’m getting ready to take each day as it comes and to be open to whatever adventures are ahead.

But in the meantime – what a time we’ve had! Sambadrome loomed before us with the prospect of eight hours of partying through the night. Would I be able to handle it? Would it live up to the hype?

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Half party, half city – the two sides of Rio

For me, the answer was ABSOLUTELY. Sambadrome doesn’t just live up to the hype… it is the hype. I’ve never experienced anything like the electric energy that rocketed around the concrete stadium when the floats were in view. Everyone got into the spirit, dressing up in headbands and glitter – and some in full body paint and very little else! While I wasn’t one of those people who could dance all night, I did stay right up until the last float passed through the stands and the sun rose in the sky. It was an epic night/morning to say the least.

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We were in Sector 13, which is right at the end of the parade. There were many benefits to Sector 13 – it was a lot of fun to watch the dancers finish at the end and the chaos as they rushed to take their costumes off and join the party. You could easily find discarded costumes (they made for great pictures and cool – if unwieldy – souvenirs! I think there’s a purple alien head still in the hallway of our hotel) and you felt like part of the local scene. The downside is that we were quite far away from the main action itself and we didn’t feel like we could completely grasp the magnitude of the floats. The binoculars I had just offered a tantalising glimpse of the immense effort that went into every single detail of the parades. It would have been better to experience them in their full glory.

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Throwing away the costumes at the end… so sad!

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6am snoozes… when’s the next Samba school on?

It was definitely an immense way to kick off the trip – and something I will never forget.

Rio has been unforgettable in lots of ways. We went paragliding from Pedra Bonita – an incredible flight over the stunning beaches and coastline of the city. We wiled away an afternoon on Ipanema beach. We watched sunset from the base of Sugarloaf and drank beers on a seawall with the locals. We bought ridiculously cheap Havaianas in Copacabana (and promptly left them in a beachside bar… sigh). Lofty partied in Lapa and I wrote in the corner of an Irish pub.

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Finally, we toured the largest favela in South America – Rocinha – which over 70,000 people call home. We umm-ed and ahh-ed about doing this tour, but in the end we decided that it was the only way to get close to understanding the flipside of this capricious city. Of course, with bus-loads of tourists walking through it every day, Rocinha is one of the ‘safer’ favelas – but it was still eye-opening to see the conditions that still exist for over 3 million residents of Rio de Janeiro. The company that we used takes all the money for the tour and uses it to fund a day care and school inside the favela. While of course it felt uncomfortable to be essentially gawking at people’s lives (and all in the knowledge that we were leaving at the end), we were greeted with warm and open arms by the people we met there – and not just the ones who were taking money from us. I am glad that I went, if only to feel like I’m coming away with a more balanced view of this city and the country I’m about to explore even further.

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The view from the top of Rocinha favela

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All in all, Rio has lived up to its reputation. It’s incredibly beautiful, but it also has a dark side. On the same day that Lofty and I commented on how safe we’d felt the entire time we were here (and we did – we took money out of ATMs without issue, we took the metro at all hours, we partied at the blocos), some other members of our group were not so lucky. It just goes to show that both the raves and the warnings about Rio are true. If you are ever able to find yourself here, practice vigilance and be safe – but feel comfortable that even the bad is not enough to dim the good.

Rio just shines too brightly.

And if you need any further convincing, here’s our time in video form:

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