Precariously placed on the edge of a steep gorge, and beneath the ominous monster that is Tungurahua Volcano, lays the bustling Andean mountain village, and adventure Capital of Ecuador, named Baños de Agua Santa. With over 60 waterfalls in close proximity, the mountain town has become a hot spot for tourists – people seem to be attracted to water like flies to people on a hot summers day. Modern day Baños has developed into a lively town of coffee shops, bars and adventure companies ready to push you down a waterfall or over a gorge on a rope. The gushing torrents of mountain water set the perfect scene for watery adventures from canyoning to white water rafting, whilst helping to fill the surrounding mountainsides with steep lush green vegetation. And, at just 60km from the threshold between the Amazon jungle and the Andean mountains, Baños is also the gateway to trips into the Amazon and a viewpoint to see where these two unique environments converge.
Set at the base of Campo Del Hielo Sur, The Great Southern Ice field, Torres Del Paine National Park is considered by many as the mecca of hiking in Patagonia and has been high on our travel hit list since the very beginning. The Park offers well over 100km of hiking trails to be conquered, and has a reputation for having Patagonia’s most extreme weather, with hikers often experiencing all four seasons in one day; baking hot sun, flurries of snow, horizontal rain, and hurricane force winds. A daunting four to five day hike, battling the elements, lay ahead. This was going to be tough mentally and physically and we new it, we just didn’t know just how tough. We were ready for the Challenge.
Chile is a long long long country, as it thins out towards the most southern tip at Cape Horn the country breaks up into fragments of isolated mountain ranges and icefields separated by spectacular fjords and lakes. This region is almost entirely undeveloped and uninhibited except for small rural towns sparsely scattered along the Carreterra Austral, the long road which travels from Puerto Montt in the Chilean Lake District into the depths of Chilean Patagonia.
Over the past few months our travels have predominantly been spent in hot, dusty, arid destinations with endless blue skies, so it was a shock to the system when we awoke in the morning on our overnight bus journey from Santiago to luscious green fields and rain, lots of it. We had finally begun our journey south towards Patagonia.
The Chilean Lake District is a large region some 800km south of Santiago. Pleasant towns and quaint villages lie scattered through fertile fields and hugging the shorelines of vast pristine lakes at the foothills of the Andes. In the 1850’s the Chilean government underwent a major immigration drive encouraging German’s to colonise the undeveloped lakes region to exploit the abundance of agricultural opportunities. Due to this there is a strong German influence in the architecture and cultural makeup of the villages dotting the landscape. Coming from the desert, as well as Bolivia and Peru, this wonderful European charm was a welcome change of scenery.
Valparaiso is a unique colourful city by the Pacific Ocean in middle Chile. Once upon a time when the Panama Canal did not exist, cargo ships would have to travel south through the Atlantic almost to Cape Horn, the southernmost tip of South America, through the Megellan Straits and north along the coast of Chile using Valparaiso as a major transportation hub for the region and for access to the rest of the world across the Pacific. Now that the Panama Canal exists this transportation route is virtually non-existent leaving all of the old world ports of call, in use for over one hundred years, defunct the moment the canal opened its flood gates. What is left behind is a city rich in culture and history told now through the once decadent buildings, this place is an Architect’s paradise
Located in the Chilean Central Valley, between the Andes and the Chilean Coastal Range, Santiago is a grid of streets sprawled across the flat valley floor. As Chile’s capital the city seems very much on par with any Western city, with tall modern buildings, tree lined streets and an underground metro system. Chile is considered as South America’s first developed country, a status gained after many a year of tough austerity measures originating from the dictator Pinochet’s era of dominance. The country is now considered to be well into the light and its capital the figure head of this prosperity.
Argentina is famous for three things; Wine, Beef and Football, and Mendoza just happens to be pretty good at all three. Mendoza is a sprawling, cosmopolitan city, in the heart of Argentine wine country. They say the best wine in the country is produced here, and so of course we had to come and find out if this is true by exploring the vineyards to sample fine wines, and get a taste of some local gourmet food and of course we hoped to catch a football match – Iain needs to get his fix of his beloved sport.
The ten hour bus ride from San Pedro de Atacama in Chile across the border to Salta in Argentina was by far one of the most spectacular bus journey’s we have ever taken. The bus made its way over high altitude lunar landscapes, passed flamingo filled lakes, volcanic peaks, and rolling Andean mountains. As the bus navigated its way down the windy roads on the Argentine side of the Andes, we were mystified by the rainbow coloured mountains and quaint little mud-brick villages. It was certainly worth every penny of the AUS$56 we forked out for the trip. Sadly our faces were too busy being stuck to the window, in awe of the view, to bother taking photos, unlike the guy in front of us who was snapping away constantly the whole trip. Click, click, click!
Our arrival into San Pedro de Atacama came with a bit of a come down ending in a bump – a bump the size of a Volcano. After the confusion we had gone through with Oscar and Dennis, at the Bolivian-Chile border at the end of the Salt Flats Tour, we finally found our ride to San Pedro, only to learn they had one less seat than we needed. Travelling in a group of four (including our tour buddies Laura and Phil) there was only 3 seats left so one of us had to make do with a cool box/esky as a seat, Phil volunteered for the cool seat.
At 3600m above sea level, the Salar de Uyuni is the highest Salt Flat in the world, and at over 10,000 square kilometres it is also the biggest. The Salt Flat was formed many moons ago as a large ancient lake dried up leaving behind the whitest, flattest expanse of salt you have ever seen. The only way to experience the Salt Flats is by jumping in a 4x4 with a bunch of fellow travellers and driving across it. We organised our trip to launch from Tupiza with our new friends Laura and Phil. You can read more about organising the trip in our Tupiza post.