Location: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
And so back to the "cidade maravilhosa" for our last 5 days. Fortunately we were blessed with fantastic weather and spent our days sunning ourselves on Ipanema with the young, the rich and the beautiful of Carioca society. We spent a wonderful evening up on Sugar Loaf Mountain watching the sun go down over Guanabara Bay and made the most of the AMAZING (and free!) live music on offer in this most musical of cities. The only downside was watching England lose the World Cup Final surrounded by South Africans in an ex-pat bar in Ipanema. That, and the small matter of having to go home after 9 months of fantastic experiences, amazing people and unforgettable memories. Yeh, that was a bit of a bummer too.
Location: Ilha Grande, Brazil
Ilha Grande, covered almost entirely in Atlantic rainforest and dotted with some of the finest beaches in Brazil, was a wonderful place to kick back and relax at the end of our travels. The only form of transport around the island is by boat which makes getting around slow and spectacular in equal measure. We spent every minute of sunshine on the fantastic beaches, the pick of which was Lopes Mendes, a stunning stretch of white sand and crashing waves. Whenever the weather threatened to deteriorate (not often) we made the most of the hiking trails around the island, which, not often that well-signposted, usually resulted in our getting lost and having to hitch-hike back to the main settlement with some cargo ship or other. After 5 days of desert island tranquility, we were ready for the razmatazz of Rio again, and headed north for our last few days.
Location: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
We flew down to Rio for the bank holiday weekend in order to meet Seb's Brazilian friend, Thales, with whom he lived in Italy. Basing ourselves in the old colonial district of Santa Theresa we made the most of having a native Brazilian around for a couple of days by eating and drinking too much and generally making merry. We slogged up Corcovado to take a look at Cristo Redentor, one of the world's newly crowned 7 Wonders. Neither of us were particularly impressed, but then when you've trekked to Machu Picchu the bar is raised as far as spectacular sights go. We also spent a lovely day in the peaceful botanical gardens before Thales had to fly back down south in order to go back to work. Eager to escape scheduled rain in Rio, we too made our way south, to the tropical island of Ilha Grande.
Location: Morro de Sao Paulo, Brazil
Intent on making the most of our 2 weeks in the northeast of Brazil we headed to the beautiful island of Morro de Sao Paulo by way of a very choppy 2 hour catamaran ride reminiscent of our journey to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. The island was made up of four beaches originally named first beach, second beach and so on with all the action centered around the first two beaches. We spent 5 days deepening our tans and making the most of the sunshine before flying south to Rio.
Location: Salvador, Brazil
Disappointed to discover that the weather in south-western Brazil was as cold and gloomy as in northeast Argentina, we decided to bite the bullet and change our route through Brazil. Instead of travelling up the east coast, we decided to fly up to perennially sunny Salvador in the north-east and to make our way down the coast before flying home from Rio. Salvador was as hot and sunny as we could have ever hoped. But although the old historical centre was fascinating and some of the colonial architecture very well preserved, the city itself had a dangerous tension to it that was perhaps not what we were in the mood for this late into the travels. With this in mind we journeyed north to Praia do Forte, a lovely chilled out beach resort complete with turtle sanctuary and old fort. By day we soaked up the sun in an attempt to return back to the UK browner than when we left. By night we took advantage of the wide range of restaurants and cuisines Praia do Forte had to offer. We even managed to find a bar to watch the Rugby World Cup in so there were no complaints from Seb.
Location: Missiones, Argentina
We headed up into the tropical region of Missiones by way of an overnight stop in Rosario. Missiones is so-named because of the Jesuit missions founded here in the 17th century and we spent a day wandering the well-preserved complex of San Ignacio Mini and the hauntingly decrepit ruins of Santa Ana. Just 3 hours north-east of these ruins are the wondrous Iguazu Falls which border both Argentina and Brazil. We decided to explore the falls from both sides, spending one day up close in Argentina marvelling at the sheer enormity and power of the cascades and the next in Brazil where the perspective is more panoramic and gives a better all-round overview. We both agreed that the Iguazu Falls were one of the most amazing things we'd ever seen, possibly only pipped to the number 1 position by Machu Picchu, which gives a fair idea of just how incredible they are.
Location: Buenos Aires, Argentina
We arrived in the capital bleary-eyed after another sleepless night on an overnight bus. This may go some way to explaining how Seb allowed a guy to scoop Sair's rucksack off the floor in front of him and walk off with it strapped to his front. Fortunately Sair was in a little less of a dozy mood than her travelling companion and chased after him, recovering her bag and giving the bloke a good thump in the chest for good measure.
Theft avoided, we set about enjoying the delights of this cosmopolitan city, spending a day in each of the incredibly diverse and individual districts: browsing the famous antiques market in San Telmo, trying to avoid getting lost in the vast and amazing Recoleta cemetery, chatting with the artists and artisans of La Boca, and shopping in the trendy boutiques of Palermo. Although the weather was awful throughout the 9 days we spent here (raining everyday) we couldn't get enough of this city and it was only the prospect of sun and warmth in Brazil that enabled us to drag ourselves away...
Location: Peninsula Valdes, Argentina
Flew halfway up the country by private aeroplane (in Patagonia they are always private) to the city of Puerto Madryn. Spent the following afternoon exploring the nearby town of Gaiman - one of the few remaining demonstrably Welsh towns in Argentina. The best part however was the Casa de Te which served traditional Welsh tea, an all-you-can-eat cake buffet and endless pots of cha. Seb managed to clear the plate which consisted of 15 different varieties of cake whilst Sair came in a miserable 2nd having tried only 8! The following day we made the most of nearby Peninsula Valdes and its standing as one of the best wildlife viewing areas on the planet. The whale-watching was incredible and made New Zealand's version look absolutely feeble! The sealion colonies were another highlight although there is clearly something dodgy going on with their diet as they're all fat knackers!
Location: Ushuaia, Argentina
Ushuaia - as far south as you can go. Luckily for us that isn´t the town´s only attraction. Looking over the Beagle channel with the mountains of Tierra Del Fuego hemming it in on all sides makes for an awesome backdrop. We spent our first day here exploring the nearby Tierra Del Fuego National Park, an area full of lakes and fjords which extend all the way into Chile. On our second day we capitalised on Ushuaia´s standing as a centre for breeding husky dogs and travelled through the valleys in style in a 5-dog sled! Having experienced the canine form of travel we thought it unfair not to try out the feline version - skidding around a 4km circuit in some highly powerful SnowCat vehicles was certainly not a bad way to end the day.
Location: Torres Del Paine, Chile
Popping back over to Chile for a couple of days (the border crossings here are really very easy) we made for the famous Torres Del Paine National Park, an area rammed to the rafters with tourists come summertime but almost deserted at this time of year, save for a few hardy souls such as oursleves. The weather here is as unpredictable as weather can be - sun, snow, fog, rain and that´s all in half an hour. The only constant is the wind which can reach up to 150 kph and is supposedly even stronger in the summer! We weren´t foolhardy enough to attempt any multiday trekking as conditions just weren´t good enough and our tent probably would have been blown away. So we contented oursleves with only one day´s exploration of the Park and then fled back to Argentina when conditions deteriorated and the snow came rolling in!
Location: El Chalten, Argentina
We had been told that El Chalten really wasn´t an option at this time of year. The town shuts down, the amazing trekking opportunities in the surrounding mountains are closed off due to treacherous conditions and the unique granite pillars of the famous Fitzroy Range are barely visible. However, a window of sunshine opened for one day only and we grabbed our chance with both hands, hopping on the first available bus and spending a day hiking the only available routes open to us. Although partially obscured by cloud, the Fitzroy Range lived up to its billing as one of the most spectacular and fearsome mountain ranges in the world, towering over the nearby town and providing exhilerating views. The day was also memorable for the sky. It sounds weird but the day provided some of the most amazing skies and cloud formations that we´d ever seen. However geeky that may sound! Patagonian sky RULES!
Location: El Calafate, Argentina
Keen to capitalise on scheduled good weather we continued into the heart of Patagonia, a 30 hour bus journey from El Bolson to El Calafate. The highlight of this area is, without a doubt, the Parque Nacional de los Glaciares, a marine national park of glaciers, icebergs and snowy peaks. We visited the Perito Moreno Glacier, famous for its regular calvings when giant blocks of ice loosen from the terminal face and crash into the lake below before your very eyes. However, even better than that was the Lago Argentino and its surrounds. We spent a day cruising the lakes and iceberg-choked fjords of this area and marvelling at the giant Spegazzini and Upsala glaciers. It really felt as if we could have been in Antarctica.
Location: Bariloche, Argentina
From the Kuchen-country of Puerto Varas we moved onto chocoholics´ heaven in Bariloche. Artisanal chocolate shops abound at every corner and we practically made ourselves sick by sampling some of the finest. However, our real reason for coming to Bariloche was to hit the slopes of Cerro Catedral, Argentina´s number 1 ski resort. Having never skiied before, we booked a couple of days of lessons with a great instructor called Luisa and by the end of the second day we were flying down the slopes, although not necessarily always in control. Nor with both skis still attached. We were lucky enough to arrive in the middle of the annual Snow Festival which meant a carnival atmosphere and C-list Argentinian celebs all round. Although it did make the slopes rather crowded. Which meant a lot of people in potential danger when Seb decided to go off on one of his kami kazi runs. Having exhausted ourselves and our credit cards, we headed for El Bolson, which couldn´t have been further from all the glitz and glam of Bariloche. You come here to get away from it all and we spent a couple of days trekking in the surrounding countryside and mountains, seemingly the only tourists for miles around.
Location: Puerto Varas, Chile
We finally dragged ourselves away from the cosy hospitality of Lalo in Pucon and headed down to Puerto Varas, where, after stuffing our faces with kuchen (German cakes) for a couple of days, we crossed the border into Argentina by way of Perez Vicente Rosales marine national park. This involved a stunning boat trip to Peulla where we were treated to snow-capped mountains on all sides, and amazing views of the park´s spectacular centrepiece, Volcan Osorno.
Location: Pucon, Chile
And so to the south of Chile...having not particularly enjoyed Santiago when we arrived in South America all those weeks ago, we decided the best thing to do would be to catch a 30 hour bus journey from San Pedro de Atacama to the Lake District, renowned for its stunning scenery.
We arrived in freezing Pucon, pretty groggy after our long journey. But the scenery certainly didn't disappoint...probably the most beautiful place we've been to thus far, snow-capped volcanoes, crystal clear blue lakes, alpine log cabin architecture...
We were fortunate enough to be met at the bus terminal by none other than Lalo Bravo, the most famous man in Pucon. Now, we're usually pretty suspicious of people that wait around at bus terminals for sleepy tourists when they step off their buses, but Lalo was a real stroke of luck. Along with another gringo, Daniel (Ozzie), we were treated to superb hospitality in his own house, meals cooked, bottles of wine shared, hot showers and BBC WORLD (come on, we have been away for 7 months now!). It was really great to be able to kick back and relax for 3 or 4 days in such cosy surroundings and with great company. We explored Pucon and its surrounds on our first day there culminating in a late-afternoon soak in hot springs overlooking snow-capped mountains. On our second day we attempted to climb the 2850 metre high volcano Villarrica. This required no technical ice climbing ablility but was pretty physically exerting, a 6 hour climb to the top culminating in being able to look down into the crater at the bubbling magma however many hundreds of feet below. Sure enough the ascent proved too difficult for 4 members of our original climbing party and Sair, Seb, Daniel and a Brazilian named Luis were left to slog up to 2400 metres with our guide Angelo before the weather took a dramatic turn for the worse and much to our bitter disappointment Angelo called off the climb. The real problem was not knowing whether we would be able to descend safely if the enveloping fog worsened. Oh well, so close and yet so far. The only way to descend a 2800 metre snow covered volcano (unless you're a skiing/snow-boarding king) is by sliding down on your arse. And this we did. Much to the amusement of the skiing/snow-boarding kings. We drowned our sorrows that evening with a couple of 6 packs in the natural hot springs under the stars. Not a bad way to spend an evening.
The next day Daniel left us to continue his journey and we headed off for a day's trekking in breathtaking Parque Nacional Huerquehue. The less said about the Park the more time to look at the photos. Stunning.
Location: Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
Looking forward to getting back to the warmer climes of northern Chile we continued down to Uyuni where we took a 3 day tour through the salt flats of Uyuni to the Chilean border. The scenery was absolutely indescribable, not even the photos do it justice. The tour was less so. Our driver, Edwin, spent the majority of the 3 days drunk, or drinking (luckily the salt flats are the widest, flattest expanses of land you can imagine...driving's not that taxing). Our cook, a toothless old Bolivian hag, refused to cook, which meant that we were left to rustle up whatever we could come mealtimes. However, the rest of our group was great fun and we all managed to laugh our way through the most farcical moments of the tour.
Reaching the Chilean border on the third day we caught a connecting bus to San Pedro de Atacama and were delighted to discover that the weather was fantastic (warm and dry), and that the restaurants provided pretty much every type of cuisine known to man so we set about recovering from our Uyuni ordeal in this chilled out desert oasis.
Location: Sucre and Potosi, Bolivia
Having spent a fair amount of time in La Paz we were quite sad to say our farewells but we were itching to head south so we took in Sucre and Potosi within a matter of days. The former was a very pretty, white-washed town but held little of interest to such adrenaline junkies as ourselves (!). Potosi, however, certainly held something to test our nerves of steel...the infamous silver mines of Cerro Ricco. The cooperative mine tour was a mind-blowing experience, brilliant and shocking in equal measure. We were taken deep into the bowels of the mine (around 150 metres underground at our deepest). However, because Potosi is the world's highest city you are still something like 4500 metres above sea level and the oxygen inside the dusty gas-filled mines is almost non-existent. We were down there for a good 2 hours and this was certainly enough to get a fair idea of the horrendous conditions the miners work in for up to 16 hours a day. Needless to say their life expectancy does not exceed 40.
Location: La Paz, Bolivia
Having survived alligators and amazonian airlines we thought ourselves invincible and decided it would be a bit of a laugh to cycle 66kms down the world's most dangerous road. Whilst not physically demanding (it's literally all downhill) it was pretty hairy to say the least. Before the closure of the road to cars 7 months ago there were over 300 fatalities a year on this stretch of gravel, most cars losing control on the loose surface and plummeting over the edge of the ravine. There were a couple of close calls on the way down but we made it in one piece, the only casualty being Seb's arse. Jesus, Bolivian saddles are unforgiving!