Torres del Paine and the missing sock!

After an overnight stop in Puerto Natales, in order to re-stock (very expensive), we continued South into the National Park of Torres del Paine. About 15 years ago Steve read about this place in a travel magazine and immediately added it to his bucket list. It’s not the easiest place in the world to get to and so we have waited until now so we have plenty of time to enjoy it. The weather forecast was not great (with rain and sub-zero nightime temperatures predicted) but around here the forecast is about as reliable as a 1970’s Austin Maxi (Steve knows this from personal childhood experiences).

Approaching Torres del Paine.

As we got close to the park the scenery started to change as the granite, snow-capped peaks came into view. There were clouds and blue skies framing the peaks as we stopped several times for photo opportunities and eventually arrived at the campsite. In the past we have been fortunate enough to stay at some fabulous campsites around the world but this one has most definately gone to the top of the pile.

The best location we have ever camped.

The following morning we woke to blue skies with very little cloud. It had also been quite warm overnight, probably the warmest night so far (Austin Maxi reliability!!). Today the plan was to do the trek to Mirador del Torres, which is probably the most photographed of the walks in the area and forms part of the famous “W” Trek …. a 4 day trek around the park. The day turned out to be everything we had wanted it to be and more. It was 11 km up to the top, initially through open grass land, then into areas of forest and small streams and finally we climbed above the tree line to scramble over loose rocks up to the end of the trek. We looked down on glacial rivers, crossed small rickety bridges and all the time the famous three granite towers dominated the skyline, giving us different perspectives as we twisted our way up and up. The last kilometre is very steep and is over large boulders which really make you concentrate on your feet and it is not until you make the final few steps, and walk into what is almost a granite amphitheatre, that you see the full spectacle. It was like walking into the magazine that Steve had seen 15 years before.

Just like the magazine said……amazing!
It’s a little cold up here!

We spent an hour having lunch and taking photographs as more of the group made their way to the top. Then it was time to make the return journey, 11 km downhill. Once we had scrambled and fallen (Steve) over the boulders, we had a nice steady walk to the bottom. The trip down was just as scenic as the way up, but we were able to relax a little and enjoy the views of the valley below.  On several occasions we looked over the edge of the path and saw how steep the drop actually was. We had not realised how hard we had worked on the way up!

Heading down with the valley below

Once at the bottom we sat in the cafe and had a fantastic, well earned coffee and muffin before heading back to the spectacular campsite and Jing’s unbelievably good stir fry and sticky rice. Jing is originally from China but has lived in the USA for the last couple of years. In our opinion she is the best cook on the trip and is also pretty good at Tai Chi.

Good morning Jing

Definitely a bucket list day!

The plan for the following day was to explore the walks from the campsite. Steve had planned ahead by putting his socks, boxer shorts and t-shirt in his sleeping bag to ensure they were warm for the morning. After another not too cold night and bit of a lay in, we woke to mainly blue skies and a brisk Patagonian wind but no rain:-). Steve fished his warm clothes out of his sleeping bag, opened the tent door and started to get dressed. “What are you doing?” asked Sarah as Steve rummaged in the tent. “I’ve lost a sock” came the frustrated reply. The sock was nowhere to be found, everything was turned out of the tent while Sarah looked on in disbelief. “How can he lose a sock, in 10 seconds while sat in the tent”. In the end Steve gave in, doubting the sock was ever there in the first place and we went off to get some breakfast.

The views just keep coming.

A group of us decided to walk up to a hill called Condor Lookout which was about a 90 minute round trip from the campsite and apparently had great views. Steve made a final trip to the toilet before we left the campsite, which turned into a sit down affair. In the gloom of the toilets down came the trousers and boxers, “What the hell is that!” was the shout heard outside. “There is some strange South American rodent in my boxers” ….“ No. It’s OK. I’ve found my sock”……..Idiot!

Andreas, Steve and Andrin on a windy summit.

We made the trek to the lookout to once again unbelievable views and winds, we even saw a Condor sail by. The rain stayed away and the sun came out.  The afternoon was spent sat in the sun, dozing, reading and chatting. Nikki spent the morning cooking her amazing pumpkin soup. She has done it before and it is seriously good. She then spent the afternoon cooking lasagne on an open fire. Now we both like lasagne, a lot, and this was one of the best. Not only did it taste brilliant it looked amazing, a proper solid juicy lasagne. Watch out Jing, you have competition!  Everyone had seconds and even the crispy bits on the side were scrapped off. Then it was more chat and off early to bed ready for another big walk tomorrow. Another leg of the “W” Trek awaits.

The plan for our third and day in Torres del Paine was to hike to Grey’s Glacier following the route of the final leg of the “W” Trek. In order to do this you have to catch a ferry to the start. The company that run this operation have obviously realised that they have a captive audience and charge £35 return for the 30 minute crossing. We arrived in plenty of time, (or so we thought) 50 minutes before the first ferry, the queue was already significant and even after they crammed people onboard we were still out of luck and had to wait for the single ferry to make the round trip and return for us.

Excellent conditions for £1 per minute?

Eventually, 3 hours after we had joined the queue we started the trek. We were now very limited on time to make the hike and be back with enough time to comfortably make the return ferry. 23 km, up and down over varrying terrain in windy conditions in 5 hours. “No probem” said Steve. Sarah looked at him with a sense of dread, thinking “Here we go again, a nice leisurely walk turned into a route march!!”. As we hiked up and up we did discuss a few times as to turning back, but Sarah has become fitter and more determined over the last couple of years and pressed on. Steve knew she was serious as the conversation was minimal and few more words worthy of the scrabble board were being muttered. We had snacks and drinks as we walked and took off and replaced layers of clothing on the go as the temperature and wind increased and decreased.

Sarah power’s on to the glacier in the distance.

We made it to the refugio at the end of the trek and Steve calculated that if we maintained the same pace on the return leg then we had just over 90 seconds to stop for lunch. Sarah decided to eat lunch on the way back and use the 90 seconds for a pee stop! She set a great pace and never slowed the whole way back even breaking into a jog at some points. We arrived back after 4 hours 55 minutes (on what was marked on the map as a 7 hour route) and boarded the ferry back to the truck.

Well worth the walk.

Sarah did tell everyone that Steve had dragged her across the trek but secretly she has a sense of satisfaction of completing two legs of the “W” Trek and we got some great pictures along the way.

Icebergs float on by.

We got back on the truck and made the 2 hour journey back to Puerto Natales for an overnight stay in a warm bed (bunks of course) before starting the final leg of our journey South to Ushuaia, the world’s most southerly city……….Yes Sarah, I’m sure they do mega waffles there as well.

After Ushuaia we have a long long drive of almost 2000 km through isolated parts of Patagonia before our next stop, so it maybe a week or so before we post again. Thanks to everyone for all the comments so far !

Ice Ice Baby………and a little rain!

As we continued our journey south the landscape changed dramatically from the lush Alpine slopes to a dry, arid, flat desert, mile after mile with the landscape hardly changing. Steve sat up front in the cab with Chris for a few hours and chatted about his exploits in West Africa. At one point we drove for over 150km on a dirt road and didn’t see a single building so you get the feeling of how remote Patagonia can be.

Is there anybody out there?

Eventually we decided to call it a day, we pulled off the road and set up camp. No toilets and showers here!  Steve and a few others started a fire with some wood Steve had “acquired” from a previous stop, we cooked dinner on the open flame and settled into the sleeping bags.

Cooking in the middle of nowhere.

Next we arrived in El Chalten. This is a walking and climbing mecca and the scenery is so outstanding that “Lonely Planet” have used it as the cover to their guide to Argentina. On our first day it was a little overcast so we decided to get a coffee and explore the town. We were heading back to our hostel and bumped into Andreas, another passenger on the trip. He said he was going to go for a short hike to a lake about 4 km along the main 10 km route. We set off and reached the lake. The weather was still overcast and a little rain was falling. After a short discussion we all agreed to press on for another 6 km to the top in the hope the weather would improve.

We will make it to the top!

The information and maps said the route was an 8 hour return walk, but as we hadn’t set out to do the whole trip we were a little under prepared.  Steve and Andreas were wearing shorts and we had one bottle of water, a ham and cheese sandwich and a small bag of nuts between us. Onwards and upwards we went walking a little faster than normal to keep warm. We were passing other walkers going up and coming down who looked very professional and more prepared than we were! After 9 km the water was going down, the nuts were running out and the dry sandwich was tasting a lot better than it should. The track became very, very steep and we scrambled over rocks and loose boulders, still hoping the weather would improve. After 3 and a half hours we reached the top to an amazing view which extended for at least 15 metres, maybe even 20!! One of the best views in South America was somewhere beyond the mist and rain and fog!

I’m sure it’s stunning on a clear day!

We started the descent. With the water, nuts and sandwich all gone we were cold and soaked to the skin, so we picked up the pace and by half way we were at a fast walk which almost broke into a jog. As we hit the bottom, with high fives all round, we realised we had done the walk in 5 and a half hours! Even though the walk was tough and we didn’t have the expected views it was still an awesome route and on a clear day it must be unbelievable.

After a quick shower we were off out for dinner with Chris (driver) and Nikki (the tour leader). Big Argentinian steaks and red wine all round. Then we met up again with Andreas and Glen in the waffle house. Think of a typical Aussie and Glen is your man, a great guy, sort of a cross between a rugby player and Crocodile Dundee! We all tucked into enormous waffles and Bailey’s coffee.

Sarah and Glen eat mega waffles!!

Another brilliant day. What will tomorrow bring? A bit more than a bottle of water some nuts and a s#!t sandwich during the day we hope! (On our initial writing of this post we missed out the word “sandwich” from that last sentence. I think it read better and considered leaving it out!)

After El Chalten we moved on to a town called El Calafate. The town is the stop off point for the Glacier National Park, the highlight of which is Pietro Merino Glacier. El Calafate is a lovely little town filled with cafes, restaurants and outdoor clothing shops. It services the needs of the hundreds of outdoor enthusiasts who throng here.  

The National Park is about 80 km out of town and takes just over an hour to get there. There are several ways to see the glacier from sitting in the visitors centre cafe and looking at it from a distance over a cup of coffee, to getting onto the glacier for a full on ice climb. We decided to opt for an elevated walk along the shore followed by a boat ride out to hopefully get up close to the face. We had seen several images of the glacier during our research before arriving here and it looked unbelievable. Those images however did not do it justice. We were treated to a picture postcard perfect day, blue skies with a few clouds and temperatures in the low 20’s.

Approaching Pietro Moreno Glacier.

We have tried to come up with words to describe it, but to be honest we are struggling. It was spectacular! right up there with the best things we have seen. The face of the glacier is between 50 and 70 metres tall, with another 160 metres hiding below the milky glacial waters. It is almost 2.5 km wide and stretches back into the mountains covering an area bigger than Buenos Aires. The glacier face is mesmerizing, almost like watching flames dancing.

Panoramic view of glacier .

We had been told that in the summer when the sun is particularly warm it heats up the glacier and pieces fall off. Global warming in action!! As we walked around the elevated path we heard and saw 4 small pieces fall into the water below.

Picture postcard day.

After a couple of hours taking endless photographs we jumped on the boat to go out close to the face. We got to about 250 metres from the ice and moved slowly from one end to the other, snapping more photos. As we turned for the shore, Steve found himself in a great position for a shot, as he put up his camera there was a very large cracking noise coming from directly in front of us. He switched his camera to video just as a massive piece of ice, almost the full height of the glacier sheared off and thundered into the water. Priceless. The resulting wave was also quite big and the Captain turned the boat quickly and moved off.

Stunning!……Sarah looks good too!

Everyone agreed it was a fantastic experience. Yes there are lots of people there and yes it is quite tourist orientated but there is a good reason for that. Perito Merino Glacier is outstanding.

When everyone arrived back at the campsite with all their stories of the various days out, from kayaking to ice trekking, it was clear no one was disappointed. Nikki had spent the day restocking supplies and had prepared fajitas for everyone (she is just too good). It was truly a memorable day.

Sausage, Skinny dipping and Strikes!

Our next stop was in Futaleufu, which involved another border crossing back into Chile. Sarah sat up front in the truck cabin with Chris for the day, to have both a change of scenery from the inside of the truck and to get a better view of the scenery outside the truck. Chris is a really interesting guy, he was born in Zimbabwe but has done a huge amount of travel all over the world as welll as living in several different countries. He worked at the London Stock Exchange before deciding life would be a lot better for him driving a truck around South America and Africa. He has a vast amount of knowledge on so many countries and we are getting loads of hints and tips for some of the places we plan to visit. Luckily he never gets tired of answering questions!

Only another 800 km today Chris!

After another long day on the truck, through incredible scenery, we arrived at quite a remote campsite. We were given the option of paying £6 each for an upgrade into a cabin. This option didn’t take much consideration and we spent the night with 4 others in a very rustic wooden cabin. It had beds, sheets, blankets, a shower and best of all a log burner! Sarah and Walter (from The Netherlands) got the old burner going and the 6 of us all sat around the fire chatting until late. There was another cabin which was filled by more of our group. We have a lot of camping to do this year so when a cheap, more comfortable option presents itself we will definitely give it some thought.

5 nationalities around the fire.

The campsite also had a hot pool and sauna. They were very rustic and little used but once they were fired up they were incredible and the views were unbelievable. We were miles from anywhere sat in a hot pool surrounded by steep tree covered, snow capped mountains looking down at a wide glacial river flowing past below. We would never have found this place on our own.

A cabin for 6 please.

The reason we came to this particular area was that the river is apparently ‘world renowned’ for white-water rafting. We have done this before a few times so decided to save our funds for another activity later in the trip. So while half of the group took to the icy river the rest of us ventured out for a walk. We ended up right down by the river where we stopped for a bite to eat before heading back to the campsite. It was a nice five mile walk with great international company. The rafters all had a brilliant time with only two of them exiting the raft into the river. One of them was Dylan, the young Aussie. People say “There’s always one” and it always seems to be Dylan!

A walk by the glacial river

We are travelling further and further South into Patagonia on the Carretera Austral, a mainly dirt road that winds like a snake up and down, in and out, as we head for the big sites of El Chalten and Torres del Paine. The scenery remains glacial lakes, rivers and waterfalls, hemmed in by steep granite cliffs which are covered in densely forested green trees. When the tree line stops it exposes the snow capped peaks still hanging on in the middle of summer. In the mornings the clouds float in the valleys and loom over the peaks. Then the weather breaks and the blue skies and brilliant sunshine emerge giving a different perspectve to our surroundings. We are stopping for just one night at a time as we try to cover as much distance as possible while still taking in the many sites.

The scenery we pass is fantastic.

Yesterday we stayed near Queulat National Park, so Chris drove the group into the park so that we could  hike up a very steep, muddy path full of tree routes and boulders to a hanging glacier. The route was four and a half kilometres to the top. Steve decided to test out his injury and so he ran/speed walked up to the top with Jost a Slovenian mountain guide and climber. He had a great time scrambling up through the mud and trees. Sarah walked with the group and made it to the top. Not really her type of hike but she hung in and finished and is really getting stuck in. To be honest it wasn’t a hike for everyone, it was pretty tough going, but a good view of the glacier from the top and a steady walk down gave everyone a big appetite for the sausage and mash for dinner. Actually it was 0.83 of a sausage each as the budget wouldn’t stretch to a whole one!! Food is definitely limited, not just in quantity but also in the availability of fresh fruit and vegetables. Hopefully we will hit some larger towns soon and we can stock up.

On one evening we were camped by the water, a fabulous spot close to where the glacial waters that run into the Pacific Ocean. Someone bet Dylan a few thousand Chilean pesos (£4) that he wouldn’t swim out naked to a lobster pot which was about 50 metres off the beach. He dipped his toe in the water and thought better of it. Then someone else threw in a few thousand pesos, then another few thousand were thrown in and before long the bet was at 40,000 pesos (not far short of £50). With a crowd gathered (and Dylans alcohol fund running low) it was too much to resist. Off came the boxers and in went the young Aussie. It gave us goose bumps just watching. He thrashed through the water, and probably swam twice as far as he needed, but he made it back looking like a lobster himself but with enough cash for a few “slabs” of beer! His dad Terry just shook his head in disbelief.

The next day we were treated to a bit of a lay-in (until 8 am) as it was a relatively short drive of 5 hours to our destination. We stopped enroute for lunch by the roadside and slowly moved South through the gorgeous scenery, stopping every so often for photos. As we got within an hour of our target campsite we drove through a small village of about a dozen buildings. At the end of the village we could see a plume of smoke. As we got closer it was clear we had encountered our first South American protest. A group of local miners had cut down some large pine trees and dragged them across the road to make very effective barricade at both sides of a strategic bridge spanning a river. They had also put thick steel wire across the road, scattered boulders across the bridge, brought in some huge tractor tyres and set them alight!!!!! We were going nowhere.

I suppose this is South America!

There was a small Police and Army presence but they were sat around drinking coffee and showing no interest in opening the bridge. We spoke to a few locals and it became clear they were local miners complaining about pay and conditions and they were now well into their second day of protest.

These guys are pretty serious.

After looking at maps and speaking to locals we had 3 options. Drive a couple of hours back and take a mountain pass which would have added about a day onto our trip. The problem with this was that the road was narrow and it had several small bridges to cross which may not accommodate our truck. The next option was to go back to the next main road and take what was potentially a minimum three day detour. Our last option was to sit it out. We chose the ‘sit it out’ option!

Not a bad place to bush camp.

We descend on the local minimart like a plague of locusts and bought two day’s supplies which amounted to 25 pork steaks, 50 chicken legs, about 100 potatoes, 50 eggs and a whole load of other bits and pieces. When we left the store the shelves were almost empty but the owner had a huge smile and a full till! We started to think they knew we were coming and the protest was planned!

We then had to find somewhere to stay and there were no campsites within 50 miles or so. We drove just 5 miles down the road, along a gravel track, and found the most amazing location by a glacial river with a backdrop of snow capped mountains. We then set about preparing food for two days (if the bridge was open the following day we would cross a border to Argentina and would be unable to take fresh food across) so it all had to be cooked off. Sarah went to work with a knife working her way through onions and garlic, while Steve browned off 50 chicken legs in a Dutch oven, over an open log fire on the river bank. After about an hour we were eating pork steaks, garlic potatoes and salad cooked by one group and a version of Coq au vin was bubbling away ready for the following day. It was an absolutely brilliant setting and with beers and glasses of wine in hand, we relaxed and enjoyed the heat of the evening sunshine.

Steve and Andrin cook 50 chicken legs!

The next morning we left our bush camp by 7am in the hope that the protest was over. We drove the short distance back to the village with no sign of smoke on the horizon. Everyone had fingers crossed as we approached the bridge.  All we saw was debris and the remains of the barricades at the sides of the road. No protest and no road blocks. A cheer went up and off we continued on our journey South.

It’s cold in the morning but it heats up quickly.

Bikes, Brownies and Bolognese

We have now passed from Chile into Argentina. The border crossing went quite smoothly, 25 people and a truck were through in around one hour. Apparently sometimes this can take as long as 4 hours depending on what sort of day the border officials are having!

Waiting to cross the border into Argentina

We will no doubt discover this as we zig zag our way south between the two countries over the next few weeks.

We made it to San Carlos de Bariloche after a 10 hour drive through incredible scenery. The journey passed quickly chatting and getting to know the other passengers as well as doing a bit of dozing. It’s also a good time to make some notes for this blog so that when we do get some of the intermittent internet or WiFi we can put it online.

Bariloche is the main town in the Argentinean lake district and it is lovely. It has a strong Swiss influence not only in the architecture but also in the numerous chocolate shops dotted around town. One of the larger shops is also a cafe and we stopped for a coffee and a brownie one morning. When the brownies came we both looked at them with open mouths. Not only did they contain several forms of chocolate but they were also topped with a layer of chocolate sauce and meringue, and were the size of small alpine cottage!! We were completely beaten by them, but the waitress put them in a bag for us to take out and we have now finished them 2 days later.

Steve struggles half way into his brownie.

We hired mountain bikes for a couple of days while we were there and cycled 90 km around the area. The scenery was great and we spent most of the time on the roads which weren’t too busy at all. We did venture off road through the forest for about 15 km at one point and it was tough going but well worth it. On one day we did a 50 km route which was quite hilly so we took it nice and easy, stopping for drinks and photos. Steve’s injury seemed to hold up pretty well and the next morning he got up early and did the route again on his own. He came back with a smile on his face, after almost a month off the bike he was getting twitchy, so a hard bike in beautiful surroundings on a glorious sunny morning was just what he needed. The legs felt fine so he’s back on the bike and hopefully in another couple of weeks he’ll be back running.

Sarah coasts along in Bariloche

We stayed in Bariloche for 3 nights of camping. We got there early in the evening and while we put up the tents, Nikki, the tour leader, went off to get some supplies. She came back with sausages and steaks and the barbecue was fired up. It was also the 18th birthday of our youngest member, Dylan, who is making the trip with his father Terry (Australian). The beers came out and the drinking games started. Steve, Andrin (Swiss) and Inkuu (Finnish) became the unbeaten champions of ‘beer ping-pong’ which meant Steve didn’t have to drink too much beer. This is very lucky, as anyone who knows him will know bad things can happen when he gets drunk!! Green pants, a very large bookcase and severe memory loss spring to mind….. but that’s another story! We escaped to bed at around midnight while some were stilling going until 3am.

Also while in Bariloche it was our first time to cook. We are in a cook group of five with Jan (Australian), Sophie (from New Zealand) and Andrin. We will probably have to cook for the group about once a week. We decided to cook bolognese pasta and we set off with Jan to the local supermarket.  Nikki, the tour leader, had given us 2200 Argentinean pesos to buy food for dinner and breakfast. “Great”, Steve thought, “we will be eating like kings tonight” until Sarah reminded him that we were not in Chile and that we had to buy dinner and breakfast for 25 people with £45…ouch! Steve was put in charge of keeping track of the spending while Sarah and Jan decided on the ingredients as we made our way around the averagely stocked shelves. Three kilos of mince, four dozen eggs etc etc etc. We passed it through the till at the end to a grand total of 2215 pesos, an over-spend of 20 pence….bingo! We took the food back and were joined for the cooking by Andrin and after a discussion involving many words like “sauteed” and “reducing” we deceided to throw everything into two big pots, add a selection of herbs and spices, turn up the burners and hope for the best:-)  At 7pm people started filtering back from their day out and we served up the meal with a bit of parmesan on top. Everyone seemed to enjoy it, many went back for seconds, and there was no waste for the camp bin. The following morning Sophie got up early and cooked scrambled eggs on toast for everyone! We then loaded up the truck and headed off for our next adventure!

We have cycled in worse places!

Volcanoes and Hotsprings.

Today we climbed an active volcano. It’s not everyday of your life you get to say that!

Villarica volcano is an active volcano close to the town of Pucon in central Chile. It is 2850 metres (a little under 10,000 ft) in height and last erupted in 2015. To be fair when we first discovered that it was possible to climb we both thought it would be a good hike and a great experience. We discovered it was much more than that…..

Our group preparing for the day.

We set our alarm for 5.45 am and crawled out of our tent to meet the other 10 Didingo passengers who were doing the hike too. We had a banana and a yoghurt for brekkie and we all walked into town to meet our guides and collect our equipment we had been sized for the day before. We all got boots, a jacket, some waterproof trousers and a backpack containing some odd bits and pieces. A minibus arrived for us and we all jumped in. The previous 3 days had apparently been too cloudy or windy for the trip to go ahead but by now the sun was rising and we saw beautiful clear blue skies.

The volcano puffing in the background.

At 8am after a 40 minute drive to the start of the climb we left the minibus and started off with our 4 guides in pretty cold temperatures. Initially it was a low gradient on hard lava which was pretty easy going. It soon changed to a steeper gradient on hard lava, then a steeper gradient on soft crushed lava which was a bit like walking in coarse sand. We were warming up both with the exercise and the sun. After an hour we hit the snow line and then after another 10 minutes we were asked to sit down and put on our crampons? “I didn’t bring crampons” said Steve. “They’re in your bag” replied Sarah. Sometimes she must just want to disown him. After a bit of assistance from the guides the crampons were on…..all right a lot of assistance….in fact the guides put them on in the end! We were then asked to get out or ice axe!! “Get out of here” shouted Steve!!! We were then given a very brief demonstration on how to use the ice axe and off we went. To be honest I thought the whole ice axe/crampons thing was a bit of a gimmick to build up the tourist effect. We soon found out this most definitely wasn’t the case…. it was an absolute necessity. We trudged up into the snow in a long line of 12, like a train of ants moving up the volcano, with a guide at the front setting a slow steady pace, one at the back to make sure there were no stragglers and the other 2 were walking parallel to our line to catch anything or anybody that slipped down the volcano. There was a real potential for this to happen as we moved ever so slowly zig zagging up the slope which was extremely steep.

Ice axe in hand.

We moved through snow, which varied in depth quite a lot so the technique was to follow the guides footprints. Every 45 minutes or so we would stop for a rest and some food and water. We had to dig a hole in the snow, put our rucksacks in, sit on them, grab a drink and something to eat.

As we moved further up the volcano the snow became harder and harder and eventually turned to ice. We were now several thousand feet up on a slope of at least 45 degrees, walking across ice using an ice axe for stability, some not daring to take their eyes off their feet. At the next stop we had to use the ice axes to dig the holes and push the crampons into the ice for stability. Suddenly a full plastic water bottle came skidding past and shot off down the volcano on an unstoppable path to the end of the snow line and beyond. A real reminder of the risks. The bottle incidentally belonged to someone called Sarah! She obviously denied it was hers, but from then on she was begging anyone and everyone for a drink!

Taking a break.

Onwards and upwards and people were getting tired. Heavy breathing could be heard in the line, talking was at an absolute minimum and the extra one or two requests for a rest were being made. We got to within a couple of hundred metres of the summit and we made our last stop. We were told to leave our rucksacks, ensure we had our cameras and, as we were about to pass through a toxic cloud, we were told to put on our gas masks. “I definitely didn’t bring one of those, what is going on here?”

What can we say?

At 1.30pm, 5 and a half hours after we had started the climb (notice it’s a climb now and not a hike) we made the final walk through the toxic cloud to an unbelievable view and the volcano crater at the summit.

Sarah nears the summit

It really was amazing. Sarah had an enormous grin on her face (in fact she still has it). She said it was the most challenging thing she had ever accomplished. Steve said it was “OK” but secretly he thought it was pretty amazing too. We had the opportunity to take some great photos and Sarah also took the opportunity to make some yellow snow!!! On the top of an active volcano at almost 10,000ft, really? The girl has NO standards!

Sarah at the edge of the crater. Lava below!

Now the fun really started. How do we get down? We walked back down and collected the rucksacks and continued down for around 20 minutes. We were descending faster than the ascent, but not by much. This was going to take ages. We were then told to put on a weird piece of clothing. It was like a big canvas type nappy that fastened around our thighs????? There was also a plastic dish with a handle on about 12 inches in diameter inside the rucksack and this was hooked onto our waist and dangled to the front????? We were then given clear instructions on how to sit on our backsides with our knees bent, position the ice axe as a break and slide down the volcano ????? The last instruction was to ensure the plastic dish remains at the front the whole time. “DO NOT SIT ON IT!!”

Off we went shooting down the volcano. Now this WAS faster than the ascent! We descended a few hundred metres and stopped at a natural plateau and waited until everyone got together and we moved on a short way to another decent of similar distance. I noticed that Andrin, a young Swiss guy in the group suddenly shoot off ahead. Steve tried to mimic his position but couldn’t go anywhere near as fast. When Steve got to the bottom of the second run he asked Andrin what his technique was and his whispered reply was, you guessed it….“The plastic dish”.

Start of the third run, this was much longer, 600 meters, maybe more. Plastic dish in position…. Here we go! …. Holy S#!T. Steve took off down the volcano like a bullet. Sarah thought “I don’t remember sliding down an icy volcano on plastic dish being covered in the hazardous activities section of the insurance policy”!!  What a feeling, a little out of control, but just about staying on course, ice axe in the air, who needs a brake and legs out in front kicking up the snow and ice as Steve went flying downhill. It was like sledging through a blizzard. By the time he got to the bottom his sunglasses were covered in snow, he had snow in his nose and ears, and somehow in his pockets? He couldn’t stop laughing.

Now onto the last run. At this points the guides introduced the plastic dish concept to the others with the standard safety warnings. Off we go again. This time on the way down Steve wondered “What happens if you lay down with your feet out in front of you while ice sledging on a plastic dish” The luge, that’s what happens!!!! He said it’s the best adrenalin fun he’s had in decades!! and no insurance claim needed. Even though Sarah didn’t discover the plastic dish till later she enjoyed the whole experience just as much.

We then all walked the last leg on the lava together with stories of a fantastic day.

Not too bad a view!

In the evening a few of the group headed out to some hotsprings to relax our tired muscles. 5 pools of varying temperature all heated from the underground heat of the Volcano. We stayed in the pools until well after dark. It was a great way to end the day before collapsing into our tent. No problems sleeping tonight!!

Didingo !

We have now joined up with the rest of the people on the trip which actually started in Quito, Ecuador 54 days ago with 3 people. Another 9 joined at various places along the way and then 11 more joined in Santiago. There are now 23 of us plus a driver and tour leader. It’s a pretty even split of male and female and we have 11 different nationalities aged from 17 to 70 with every decade represented!


Our transport is a 3.8 metre high, 10 metre long purpose built yellow Scania overland truck. It is called “Didingo” no one seems to know why? We have storage compartments under the seats for our luggage and outside are lockers for tents, stools, cooking equipment and water as well as tools for mechanical issues. There is also storage for food staples such as rice and pasta as well as a few spices. We buy other fresh food from local markets and supermarkets. We are split into 5 cook groups and so with the odd meal out we should be cooking for the group once a week. We are both hoping there is a Gordon Ramsay or Nigella Lawson in our cook group as there is no microwave for Sarah to use and people could go hungry!!

We have been on the bus for a couple of days and so far it’s going really well. The seats are arranged around the outside of the bus, so everyone is facing inwards, which is great for conversation and getting to know the other passenger. The first day was a 500 mile route which took us South from Santiago to Pucon. The day went really quickly, with a few stops for coffee and toilets and a longer one for lunch. It was good to see those who knew the routine get out tables, and kitchen equipment, prepare some salad and demolish several chickens into a large bowl and in a matter of minutes we were tucking into chicken salad sandwiches, sat on stools at the back of a roadside service area.

Waiting to cross the border into Argentina.

Didingo rolled on, some people slept, some people chatted and 12 hours after setting off we were in Pucon, where we put up our tents and then 12 of us walked into town to be fitted out for the next day’s activity. We bought a cooked chicken and some hot mash and ate at a camp table with Andreas, a Swiss guy who gave up his job as a CEO of a company in Switzerland to travel until he has had enough. We are definitely the norm on this trip and certainly not the exception. At least half of the people have quit their jobs in order to travel, some for a few months and others for longer.

All in all we feel we have slotted in quite well and any apprehensions as to whether or not this style of trip is right for us are quickly disappearing.

Valparaiso and the one eyed prostitute!

Our last few days in Santiago were spent by seeing most of the remaining places of interest. Museums, markets and St Lucia Hill, which is a small park in the centre of the city which has a small castle at the top with a few short steep hills and large worn out steps winding their way up to it. We also made a couple of more visits up San Cristobal Hill. One of these was on a Sunday morning when we walked out into the main thoroughfare to find it completely closed to traffic for over 4 miles. Instead it was open to all manner of walkers, runners, cyclists and rollerbladders. There were also areas set up where people were able to pick up water and energy drinks. It all looked like some weird ‘anything goes race’. Sarah did a bit of digging with the locals and discovered it happens every Sunday between 9am and 2pm and encourages all the locals to get out and exercise. She may of course have just made it up pretending she understood what they were telling her !! We followed the closed roads into the park where we found the road closures continuing with literally thousands of people making their way up the hill. At this point we started

joining in with the free energy drinks and water, “Hola” “Gracias”….seemed to work!

We also caught a bus out to Valparaiso, one and a half hours from Santiago. This is the largest sea port in Chile and aswell as having a large Naval influence it is also the home of many artists, poets and writers. It is especially famous for its street art and brightly coloured houses which cling precariously to the sides of the forty plus hills which make up the city. Many years ago Steve had a friend who was in the Navy who visited Valparaiso back in the 1970’s. He told a great story about a week he spent there with a one eyed prostitue and her one legged mother. He painted a vivid picture of them chasing him to the dockyard gate after a disagreement over money! We could almost picture the scene as we walked along the sea front. Sarah became a little concerned when she saw Steve pull an old piece of paper out of his pocket with an address written on it. She kept a close eye on him for the rest of the day!!!

We took a walking tour in Valparaiso which had a great concept. The tour itself was free but at the end you paid the guide a tip amounting to what you thought it was all worth. It lasted 3 hours and took us to many interesting places off the beaten track, including the poorest area of the city. It was very informative and well worth the 100 peso’s Steve gave him (about 11p). Luckily for the guide Sarah thought it was worth a few thousand !!

Sarah is sitting down so that Steve looks tall 🙂

Sun, Scrabble & Shampoo in Santiago!

So it’s finally started. After quite a few years of making plans and then changing them several times we have eventually landed in Chile, South America, on the first of our trips. We are writing this first post sitting on the roof of a 22 storey apartment block looking out over Santiago to clear blue skies and 30 degree heat.

The first thing we both want to do is to thank all our family, friends and work colleagues, for all the help, support, positivity and encouragement they have given us during the planning and preparation for our adventure. “Thank you”.

We arrived here on New Year’s Eve after a 6 hour stop over in Atlanta sandwiched between two 9 hour flights. We were pretty tired and just about managed to stay awake to see in the New Year on the rooftop, watching the fireworks all over the city. Quite a fitting start. Did they know we were coming?

The Santiago skyline. “Sanhatten”

We have been here for 6 days now and have used the time to relax by the small pool and explore Santiago almost entirely by walking. We both agree this is a great place. It’s very clean, very organised and pretty easy to navigate around, with tree lined avenues, parks, cycle paths and a metro system. We have stuck to a 4 mile stretch between Las Condes (known locally as “Sanhatten” due to its ultra modern skyscrapers, including the Gran Torre Santiago, the largest building in South America) and Plaza de Armas which is the main square in the city, containing some beautiful buildings including the Santiago Cathedral. The Cathedral is fabulous inside reminiscent of some of the great cathedrals in Europe. We intend to visit the museums and markets in and around the square over the next few days.

A hot Santiago Cathedral and it’s Christmas tree.

Our favourite area however is San Cristobal Hill. This is a huge park area towards the North of the city, very close to where we are staying. It has a twisting, winding network of roads and paths and we have spent several days wandering within the park. It is, however, very hilly but for us that’s perfect, as this will help us prepare for the longer hikes in Patagonia. There is also a cable car system which runs from the bottom right to the top, with a station just under halfway where you can get off and explore. We stopped for a few hours here at a huge freeform pool area surrounded by grass banks. It was a lovely place with lots of families enjoying a day out.

At the very top of the hill is a 22 metre statue of the Virgin Mary. We have made it up there twice so far. In the base of the statue is a small shrine where visitors can enter. The area around the statue is particularly pleasant with a church and terraced seating. It gives great views and you can get an idea as to how sprawling the city really is.

Statue of The Virgin Mary San Cristobal Hill

There are also a couple of cafe’s selling drinks and snacks. We saw literally dozens of people drinking the same unusual looking drink and here we had our first exposure to the traditional drink of “Mote Con Huesillo”. This is sweet, clear nectar like liquid with husked wheat in the bottom and a couple of dried peaches floating in the middle. Sounds strange but they are surprisingly refreshing. With dozens of people walking, running and cycling the two and a half mile route (a climb of over 1000 ft) to the top in 30 degree + temperatures, the two cafes were understandably doing a roaring trade! Sarah’s Mote Con Huesillo barely touched the sides. 🙂

A couple of refreshing Mote Con Huesillos

On a couple of occasions we have used the Funicular to get back down from the top. This is a tram concept on a very, very steep gradient. The “Funicular” puts you back in the city about 1 km from Plaza de Armas.  We have tended to spend a few hours walking up the hill and then catching the Funicular down, to then walk back through the city. With a few detours along the way, this route is about a 7 or 8 mile walk.

A view of the city after a hot walk up San Cristobal.

We have also been spending a lot of time just relaxing by the rooftop pool. It’s quite small but serves the purpose of cooling off in the heat. This area has an unbelievable view of the city and is surprisingly quiet.

Sarah cooling off with San Cristobal Hill in the background

During this first week we have been doing more or less the same things we would do if we were on holiday. Relaxing, exploring the area, staying active and spending some time together. During the planning Steve has repeatedly said “This is not going to be one long 5 year holiday Sarah”. However right now it does have that feel to it. It hasn’t sunk in yet to either of us that there is no job to go back to. Maybe reality will set in when we don’t get a paycheck !!

The days here are incredibly long. It gets light at 6am and sunset isn’t until 9.30pm so we are spending a lot of time enjoying the outdoors. However, in the evenings we have devoted one hour to a Scrabble competition. That may sound a bit boring, but we are having a few laughs with it. Some of the words Sarah is producing are not fit for publication and we are developing a whole new dictionary! Sarah is leading at the moment but there is a long way to Rio!

Sarah has meticulously planned for the amount of toiletries needed for the trip, especially her precious shampoo. So she was not impressed at all when she found Steve in the shower, happily using it to wash his dirty T Shirt! “What do I know about shampoo I don’t have any hair” was Steve’s reaction. Sarah’s response ended up on the scrabble board!!!

Steve’s one disappointment here has been his inability to cycle or run. He has been suffering with an injury for a couple of months which isn’t going away so he has decided to completely stop training and give it a chance to heal, otherwise it may inhibit our plans for later in the year. It’s been hugely frustrating because cycling and being active is so easy here and appears to be a big part of people’s lives. There are cyclists and runners everywhere and with the imposing Andes mountains so close by it’s been a constant torment. Luckily the plan was always to come back here in a couple of years to start our trip to the North of the continent. We may now be coming back for a couple of weeks rather than the couple of days as originally planned.

Signing off for now……. hasta luego 🙂