The final countdown
Rio Gallegos Travel Blog› entry 3 of 3 › view all entries
Since leaving Heathrow airport and taking our first tentative steps in Mexico City we had travelled tens of thousands of miles by plane, train, coach and on foot. But none of this had truly prepared us for the enormity of the South American continent. After three sixteen-hour plus coach rides in Argentina we had reached the town of Rio Gallegos. Less than 200 miles south of us was Ushuaia the most Southerly City in the world. Our decision not to descend further south was largely to do with the desolate nature of Gallegos. It was a far cry from the bustle of Buenos Aires.
The predominant reason why any gringos are ever sighted this far South is to stand in awe at the sight of the towering glaciers in both Argentina and Chile. On viewing the Puerto Moreno glacier we could not help but compare it to a still photograph of the gallons of gushing water we had witnessed at Iguacu falls. Nature however proved us wrong again as a large segment of ice came loose from the rest of the glacier and crashed into the water below. In the national park of Torres Del Paine, in Chile, we were given the opportunity to view a glacier at a far closer proximity. With two experienced guides we took a boat out to Glacier Grey and hiked on its uneven surface. We were given instructions on how to use crampons and we were later shown how to use ice axes and the toe spikes of our crampons to ascend the walls of ice jutting out of the glacier. The deep aqua blues of the caves and warrens of the glacier was the most surprising aspect of the tour; they offered a completely alien environment incomparable to anything I had witnessed before. At the end of the day I was exhausted, but this was exactly the active and adventurous experience I had been searching for, without doubt the highlight of the trip for me.
After the high of this experience we had the unenviable low of a very long journey North before we could reach Bolivia. On the journey north we took in the picturesque mountain town of Bariloche as well as visiting the wine growing region of Mendoza and Chile’s capital Santiago. These destinations were very pleasant but lacked the diversity of culture and landscape we had grown to expect. This was all to change as we entered Bolivia. Possibly our biggest culture shock since landing in Mexico, Bolivia is undeniably a developing Nation, in fact the poorest in South America. We had crossed the border from a relatively impoverished and remote Argentinean border town but there was still a marked difference as we walked across the border into Bolivia. There were no paved roads, no street lighting and all buildings appeared to be in a state of disrepair. The people were however very accommodating, we enjoyed a simple but enjoyable four coursed meal in a family restaurant were all customers greeted each other as they entered. The cost of the meal was the biggest bargain of our trip, costing the equivalent of 50p.
We caught a train to the town of Tupiza where we were to start our four-day jeep ride through the desert to visit the Salar de Uyuni, a huge white glistening expanse of salt. For this tour our number had swelled to five. A South African named Doron joined us and a fellow English girl called Seda. Day one of the trip could not have gone much worse, after only an hour in we stopped off at a rocky hill and Seda lacerated her knee open on a piece of slate. Our driver had no first aid training so it was up to us to clean and bandage the wound the best we could, of which Rory did an excellent job. Despite our driver’s willingness to drive further on into the desert, we turned around and took Seda to a hospital. As you can imagine hospitals in remote towns in Bolivia are not the most sophisticated of places. Our concerns were raised even more as the nurse came outside asking for a first aid kit and tissues and despite being the bravest 18 year old girl I had ever met Seda was obviously very distressed. After inspecting the surgery room we were very relieved to discover that the doctor did know what he was doing and did an expert job. Seda had simply requested her own medical equipment.
All patched up and ready to go we hit the road again the next day. During the days of the tour we took in various brightly coloured lakes populated by flamingos and witnessed smoking geysers and volcanoes. During the night we met up with people from the other jeeps. They were a rowdy crowd of Australians who had come equipped with Bolivian moonshine called Singani. This turned out to be very useful, as the second night of the tour was Chris’s birthday. Wrapped up in many clothes and huddled together during the cold desert night we sang happy birthday and made a toast to new and old friends. On the last day of the tour we rose before dawn and witnessed the sunrise above the salt flats. In every direction as far as the eye could see there was nothing but a blanket of blindingly white salt crystals. The desert we had been in lacked vegetation and form but this paled into comparison with the Salar, which resembled a lunar landscape. .
We had originally planned on taking our last week in South America relatively easily. Spending a few days by Lake Titicaca and then flying from La Paz airport. As we reached Lake Titicaca, which is on the Peruvian border, we came up with another plan. We would cross the border into Peru and visit the ruins of Machu Picchu. Since we first began our plans to travel around South America, visiting Machu Picchu was always at the top of the list of things to do, we just believed that we had run out of time to fit it in. This almost turned out to be the case as on our first evening in Peru we were told that a coach and railway strike was about to commence the following day. We hurriedly caught the last bus out of Puno City and drove through the night to Cuzco. The bus journey was the most terrifying of the trip, with the bus driver determined to reach our destination before the blockades set in. He speeded around the mountainous route overtaking lorries on blind bends and used his brakes far to sparingly. In Cuzco we caught a train to the site of Machu Picchu. The sheer remoteness of the lost city has somewhat diminished due to the frequent trains and local tourist town of Aguas Calientes, but if you can remove them from your mind then this spectacle of the Incas can be truly appreciated for the amazing feat that it was. The historic site is far bigger than pictures of the place reveal. Only by wandering through the buildings can you appreciate it as a proper city that was once occupied by a remarkable civilisation. It wholeheartedly deserves its place on the new list of the Seven Wonders of the World.
The Bolivian capital city of La Paz was our last South American location. Holding the record for the world’s highest capital city, La Paz almost resembles a modern Machu Picchu only on a larger scale. Snow capped mountains are visible from all points of the city and breathing becomes very difficult after only short exercise. The city is famous for its well-stocked and vibrant Market places so we spent our last few days exploring them.
And so our 3 and half months of travelling had come to an end. We had expected our time in South America to offer us a broad range of experiences but no amount of research or planning can truly prepare you for a continent of it’s magnitude. One truth that we have confirmed from our travels is that it is not always the destination that matters, but the journey itself.