Monthly Archives: April 2015

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No rain for 400 years, then we arrived

This post was written as we were leaving San Pedro de Atacama.

For our three days in the Atacama desert we have joined up with our friends Phil and Shannon from New York. We met them in Santiago fresh off our delayed flight for the short hop up Chile to San Pedro de Atacama. As fresh as you can be anyway when you have been on a delayed overnight flight arriving at 4am instead of 9pm the previous evening. Safe to say going to our hotel we had booked for the night was pointless as we needed to be on another flight at 8am. On the bright side, at least we didn’t miss it.

For a treat, Phil has contributed a section as guest blogger…

Located in the north of Chile, Atacama is a desert that receives, on average, 0.1mm of rain per year.  This makes it one of the driest places on Earth – there are some places where no rain has fallen in 400 years!  Let’s talk a little more about that, but first, a short digression.

Suppose that you have a job as an airport cleaning lady.  Not the most glamorous profession but a necessary one and often one that goes unnoticed.  You’ve lived in Calama, in the Atacama desert, for most of your life and have become used to the way things work around here.  It’s quiet – aside from the tourists – and it doesn’t rain much.  In fact, it rarely ever rains.  This means that there are no mosquitos because they need water to breed in and the roads can be made of mud because what’s to wash them away?  Your days are much the same, but you don’t mind – it’s not a bad way to earn a living.  The home cooked empanadas are tasty and Mary will look the other way if you have a cerveza every now and again.

Today is a particularly bad day for you because the heavens have opened.  In England this would be a summer shower, here it’s nothing short of disaster.  You don’t know it, but it’s not only messing with your day but it’s messing with a whole region.  Planned tours have been cancelled because the mud roads have washed away.  The communications hub for the entire region is down, no phone signals, no internet, no nothing.  The whole Atacama region, for tens of miles around, is off the grid.  It’s a little like the start of a bad science fiction film.  But you don’t concern yourself with that.  Lastly, the airport has sprung half a dozen leaks and caused a complete shutdown.

As an airport cleaning lady, the leaking roof is something that you’re worrying about.  What should you do with all the leaks?  Buckets are the first fix and they work as you’d expect.  The rain won’t last long – it never does – so things will be fine.  Unless the buckets start to overflow, in which case things won’t be fine at all.  What is bigger than a bucket and watertight?  An ingenious answer presents itself: a wheelie-bin.  In fact, one of them for each leak in your sector.  This is a perfect plan and it’ll let you collect all of the water in a nice tidy manner.  Mopping up the floor had become such a chore and now you’ll be able to have your break on schedule.

It’s at this point your heroes – Rich and Vicki Kink enter the picture.

(Yes, Kink.  They were misnamed by a tour guide and the name seems to have stuck.)

I’m sat with them in the airport cafeteria watching what’s going on in the airport.  What we see are wheelie-bins.  But not only that, wheelie-bins that are getting perilously close to being full of water.  I’ll pause here to see if you can see the problem that’s about to unfold.  You can?  Good.  You can’t?  Fear not, let me elaborate.  As any good Brit will tell you, a wheelie-bin full of water weighs a a fair bit and is all but impossible to move.  Now your perfect solution is turning into a disaster because you didn’t think to empty the bin when it was only half full.  As we’re sat here, we estimate that at the present flow rate there’s an hour or so until the bins begin to overflow and a whole different problem emerges.  The leak is back and now you can’t put anything under it.  Mopping looms.

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Fortunately for you, your shift is over in fifteen minutes and then it’ll be Brenda’s problem.  You’ve never really liked her ever since she made fun of your sensible shoes.  I mean, really, why does she put on that much makeup?  What sort of tart is she?  She deserves it.

So, as Phil has mentioned here, we have continued our weather luck by coming to the driest place in the world only for it to be raining. It does seem that we have a very special kind of luck with the weather, or maybe just our own personal rain clouds.

So back on normal blog form…what have we been up to?

Sunday 22nd March – Stargazing

Not much rain today. A bit in the afternoon but Vicki and I missed it as we were inside sleeping off our overnight flight. We were particularly concerned about the weather today as our evening really needed a clear night sky. Being at high altitude with low humidity (ha!), Atacama is an ideal for stargazing. Lying on sunbeds in the afternoons we did have our doubts about what visibility would be like as there were a lot of clouds.

Our tour guide Jorge assured us it would be fine though and true to his word, in the end it turned out perfectly clear. Jorge picked us up at 8:30 from our accommodation and took us somewhere out into the desert. Escorted by red light to an observation area we were seated in a row of chair with blankets awaiting us. The four of us were settled in along with a couple from Bolton (small world) and Jorge began his articulate and enthusiastic explanation of the universe.

At the start of his presentation Jorge asked us to rate our knowledge of the night sky from 1 to 10. We all modestly went for 1 which was probably accurate when we named Galileo as a famous Polish astronomer (he was looking for Copernicus). By the end of the hour long presentation we were much more informed though, we can all now find the South pole (using both the Southern cross and Magellan clouds), identify the brightest stars in the sky and have some idea of the co-ordinates used to map the night sky. I bet you didn’t know there were 88 constellations…well you do now!

Following refreshments Jorge moved on to observation. Using 6 different telescopes he showed us stars, clusters and nebulae. Perhaps the most impressive was when using the electronic tracking telescope he showed us Jupiter at both 200 and 600 times magnification. You could clearly make out the moons around and stripes across the planet. A bit of time for trying some night time photography and we returned back to our accommodation at midnight. All of us were extremely impressed by the evening

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Monday 23rd March – Moon Valley

After long journeys and a late night with the stars, today was set to be a lazy day. Post breakfast, Vicki, Shannon and I headed out for a walk around town. San Pedro is a small town serving as a base for the surrounding desert attractions. Safe to say it didn’t take long to explore however we did appreciate our post walk desert dessert of Mango Pie. Yum.

After an afternoon by the pool and generally relaxing we headed for an evening tour to the moon valley. This was our first of 3 desert attraction tours we had booked with Turistur. Picked up by an empty coach we spent a long time touring hotels gathering a full load before heading the valley. While the valley was impressive with different rock formations, salt accumulated over the years and large dunes, we were less than impressed by the tour overall. Herding the large group was painful and their idea of a trek was walking down a road (partly because we had left the bus stuck in the mud). Still the tour was cheap enough and we got to see the valley. Doing it again we would probably hire bikes and go independently as it turned out to be much closer to town than we had expected.

Shannon: Don’t forget to mention how the tour guide thought that Newcastle was much nicer than Santiago.

To me, this is a telling representation of what Turistur rate as worthwhile attractions.

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Tuesday 24th March – No Salt Flats

Tour 2 of 3 was cancelled. This was a shame as it was going to be to the Tara Salt Flats which we were told would be a highlight of the tour. Unfortunately due to heavy rain out of town the day before (none on us) the roads were impassable. This left us at a bit of a lose end.

I wasn’t feeling too perky in any case so immediately following breakfast I was having another lie down. A combination of over indulging on steak and chips (the food here has been very good and plentiful), Pisco sours and beer the night before plus not sleeping very well after getting eaten by mosquitos left me feeling a bit worn out. However, this didn’t hold me back for long as before lunch we decided a good rainy day activity was a group run. We all headed out and really felt the effect of the altitude as it made the run much harder than it should have been.

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With the run done we had earned our lunch and enjoyed a long lunch out of the rain which turned out to be our best meal in San Pedro. Ceviche and pasta was delicious and thankfully in sensible portion sizes today. We had a look round town for options on what to do for the afternoon but nothing was really rain appropriate or was closed when we arrived. Instead we spent the afternoon relaxing in our accommodation (the B&B has very good communal areas), listening to music and swapping reading ideas for our kindles.

Wednesday 25th March – Snowy Geysers

Another rainy day in San Pedro. However this was not going to stop our tour (2 out of 3 isn’t bad). Up at 4:15 for a 4:30 (in reality 4:50) pickup we once again toured town loading a bus before heading up to the highest geyser field in the world at over 4000m. No rain up there however it had been snowing heavily overnight. The bus could not get to the expected destination so instead we had a 1.5 mile walk there and back. This was across snow and slush. As I wasn’t feeling 100% still, made much worse by the altitude and a zillion more mosquito bites overnight, this was a lot of effort for me. Particularly since the tour group told us not to have breakfast before due to going to altitude and then failed to provide the promised refreshment at the halfway stage. The sugary tea at the end made me feel a lot better and I would have appreciated it sooner.

Despite the effort required getting there the geysers and surrounding snow covered mountains were very impressive. Nobody fancied a dip in the thermal pool, in better form I would have liked to do this to get the contrast between the warm thermal pool and freezing conditions outside.

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On the way back from the tour we had a few stops to eat llama kebabs the to see the original animal plus flamingos and llamas.

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On a tight schedule to get back to our hotel, checkout and get to the airport we were left in town to make the 10 minute walk home instead of doing the usual hotel tour. The guide said this would be the quickest route even though we then saw his bus pass much closer to our hotel ahead of us as we walked home. Another black mark for Turistur who were not what we expected of them after a number of good reports from others.

Walking home we once again experienced what we had come to loathe about San Pedro de Atacama. We came here expecting the driest place in the world. When the conditions are far from dry the place really loses its appeal. The attractions are based on being dry so we got a very bad impression of the place. This is particularly obvious when you are walking along sodden mud streets – the mud was artificially added to give an authentic look and feel and really isn’t quaint when sodden and sloppy. We would be happy with just the paved roads that lie beneath. The central square and main street are made more appealing for the tourists however that is more or less where it ends. Trudging back along streets enclosed by mud walls topped with glass and barbed wire getting wet, muddy and miserable we were happy to be heading for the airport. Other than stargazing we have been quite disappointed by our stay here. I am sure it would have been a different story if it has been dry, however sadly it wasn’t.

As Phil’s novella above states we are now at the airport. We have had enough time to write the blog due to a 2 hour delay. Fortunately a plane has just landed to get us down to Santiago to meet our other friends and prepare for the wedding at the weekend. We look forwards to a much more exciting time there.

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A heads up on Easter Island (Rapa Nui)

Authors note: This blog was partly written on our final day in Easter Island and part when we returned home. Quite a difference between sitting in a bar with a cerveza and sitting in an home office with a cat but hopefully I can still capture the Easter Island spirit. – Rich

We are not doing well with flights on this trip (bring back the trains!). It is our last day in Easter Island and once again we have been delayed! Being stranded on probably the most remote island in the world (over 4000km to Tahiti, over 3000km to Chile) isn’t the worst thing that could happen though. We know the daily flight will be here at some point, the sun is shining, the airport is only 5 minutes walk from town and our guest house hosts let us stay late. It is hard not to be relaxed here on the island as we have found a comfortable bar to sit and spend the late afternoon. Part of me wishes the plane stays away and we can rest here a little longer. While we have some time to kill we may as well fill you in on what we did…

Tuesday 17th March – Around town and sunset heads

We arrived at lunchtime, 2 hours later than expected due to the technical issues with the flight back in Tahiti. We were first off the plane and through immigration and customs. We thought we were doing really well at this point however then we did not see our name on any of the boards held by people waiting at arrivals. Maybe not doing so well then. We also couldn’t find where we were meant to get our national park tickets for Easter Island or where to change money to Chilean Pesos. Really not doing so well it seems.

Standing outside the terminal as other people met their hosts and went to accommodation we were approached by various taxi drivers to offer us lifts. Telling them we were waiting for “Kaimana Inn” they looked around and shook their heads saying that they were not here to meet us. Being a small Island a lot of the town turn out a the airport when each flight arrives and they all know one another. Despite multiple laps of arrivals (this did not take long as it is one room plus the patch of ground outside) to check all the signs being held up we still could not find anyone waiting for us. At this point the first taxi driver said he would take us even though we had no way to pay him the $6 fare (we had $100 bills or nothing). He said it did not matter and would sort it with our guest house so off we went. 3 minutes later we arrived at our destination which was just around the corner (as is most of the town). We could have walked there and back in the time we were waiting. The taxi driver left us, spoke to someone to say we were here and true to his word left without payment. Quite strange but we weren’t going to complain about the free ride.

After being ushered to our room by a non English speaking housekeeping lady we were a bit at a loss. Our accommodation was advertised as having Marcelo, an English speaking owner, who would pick us up from the airport, give us a tour of the town and help us to sort activities. It turned out he was in Santiago so not present to help us. His wife came to meet us eventually and explained this in broken English to us. It seemed her English was only good when she was trying to get us to eat in her restaurant or see the show they put on twice a week (we didn’t as it was overpriced and always empty). Fortunately we were eventually passed on to the sister-in-law of the owner who introduced us to the island and gave us tips on island tours. Overall not the arrival we were expecting but we eventually found our feet and were ready to explore.

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Our guesthouse, the Kaimana Inn.

As it was lunchtime, a good first stop was going to be lunch (no surprise there). We wandered through the town of Hanga Roa down to the sea front. Here we found the bank (pesos eventually sorted after trying almost every bank card) and a cabin that served excellent sandwiches for lunch. Actually we found 3 cabins next to each other that at first glance appeared to be a single restaurant but on closer inspection turned out to be separate but with no separation. Ordering was a bit odd as after deciding what sandwich fillings we wanted and placing an order we were left alone by the waitress for 5 minutes to decide if we wanted chicken or beef in them. This was a decision we had made already and we thought we had offended her somehow when she left us for so long however it just seemed she wanted us to be sure about our decision. A quick note here to say that the sandwiches on Easter Island were amazing and our staple food. They had a wide variety of fillings and were huge.

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Rich at our favourite sandwich place Club Sandwich. Sandwich on left id not real. One on right not much smaller but real.

After post lunch exploration of the town and a rest it was time to leave for sunset. We had been told that the best place on the island for sunset was 10 minutes stroll from the guest house, but in reality it was a 20 minute brisk walk and so we ended up seeing sunset in the wrong place. We did get to see some nice colours in the sky with the backdrop of  Moai that had been restored and lined up for sunset photos. We decided we would need to come back another night to make sure we saw the sunset from the right angle as this was a very special place to see it as you could tell by the crowds gathered to enjoy the early evening spectacle.

As we had a late lunch, dinner was a quick empanada stop, where we were accosted by a couple of stray dogs (the island is full of them) that we already seen at lunch time. Roy and Jeanette as they came to be known followed us home, and according to another guest at the hotel, kept watch outside of our room all night.

Wednesday 18th March – Thierry’s tour

We had booked a tour of the island through the sister-in-law of the owner of our guesthouse. Thierry was a ‘jack-of-all trades’ type islander, who thanks to an American mother, had spent time in the US before returning to the island to settle down. When not farming or building houses he conducts tours of the island. We spent a day with him exploring the coast road and learning the history of the Island Moai.

Within 5 minutes of setting off, we were deep in conversation about world politics, which is not a subject we were expecting to discuss on Easter Island. However, this set a theme for the day – Thierry was very keen to discuss all aspects of politics and self-determinism, and held strong views about how Easter Island was governed. He had grand plans for how the Moai should be presented to maximise conservation and the experience for the tourists. It was good to have someone so passionate about the island as a guide.

As Easter Islands main draw you wouldn’t be surprised to hear that our day tour included seeing a lot of Moai. Not just heads as a lot of people are led to believe, these are actually statues including a head, body arms and bum (cheeky). When created they would also have had coral eyes and were topped with a red stone hat (pukao). Except for a couple of restorations you now typically see them as just the statues.

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The statues are tributes to the ancestors of the Rapa Nui people that were placed on the edges of villages on stone platforms called ahu. Situated around the coast they face inland so that they were looking at the village rather than out to sea. They were put in place between 1250 and 1500 and as such are now showing a lot of wear making it harder to see the original detail. All the statues around the edge of the island had fallen over at some point causing damage and making them lose their pukao.

The most impressive site related to the Moai is the quarry where they were carved from the volcanic rock at Rano Raraku. Since most knowledge about the production of the statues has been lost due to a majority of the descendants of the creators being wiped out (mostly by western visitors to the island), how the statues were created and why production stopped is still somewhat a mystery. As over half the statues on the island are still in site at the factory in the quary you get an idea for how they were created.

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Here you can see statues in the process of being carved from the rock but never completed. There are many statues buried up to their heads that had been freed from the rock and stood up right for the final carving process. Once completed they would then be walked across the island to their intended sites. Nobody quite knows why production stopped (or why it started for that matter) but from what remains you can see that one day it just ended and the quary abandoned part way through work.

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The many statues around the island are a real treat to see. Seeing them lined up at Ahu Tongariki makes you wonder why such an effort was made to carve and transport the statues however we are very glad that they did.

Our day ended with a stop at the beach on the far side of the island from the town. The fine white sand and another ahu with a swim in the warm water was a real treat. A lot of people think of Easter Island as a desolate wind swept place however it is actually very warm most of the year and has hints of a tropical island in parts.

Thursday 19th March – Deep sea Moai

It wasn’t just heads that we went to Easter Island for. When researching the trip we heard that diving here was not to be missed. Having done our refreshers and a few dives at the Great Barrier Reef we were both ready to take a dive.

Our first dive stuck to the head theme. Just outside the harbour from Hanga Roa there is a sunken head. This is one head that a lot of people miss but we were luck enough to see. Although put there intentionally for a TV programme it was still quite a sight on the dive. The rest of the dive was spent enjoying the beautifully clear water. The visibility was perfect and as good as we have ever had. Although a short dive as one of the girls we were with ran out of air early it was well worth doing.

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Having seen the head Vicki was happy with her diving. I wanted to have an extra two dives though, one that afternoon and the other the next day. The first was one on one with a guide through a coral garden. Lots of interesting marine life again but no heads this time. My final dive was at a sight called the cathedral. This was deep dive this time going down to over 30m. It was made interesting by the rock formations we explored. There were a number of caves and arches that we swan around and under. Overall a really good dive.

We chose to dive with Mike Rapu which turned out to be a good choice. Although they were catering mainly to Spanish speaking divers they had good equipment and friendly and well trained dive leaders. I was very glad to have done these dives and would recommend diving in Easter Island. People expect a rough sea around the island however it was calm and amazingly clear. Importantly, it was also not too cold.

After my second dive I met up with Vicki at the dive centre and we headed off for a walk. We followed the coast on a hunt for caves passing a couple of ahu on the way. We missed some of the caves but the ones we found were still worth the effort. These were extensive underground cave systems that you could easily walk in and out of. You would enter one end and come out several hundred metres away in some cases. These caves were used as store rooms and hideouts in the past. Our favourite was the sunken garden where the plant life was growing from the bottom of the cave.

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We headed out on our walk armed only with two bottles of sparkling mineral water that we had expected to be still water. We soon realised our mistake as it was deceptively warm and the walk longer than we expected (10 miles!), not enough water and not nearly refreshing enough was an issue. As we struggled along saving our water rations and feeling very thirsty we were saved by a couple of wild guava. Apparently these grow all over the island however we clearly weren’t at peak season as most of the guava bushes had no fruit. We did find a few though which were extremely welcome and hugely refreshing. Perhaps the others had been picked by hungry walkers before us? Important lesson on Easter Island…always carry a spoon for eating wild guava!

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In spite of the guava, the hear clearly got to Vicki. Parched we arrived back in town and at the first shop we found I headed straight in for a drink. With no water available Vicki was all set to leave. This is the first time I have seen her turn down a cold can of coke that I gratefully accepted. She soon came to her senses though as she realised that there were drinks other than water that would quench her thirst.

Friday 20th March – Free range

Following my final dive the next morning we went exploring. Having learnt our lesson about walking too far yesterday today we got ourselves some wheels. Our Suzuki Jimny may not have been the most luxurious vehicle but on a small island with very bumpy roads the 4×4 was ideal.

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First stop was the volcano crater and nearby Orongo village. The village is associated with the birdman cult. This was a serious athletic challenge where competitors had to clamber down a sheer cliff face, swim to adjacent rock and collect the first egg laid by the sooty tern before returning with the egg including a swim and cliff climb. The prize was a good one, the winner’s chief got to live on his own in the village for a year. Nothing like a bit of peace and quiet. Luckily they don’t do this challenge anymore, I would have been worried that Vicki would have tried to give it a go otherwise.

Lunch was empanadas at another ahu. Empanadas in Chile have replaced our pie based diet from New Zealand. These are very much like a Cornish pasty but with cheesier fillings. One thing we are experiencing on this holiday are the pastry based foods of different countries.

The car gave us another chance for an afternoon at the beach. Soaking in the sea and soaking up the sun gave us time to relax and a busy few days of sightseeing.

Our final evening on the island was back at a restaurant we had visited before. We found the restaurants on the island to be extremely tasty and good value. The food was ample with delicious fresh fish being the highlight. The locally caught tuna was a particular favourite. Accompanied by pisco sours, Chilean wine and the local pale ale the evening food even managed to top the lunchtime sandwiches and empanadas.

Saturday 21st March – Stranded!

Using our wheels we were up early on our last day to head back to Ahu Tongariki. This is known to be the site to watch sunrise on the island. Not wanting to miss out we drove over to watch the dawn break. Unlike some places we have been for sunset it wasn’t too crowded however one woman in white positioned herself right in front of the statues, determine to get in everyone’s photos!

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Circling back to where we were at the beginning of this post, the rest of our last day was spent waiting for our plane. We made the best use of our time though, visiting the top of the volcano again to check the views one last time, lying around on the small beach in town, playing with Chester the cat and also getting in a short but very hot run.

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Sucked back in

It is amazing just how quickly you get sucked back in to normal life. We have been back just under 2 weeks and our trip is already fading to a distant memory. We came back with all the best intentions…

  • We will exercise everyday and get back in shape…
  • We will send the postcards we bought and wrote while away…
  • We will sort out the 7000 photos…
  • We will get our heads down at work and enjoy our jobs…
  • Rich will shave everyday and try to look presentable…
  • Rich will create that app he had a great idea for…
  • Vicki will write that book she always wanted to…
  • We will finish of all those blog posts…
  • We will win the lottery…

Of course some of those are more likely to happen than others, but all seem to be goals we are struggling to hit right now. Looking at the list that lottery win is actually looking like one of the most achievable right now.

I (Rich of course) am at least going to have a stab at the final item As much to share our thoughts about the trip as to keep a record for what we did when we look back in years to come, I promise that I am going to publish the blog posts we were working on at the end of the trip. If you see me before the final post on Buenos Aires goes up…please poke me in the ribs and shout…”WRITE THE DAMN BLOG!”

Radio silence

After 2 weeks of silence on our blog we are now almost home. We just landed at Heathrow so I figured I would add a photo. Over the next few days we will collate the partial blog posts we have written since Easter Island and finish them off.

In any case, we are home safe and sound and will soon be back in Berrylands. Seems like we have been away a long time. I am sure Steve has missed us.

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