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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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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Carnaval, Cariocas, Caipirinhas, Copacabana and Coconuts – our first couple of days in Rio de Janeiro

How do a million dancing, singing, happy people hide within a city block?

That’s what Gabby and I kept asking ourselves as we searched through the streets of Rio for the notorious Bloco Cordao da Bola Preta in the Central district. Where is the Bloco? We tried to follow the hordes of cariocas (the name given to people from Rio) and tourists alike in fancy dress, but they kept peeling off in different directions. Bloco? We asked one policeman. That way. Bloco? We asked a street vendor. He pointed the other way.

Then we turned a corner and heard it before we saw it: the rhythm of drums, the cheers from the crowd. Our eyes quickly caught up with our ears as we spotted a huge bus surrounded by a mass of humanity in brightly coloured costumes, feathers and headdresses, glitter and confetti everywhere. We squeezed our way through until we were right next to the samba school, dancing and drumming in time to the enthusiastic conducting of a woman on top of the bus. We samba-ed in our own gringo way in a slow march through the streets… laughing and cheering alongside a crowd who knew all the words to every song. Now this was the Carnaval we’d been looking for.

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We found a Bloco! Multibloco in Lapa

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Only it wasn’t. We hadn’t found Cordau da Bola Preta at all but stumbled into Multibloco in the Lapa district. Oh well, who cares! We had a blast and this is Rio baby. There’s plenty of partying to come.

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From the moment we landed in Rio, one thing was clear: we were not in Disney World anymore. Our hotel, the Riazor, leaves a little to be desired… especially when you’re coming out of some pretty nice 5-star accommodation! But the rooms are clean and safe, the beds comfy, and the air-con and wifi both work – so what more can you ask for?

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Beautiful Copacabana beach

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Our first misty view of Cristo from the streets of Copacabana

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Thank god for these water tracks… they made walking on the beach bearable!

I wanted to get right into the spirit, so our first stop was Copacabana beach. Luckily the bonus of our hotel is that it is right by a metro station, so getting around the city is simple and safe. When we arrived, we had a traditional Brazilian lunch, which involved loading up as much food as possible onto a plate and paying by the weight – delicious. It was then only a short walk down to the beach. And what a beach. The sun was blazing and, despite it being a Thursday afternoon, the beach was packed. Thank god for the people who water the sand so it can be walked on – otherwise I might have burned the soles of my feet to a crisp!

After baptising our trip with a mandatory toe in the South Atlantic, we kicked back at a beach bar with a couple of Caipirihinas and a delicious agua de coco – although, admittedly, I probably drank too much too quickly. Combined with the exhaustion of the flight and the heat of the day, I was knackered and feeling a bit ill by the time we were ready to go out for dinner. Me, too unwell to eat? Almost unheard of. But it turned out a good night’s sleep was what I needed.

The next morning we were up bright and early for our tour of Rio. It was a great way to get oriented around the city and check off some of the major sights! And Rio did not disappoint at all. Our first stop was the Cristo Redentor (do what we did: get there early to avoid long lines at the bottom and monstrous crowds at the top!) and it was truly breathtaking.

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Cristo Redentor

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The crowds by Cristo, overlooking Sugar Loaf mountain

The tour also took us past a favela, into the district of Santa Teresa and to the main Metropolitan Cathedral, which was unlike any cathedral I’ve ever been in! It can hold 20,000 people at capacity, which is kind of mind-blowing.

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One of the most photographed favelas in Rio

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Inside the Catedral Metropolitana de Sao Sebastiao

Finally, we went up Sugar Loaf mountain in the cable cars to get absolutely stunning 360 views of Rio. What a town.

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On Sugarloaf mountain, with a view of Copacabana

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Inside the cable car

Thank goodness we had a good experience of Carnaval on Saturday morning, because Friday night can only be summed up as mildly disastrous. Owing to some misinformation from our Rio tour guide, we ended up arriving late to not one, but two blocos – arriving after the party only to find the masses of post-party drunk people still wandering the streets. Yes, there was still a bit of music but nothing like the fun, happy atmosphere we imagined.

As much as many blogs and articles I’ve read suggest simply ‘wandering the streets’ until you find a party, a little bit of pre-planning would have helped us have a much better night!

So far, Rio has been pretty amazing – even though I’m glad that this blog and my books give me an excuse to come home in the middle of the day to escape the heat and rest for the evening… Sambadrome is tomorrow, and I’m going to need all the energy my body can muster if I’m to survive the night!

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Typical tourist pose at Cristo – kind of has to be done!

 

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A vacation to remember: WDW, Universal Studios and Celebrity Silhouette

It’s hard to describe the past couple of weeks, but I’m going to go with a single word: blissful. It’s been the perfect opportunity for Lofty and I to have some family time before the BIG trip begins – a vacation before the adventure. And what a vacation it was.

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The group at Hogsmeade!

We started off with a week at Disney’s Old Key West resort, where we celebrated Christmas (for the third time for most of us), played golf and did some shopping. The highlight was of course a trip to Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure – home to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Once again I was blown away by the imagination and the detail of the Harry Potter parks. Seeing scores of people – young and old – in long cloaks and wands, watching them cast spells to make jets of water fly through the air or upset cauldrons over unsuspecting onlookers… it’s literal magic. I must have had a look of awe permanently plastered on my face (the marker of a true HP fangirl) because as soon as I stepped into Ollivander’s, I was chosen to have my wand ‘choose’ me. As I spoke the magic words – Wingardium Leviosa – and a gust of wind lifted my hair to the singing of a choir – I was in. Sell me ten of those wands. Let me spend all my money on you, JKR and Warner Brothers.

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Finding my perfect wand at Ollivander’s…

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Hogwarts, of course

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Lofty & I outside Hogwarts

Okay, so all I bought was a Gryffindor-branded phone case, but the effect had definitely taken hold.

The rides are unbelievable too. These are no ordinary theme park rides – the hair-raising jaunt through Gringotts vault has some of the most sophisticated tech I’ve ever seen on a rollercoaster. Even the queues are fantastic (just look at the detail below as you step inside Gringotts bank). If you’re a fan and you ever get the chance to go, do it.

Inside Gringotts

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Diagon Alley

Our second week was aboard Celebrity Silhouette, sailing to Cozumel, Grand Cayman, Jamaica and Labadee in Haiti. Suffice to say, the cruise was incredible. The ship was pristine, the food delicious, service impeccable, and the ports… well, I think Labadee might move straight in as my favourite Caribbean destination ever.

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These two weeks of bliss have been like rays of sunshine, wonderful to bask in but also so bright they’ve obscured the view of everything that went before or that’s to come after. We’ve been living in a bubble where all our family is together in one place, where the sun is always shining, where food and cocktails appear on command (no magic wand required) and our every whims have been catered for. But from tomorrow, when we board the plane to Rio, we’re going to taking the first steps into a different kind of life. New people, new countries, new languages, new experiences… living out of a backpack and seeing where the road takes us!

It’s bound to be a wilder ride than the journey to a Gringotts bank vault. I hope to see some dragons too.

 

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Make sure to follow us on Instagram too! #alwardsontour

 

 

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