We arrived in San Pedro de Attacama – a town in the driest desert in the world – and stumbled into a YHA Hostel that had room. It seemed nice enough at first so we dumped our bags as we couldn’t check in for another couple of hours and went to find something healthy to eat after a recent diet of fried stuff and rice. When we returned to our hostel and we were shown to our room which was pretty small for two of us. However it wasn’t just the two of us as there was allegedly enough room for five people in the tiny room; one bunk bed for two and an impossibly high bunk bed for three! It was going to be cosy in the room but at least the lads in there were some friendly other British lads.
San Pedro is quite a cool little town in the middle of the desert where the majority of buildings are still made of mud and straw and then painted white. It feels very much like a modern day cowboy town but there were some really nice hotels and restaurants there. It is also nicknamed San Perro (Perro is Spanish for dog) as there are so many dogs in the town, which of course I was a big fan of. There were so many different breeds and not many of them dogs were skanky street dogs but more like nice breads you’d pay hundreds of pounds for in England. There were Labradors, Alsatians and even Corgis running around the sandy streets.
In the town there are a few touristy things to do. The most popular one is to go and visit La Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley) where the sands and rocks are supposed to resemble the landscape on the moon, but seeing as we’d spent the last three days driving through exactly that sort of landscape I said I’d prefer to go to the salt lake at Laguna Cejar as the salty waters would be good for my poorly skin!! So not wanting to wait for the afternoon tour crowds and to save a few bob we hired a couple of mountain bikes in town and set off with basic instructions for our 40 Km round trip through the desert. The roads out to the laguna were pretty good apart from a couple of sections which were so bumpy it rattled your brain. After just over an hour Caroline (Victoria Pendleton) and I (Sir Chris Hoy) reached the laguna which was 20 kms away from town. We first went to see a salt lake that was too toxic to swim in followed by the highlight of swimming in Laguna Cejar which has a higher salt content in it than the Dead Sea. Sure enough when you went for a little dip you didn’t sink as you normally would and just floated on top of the surface. If you stood upright in the deep areas the salt water would just support you without needing to touch the bottom. It was a really bizarre feeling and the water was absolutely freezing. Whilst Eccles topped up her already ridiculous tan I sat in the shallows and gave myself a jolly good exfoliation with the salt and the water as apparently it great for Psoriasis. To be honest my skin felt pretty smooth after and I’m sure if you did it a few times in a week it would definitely help. Thoroughly cleansed, rejuvenated and refreshed we cycled back through the baking desert and had a few hours to kill before going on our Star Gazing tour in the evening. Fortunately the restaurant next us us was showing the Man City v Barca match so we settled in and watched our first bit of real footy for ages.
Caroline is secretly a bit of a nerd and had researched a really good trip to see not just stars and constellations, but also planets like Jupiter through a very powerful telescope! We did the tour with these guys, www.spaceobs.com and would really recommend it! The guy who took the tour was a Canadian genius Astrologer called Alan and for the first hour at his ranch he gave us a really entertaining and fascinating guide of the sky above us and the best bit was that he used a clever laser pen to shoot a green line into the sky to show us exactly what he was talking about.
He demonstrated to us just how quick the Earth is spinning by pointing at a star at the start of his talk and then showing the same star an hour later which had jumped a fair distance up in the sky. He also pointed out many of the zodiac constellations , the Milky Way and the more famous constellations. After the hours talk we all felt a little bit stupid compared to his genius but he took us inside and gave us a great cup of hot chocolate whilst the 12 telescopes were set up to look at and track many exciting stars and planets.
The first telescope I looked through was pointing straight at Jupiter and it was fascinating to see the little yellow planet in a bit more detail, you could even make out two grey bands of cloud on the planet and 3 of its 4 moons. The other telescopes featured the brightest star in the sky, Sirius (not the North Star!), an area where new star were being created, a jewel box constellation and the highlight for me a real big close up of the moon where you could even take photographs through the telescope to get the moon’s craters in great detail. It had been a fascinating evening and one where we actually felt as though we’d learnt a bit too!!
The following day is one of very few we won’t hurry to remember when we look back on this year as it was one where we spent 22 hours on a bus from San Pedro to the capital city of Chile, Santiago. We’ve now become so accustomed to travelling that in truth it wasn’t actually that bad and we both managed to sleep through the whole night.
When we arrived in Santiago we jumped straight on the metro and walked to our hostel (La Chimba) in the Bellavista area of the city. We’d chosen well as it was a beautiful and trendy area of Santiago, full of bars and restaurants and a really nice, but way out of our budget, courtyard with great bars! Instead we stuck to the bars at the side of the street for a few enormous bottles of Escudo local beer and went and demolished our tea as we’d not eaten properly for a day!! After that we went back to La Chimba and found out it was actually 10 times the size of what we thought and we discovered an awesome pool table where as usual I got the better of Eccles!
Our second day in the city was spent (as usual) looking around the city and finding the Central Market for some lunch. As Chile is so long and thin it’s practically all near the coast line and subsequently the seafood is always very fresh and amazing. The Central Market is almost entirely made up of fishmongers and restaurants, so we carefully (find one that’s busy with Chileans!) picked one and asked our waitress’ advice as to what to have and hoped for the best. What we got were two amazing seafood soups made of fish, clams and mussels. Caroline’s was more of a broth and mine was a bit thicker with melted cheese thrown in too. They were both excellent and incredibly reasonable considering the quality of them both.
In the evening I collapsed on my bed and Caroline went to explore the giant hill behind us called San Pedro Cerro where there were some incredible views over the city with the Andes Mountain range in the background. This led to some pretty awesome looking sunset photos…..
Our final day in Santiago was a bit of a relaxing day as we were flying at 11pm that night so I took the chance to visit a cool little CrossFit gym called CrossFit Yagan and was pleasantly knackered out thanks to a few 400 metre runs! After that we took advantage of the hostel’s cable TV and watched Chelsea just beat Everton, England beat Ireland in the rugby and Man U struggle past Palace, it was nice just to see some English sport and even nicer to have some English commentary.
Our route to get to El Calafate in Argentina was not going to be a simple one. Unfortunately the price of flights in South America was a little scary so the only way we could realistically afford to get down to Southern Argentina was to take the highly inconvenient and long indirect flight via Mendoza and Buenos Aires. Unfortunately our first stop was at the very basic and empty Mendoza airport in Argentina where we landed at Midnight and had to spend the next 10 hours before flying to Buenos Aires. So we made the best of a bad situation and found a quite corner in the marble floored closed café and attempted to get what sleep we could. We both managed a bit but woke up pretty stiff from the rock hard floor. I’d like to say the next legs of the journey we fine but unfortunately when we got to our final destination of El Calafate only my rucksack had managed to make it all the way, Caroline’s was nowhere to be seen! After a fairly average conversation with the guy at the baggage desk we were told to go to our hostel and that hopefully the missing bag would turn up either tonight or tomorrow on one of the following flights!! Fortunately for everyone things like that don’t seem to really bother Caroline nowadays, so with only the clothes on her back and looking like a fake tanned, Swedish, raver in fancy dress she smiled and got on with it!! We jumped into a shuttle and went to our next hostel, I Keu Ken, on top of a hill in this quaint little town. That night we had an epic meal inn La Pura Vida restaurant in town. I had Granny’s Recipe lentil and meat casserole and Ecco had an incredible dish of stuffed pumpkin with Patagonian lamb, peaches and cheese. We washed it down with a pretty incredible tasting bottle of Benjamin’s Malbec. We hadn’t splashed out too much recently so it was amazing to do it for once and to be honest for what we ate that night it was very reasonable.
The only reason we had busted our backs to get to El Calafate was to visit the incredible Perito Moreno Glacier and it must be said it didn’t disappoint us at all and was worth every penny, mile and sleepless hour we’d invested in it. We took the XL tour though our hostel and were taken to it along the a lot less crowded old road via some spectacular scenery and via a small, family ranch were amongst other things they had a pet fox cub.
The great thing about our tour was that our driver dropped us right at the East end of the balconies (giant metal walkways) where it felt like we had the National Park all to ourselves. We spent the next 3 hours walking our way back along the balconies which faced out to the enormous mass of glacial ice that was across the lake. It’s the only glacier in the world that is advancing and not retreating and moves forward at a rate of 1.6 meters a day. With this movement and the strength of the glorious sunshine we were lucky enough to be greeted with some spectacular collapses / carvings of the 70 meter high ice mass opposite. It was pretty hypnotic just watching and listening to the miles and miles of glacial ice creek and crack. Sometimes the noises were so loud it sounded like gunshots and then every now and then a huge chunk would break off and splash down into the lake below with devastating effect. It would make an incredible noise and then leave a huge shockwave in the lake that would spread out like a tidal wave. We spent hours watching it and taking photos.
Fortunately it saved its best for last because as we were back near the central balcony where it was busiest there was a loud crack and all of a sudden the whole face of the nearest point of the glacier just crumbled and cracked dropping over a hundred foot of ice and compacted snow into the water below sending an enormous surge of water down stream! It was an incredible thing to witness and I was lucky enough to capture it all on my camera!
After that excitement we went on an hours boat ride to see this monstrous glacier from a lower point of view and up a bit closer. To be honest it was a nice boat trip but could match the excitement of the huge collapse we’d seen earlier that day.
Exhausted we went back to our lovely, homely hostel and had a BBQ they’d organised for us. For a tenner we got more meat than even I could handle and wine and beer all thrown in for the price. The chef cooked up some beautiful lamb, beef, chicken, chorizo and black pudding. We spent the evening talking to all the people from around the world in our hostel and I even spent most of the evening speaking in Spanish to the Argentinian guy sat next to me. The day had been like a lovely dream for us and we both collapsed into our beds content with the fact that today had been right up there with the most spectacular days we’ve had during our 8 and a half months up to that point!
From the lovely little El Calafate we caught a bus for 5 hours back to Chile and the small town of Puerto Natales where we would be going on a 4 day trek into the National Park of Torres Del Paine. That blog is already written and will follow pretty soon after this one as we have a little catching up to do. Must have been enjoying ourselves too much or something.
T and C.