OILA (Only in Latin America)

18 March 2011 – 22 April 2011

There are some things that would only happen or I would only let happen whilst in Latin America. Before you start speculating, I don’t resemble one of those smelly hippy travellers, I don’t dreads or even worse, one scanky dread wrapped around my neck, hairy armpits, any rainbow coloured items, dogs, musical instruments, a artesania stand and I haven’t changed my name to Blossom either. I have however, let myself go. It’s impossible to try and keep to a routine unless it consists of eating at least three types of carbs daily, drinking every night, getting little sleep and taking the odd photo on an organized tour. I had a little cry the other day while I was soaking in some hot springs alongside another family. I realised that I was the spitting image of the short stumpy father. Midriff so rotund that feet are no longer visible, (goodbye Chanel nails, I can’t reach you), what could easily be mistaken as moobs, rugby players legs and none existence hips. I have basically turned into a overweight minger.

For that guaranteed sausage shape make sure that no fruit and vegetables are consumed for a few months and that there are at least two types of carbs, something fried and nothing remotely green on your plate (a garnish of brown iceberg lettuce is acceptable) for every meal. Wash this down with a fizzy drink like Inca Kola, so you can look like a toothless local with an luminous tongue. Then wipe your mouth with a napkin the size of a quarter triangle sandwich that resembles crispy greaseproof paper that you used to get in underground toilets at the seaside that would make your arse bleed. Only in Latin America (OILA).

Is that tinned tuna? Flight from Puerto Montt to Punta Arena, Chile

Whether you like it or not, your diet changes dramatically whilst travelling. Before I left, I donated several tins of tuna to a friends cat that had been in my kitchen cupboard for a good year, (I refuse to eat tinned tuna as I think it’s vile, I know many of you would disagree with me here) though whilst travelling I’ve consumed about five tins of the stuff. (More than I’ve consumed in my life time up until my travels). I even got tinned tuna on my flight from Puerto Montt to Punta Arenas which I was disappointed about as I secretly love flight meals but I coped. It has now become palatable. I would never consider touching meat that you could slice with your finger but on the Salt Flats tour we got served Spam, which actually, smothered in mustard wasn’t too unbearable. On a recent bus journey we got served carpeechi, (yes I’ve just made that up), but somehow carrots, peas and other delights had been rolled in pummeled chicken. A 7mm cross section of it was served up on some rock hard rice accompanied by a stale roll, got presented beautifully on a bit of polystyrene and got called dinner. Bar alcohol, few liquids are consumed as going to the toilet for that twice daily toxic wee is never a pleasant experience. The only positives are strong thighs and being able to hold my bladder for hours.

Here I average about 20 seconds sorting my hair out and even use shampoo and conditioner in one, one less bottle to carry and saves time. I desperately need a haircut but judging from the dodgy signage outside of hairdressers I have refrained from getting it chopped. In Sucre I stayed in a friends hotel and got really excited to see a hairdryer for the first time in 5 months, washed my hair, started blow drying it, got really bored, gave up after two minutes then wondered how much of my life I’d wasted drying and straightening my hair. I have also started to use soap to make my dry skin even dryer but it lasts longer than shower gel, takes up less room, weighs less and it’s cheaper. Even the debossing of pubes no longer bothers me. (Lie, it really bothers me). I wear make up about once every two weeks. Back home I might run to the corner shop without make up on but with a scalf wrapped around my head but it’s nice that travellers don’t judge you out here and take you for who you are, this might be the reason why I’ve barely met anyone.

After sending a jumper and my poncho home I had to stock up on some sort of warm item as I headed toward Patagonia where the choice included rainbow jumpers or jumpers sporting leaping llamas. I went for an Betty Suares/Icelandic style/Christmas jumper in a bright blue so now I truly resemble a proper traveller, not that I ever look like a local. It’s one thing wearing it out here but would I wear it back home? Mmm, probably not. It’s like when you go to a festival and buy a stupid hat, get home, wonder why you wasted a few quid, then use it to scrub the floor.

I am now literally wearing clothes with holes in as they’ve all been destroyed in the laundrettes, wear no accessories, (back home I’m known as the Queen of Accessories), bar my GBP9.99 Argos Casio watch and some 20p wrist bands (this limits the chances of getting my arms chopped off and my accessories stolen), I have been clubbing in flip flops and sometimes I don’t wash for days (though this is only when a shower is not available). Clothes always get at least five outings before they get washed (though not pants). Mmmmm, but OILA.

That’s enough about the smelly sausage.

OILA would you find restaurants with gaping holes in the ceiling, a stained curtain separating the none flushing seat-less toilet from the dining area, poo stained toilet paper wafting past you that’s in a waste paper bin, towers of stock balancing like giant Jenga in corners and interesting hygiene. Back home these elements would have shut down restaurants in a flash but they are the norm over here, especially local joints in the Andean countries. You can always be sure that your first, second, (always have at least three choices to avoid disappointment) third, fourth, fifth and pretty much the rest of the menu will be unavailable so I’ve now learnt just to ask what ‘Que hay?’, (what is there?).

This isn’t true for all countries though. I got the shock of my life when I crossed over the border from Bolivia to Argentina which took hours though was a breeze compared to the Ecuador/Peru crossing. As a national holiday in Argentina was looming, there were hundreds of locals getting away for a long weekend. I got chatting to a father in the queue who was trying in on whilst his wife was chasing after their two mischievous young children who were darting in and out of impatient people’s legs in the queue.

Last luxury bus from Bolivia to Argentina

Argentina bus complete with kitchen

Upon entering Salta in Northern Argentina I witnessed tree lined avenues, smooth roads (you could consume a drink without having to worry about knocking a few teeth out – this is probably why the locals up North have no teeth), clean streets, road markings, people drinking cafe lattes complete with pinkies out, on decorative plazas whilst using wifi and even posh metal bins. This extended to the restrooms where a toilet seat, soap, toilet paper, air freshener and even a towel to dry your hands on was usually available. Both Argentina and Chile are so European where in Argentina apparently only 1% of the population are indigenous and in Chile apparently just 5%. Argentineans are so friendly which probably extends from their curiosity and 99% of the time will be happy to stop and help. Minutes after stepping over the border my taxi driver had invited me to his house for dinner. My first activity in Salta consisted of visiting a Artesania market on a Plaza where I discovered the life stories of the majority of the vendors there.

Being super excited about the red wine and meat (and the steak) I believed that myself and Argentina would get along just fine.

Quebrada de Cafayate, Argentina

After effects of an earthquake last year, Quebrada de Cafayate, Argentina

Cool rock formations, Quebrada de Cafayate, Argentina

Cycling back pissed on Mr Hugo's bikes after the wine tour, Mendoza, Argentina

These were once themal baths! Aconcagua, highest mountain in the America's, Mendoza, Argentina


Aconcagua, highest mountain in the America's, Mendoza, Argentina

I’ve yet to sample an amazing bit of steak in Argentina, although it’s widely available it’s difficult to get a good bit of meat, the Malbec I tasted on the vineyard bike tour outside of Mendoza wasn’t that special and I’ve not seen a single hot Argentenian. How disappointing. After hunting for these three elements in Salta, Cafayate (I at least got to see some amazing scenery on a tour to the Quebrada from the sweet town well renowned for its vineyards and wineries that you can visit), Tucuman (merely a stop over point to break up a looooong journey) and then Mendoza where upon stepping into the party hostel and only hearing English speakers and trying to remember who the hell recommended the place and then getting bombarded with about 5 millions tours that I should do whilst watching an employee scribble ‘Empanada Party tonight’ in her best Comic Sans-esqe writing onto a giant whiteboard and blinking frantically to try and remove the dollar signs from my eyeballs I feigned illness so that I could breath, lie down and start planning my trip to Chile.

I’d had to rearrange my trip slightly, one because I needed to get to Patagonia quickly so the only activity wasn’t skiing, and the other to accommodate Lollapalooza festival in Chile’s capital, Santiago. So I decided to do the North of Argentina, reluctantly skip the North of Chile, head South from Santiago including taking a cargo ferry with old locals and cows to catch a glimpse of the fjords then come back up through Argentina towards Buenos Aires.

Delicious seafood in Valparaiso, Chile with Janet

Cute Valparaiso, Chile

After a couple of days seeing the sights in Santiago (though not the beautiful mountains encasing the city as they’re hidden behind thick smog), I headed to the cute boho port of Valparaiso with really good street art everywhere and realised that everyone within a 200km radius of the festival was heading there at the weekend. After hearing Pa-Panamericano about a million times I was so ready to hear some decent music and with not a bad line up I was really excited about the festival, especially as I had to miss ATP just before Christmas. During my first couple of days in Santiago I feel smug by going and buying my ticket directly to cut out all the booking fees though not so smug upon my return to Santiago where I find out they were offering BOGOF simply by purchasing an energy drink because the tickets weren’t shifting. Damn, OILA.

Lollapolooza festival, Santiago, Chile

Empire of the Sun, Lollapolooza festival, Santiago, Chile

Well, OILA would you have a two day music festival with, bar the music, the next most important element missing, the booze. What sort of a festival is that? I heard from locals that punters went to ‘inspect’ the venue the day before and were literally burying bottles of liquor in the ground. With the weather being absolutely scorching for two days a pint of beer in one’s hand would have been perfect. The one plus was that I didn’t spend half the festival in the queue for the portaloos. Cypress Hill were fun, James are getting worse by the minute, Empire of the Sun put on an amazing show and everyone went crazy, The Drums were awesome, The Killers surprisingly disappointing but ALL LA’s know ALL the words to EVERY song so I think they all enjoyed it and I quite liked Kanye West. After we heading straight to a bar to sink some beers.

Pissed Jeremy and amused Julie, Lollapolooza festival, Santiago, Chile

Me and Julie watching Devendra Banhart after the drama of getting in, Lollapalooza

Day two I wore my new pouf dress which makes me look pregnant so had no trouble smuggling in a bottle of rum down my pants. The other option was to get pissed before entering but this would have meant drinking a litre of vodka with breakfast which didn’t sound that appealing though Jeremy who we were with thought it would be a good idea and was hammered by midday when we met up with him. Slightly annoying though as we kept sending him off to get us some free coke for the rum but he kept forgetting. (Love you Jez) And then his horrible hangover kicked in a few hours later and he stole all my water.

It was the first time that Lollapalooza festival (usually held in Chicago) was to take place in a Latin American country. It might well be the last time too. OILA have I witnessed such poor safely precautions, (and I’ve been to a lot of festivals though safety in general here isn’t really a very high priority), basically there is none which although is better for beautiful scenery shots, can be pretty scary at times too.

The first main act that everyone wanted to see on day two was Devendra Banhart and stupidly he was playing in the tiniest indoor venue. As we headed over all sorts of commotion was going on as armed police on horseback galloped past us. Hundreds of angry fans were forced behind barriers as we waited for the punters to vacate the arena before we went in. After a long wait the gate was finally opened and fans forced down the barrier, got elbows out and charged in. It’s the nearest thing to a stampede that I’ve ever experienced. There were lost shoes and clothing barely visible in the sandy ground and shouts of ‘cuidado’ (careful) were swallowed by angry screaming fans. The metal fence that was charged down was completely destroyed and lethal metal poles were protruding out of the ground. I’d be very surprised if everyone managed to get in unscathed. My friend, Julie, lost her shoe but wisely kicked it as far forward as she could and just managed to retrieve it while people watched their footing over the spiky assault course. We were amongst hundreds who managed to get into the sweaty arena where everyone was fanning themselves down with their program. I was just starting to get over the shock when three fat topless locals dripping in sweat came and positioned themselves behind us to make us feel uneasy again.

The Drums, awesome, Lollapalooza festival, Santiago, Chile

To try and avoid further stampedes we arrived early for The Drums but end up waiting for two hours. There were no signs of the barriers this time just armed police on horses lined up side by side. Every time the gate opened and one person came out the crowd would surge five paces forward. It was well worth the wait, The Drums were definitely one of the highlights. After the bottle of rum, I even found myself enjoying a bit of Kanye action. Again we head straight to a bar after for beer. A little later a girl we’re with deliberates for about an hour whether or not to have anything to eat (a bloke would have finished a three course meal in this time, no questions asked). I say I’ll share some empanadas with her so we order one portion of six. The waiter is rude, unfriendly and doesn’t even bring us a menu for ages, reluctantly takes our order then brings us a plate of six each after about a half an hour wait, the girl complains and he takes away both plates of empanadas and the condiments. Blokes would have just eaten the six empanadas each. Never mind, I didn’t need the extra 3000 calories.  The customer is always right here too. OILA.

The following day was a well deserved ‘rest day’ where I finally sampled an amazing bit of steak, though it was slightly overcooked. I like my steak running off the plate but the locals are literally scared to serve it blue so it usually comes out rare. After a cultural day of museums the next day with Julie we sample some cocktails followed by beer in the afternoon and I nearly miss my bus to a friends hotel near Lonquimay in The Lakes District. This however might not have been a bad thing as a very old crispy grandpa who was sat next to me kept trying it on. Crispy pops kept holding my hand and resting his head on my shoulder while I tried to sleep and upon fending him off he’d offer his shoulder instead. I should have realised that he’d want something in return for accepting his breakfast biscuit. I’ve never been so relieved to get off a bus. OILA do men not take no as an answer.

Lonquimay volcano hike, Lakes District, Chile

Monkey puzzle bark, Lonquimay volcano hike, Chile

Baby llama, Suizandina, Chile

Parque Nacional Conguillio, Lakes District, Chile

It’s nice to see Rodman again who I met in La Paz (we bonded as we had the shits at the same time) and I’m treated as one of the family at the amazing hotel, Suizandina, where he’s working. The Lakes District (known for it’s numerous crystal clear lakes with reflections of the snow capped Andes), has a huge Swiss population as it’s so similar to the Alpes so the majority of the accommodation resembles cosy Swiss wooden cottages. Hostels suddenly improved 50 fold in Chile, as did the breakfast with cold meats and cheese, homemade wholegrain bread, homemade jams and marmalade’s, cute homely touches and fires crackling all day. As a friend of Rodman’s I’m invited to have lunch with the staff every day and actually end up getting all my food for free including a cheese fondue, yum, but this is in return for getting roped into working there. I’d only been there a day before they had me painting their signs on the roadside, cooking for the guests and staff one night and designing a 100 page Powerpoint (I’ve used PP once in my life) document on a German PC (I only know one German word, shizer and I hate PC’s; they’re not a design tool) with instuctions in Spanish. (I still have basic Spanish). Believe me, it’s one of the most challenging and frustrating things that I’ve done whilst I’ve been out here but it went down well and it was nice to stay put somewhere for almost a week and feel like part of the family. I still managed to get out on a few hikes, make friends with the imported llamas, soak in some thermal springs (where I saw my double) and visit the nearby National Park with Rodman where we witnessed beautiful lakes, mountains and volcanos.

Volcan Villarrica on a freezing morning, Pucon, Chile

The 100 page PP document turns out to be a breeze compared to the hike up Volcan Villarrica (one of the most active volcano’s in Chile) that I do from Pucon after, further South and still in the Lakes District. I haven’t once felt like giving up on anything that I’ve done out here but the day hike up the volcano is easily the toughest thing that I’ve undertaken. This is mainly because there were not enough breaks with the company we went with where the guides kept whooping our asses to go faster just so we’d be one of the first groups to the top. As most of us had to wait at least 5 days to do the hike because of the weather, there were about 25 people in our group meaning that by the time the last person stopped for their break, the first person’s hands were frozen, and yes it was seriuosly cold.

I was laughing at the group in front of us as they were all wearing balaclavas, (it’s common to see a local wearing a balaclava down the street, OILA) though after getting cheek chaffage from the wind lashing snow onto my face, I wish I’d invested in one. Although towards the start of the hike I was fifth in the line, by the time I got to the step carved out by the leading guide it has disappeared and it didn’t help that there was a huge lumbering guy in front of me who was really heavy footed and was literally just saving himself. At one point I had to use my icepick to get into the recovery position (highly embarrassing) as I started so slide down the volcano. The girl behind me saved me by pushing me up by my arse, nice sight for the rest of the 20 in the group who were wondering what the hold up was (yup, my arse). Upon eventually acending I see the first groups rucksacks at the top of the volcano and am so relieved it’s over but then realise I still have ages to walk as my group are walking to the other side of the volcano, damn them. The acid gases escaping the volcano are so intense that they burn my throat but there’s no getting away from it, I have to breath. The views are immense and I finally smile when I open my lunch box and see a boiled egg that I completely forgot about.

Why are you walking over there you bastards? Volcan Villarrica, Pucon, Chile

Smokin' Volcan Villarrica, Pucon, Chile

Volcan Villarrica, Pucon, Chile

The final stages of Volcan Villarrica, I've never been so happy, Pucon, Chile

After inhaling more fumes we put on giant plastic nappies in preparation for the exciting sliding down that everyone is looking forward to. The first slide is so steep that I’m cacking my pants. We received a good 20 seconds of training and safety, OILA, and some people turned out to be pretty good while others not so good. Everyone watched and laughed at anyone that took a bit of a tumble. I manage to stay on my arse for about 3 seconds, feel like I’m going at 50mph and then start the acrobats, lose my sunglasses and my ice pick (much to the disgust of the guides as they have to retrieve my items). Everyone is laughing at me at the bottom and my friend, (not anymore) Isabelle, is annoyed that she never filmed it. The next slides are not so steep and I’m going that fast that I have to scream at people in front of me to get out of the way before I crash into them. I’ve never been so happy for something to be over but glad that I did it though not so sure whether I actually enjoyed it.

Termas Geometricas, Pucon

Termas Geometricas, Pucon

Geek by the waterfall at the Termas Geometricas, Pucon

I’m so glad I wasn’t abe to do the hike on my birthday, three days prior, like I wanted to. Rightly so I chose an activity at the other end of the torture scale, eat cake, have a massage and visit the termas geometricas which were amazing. I’ve been to quite a few thermal baths which are usually a fitting end to a tour though it’s generally the first chance of a wash after a few days of hiking and they’ve all been somewhat brown and murky with floating plasters and balls of hair passing you every so often so I wasn’t too bothered about heading to these but after reading raving reviews about them I decided to go.
The 17 pools of varying temperatures were set at the bottom of two mountains covered in trees with a massive waterfall at the end of a broad walk and a smaller one which was the 8 degree plunge pool. I got in three times and each time that uncontrollable yelp ejected from my mouth. Good for the circulation I kept telling myself. ‘Chica loca’ (crazy girl), the locals kept telling me. It pissed it down for most of the day so outdoor thermal pools were the perfect activity.
A few of us head out for dinner and drinks in the evening and I find myself getting dragged behind the bar by the barman to choose a shot with my choice of two liquors in it after he’s already made me down a random shot and bought us all beers. On the way home the crazy Dutch boy, Remy who is staying at the same hostel entertains us by picking up the dogs that are escorting us home and piling them on top of each other and then we eat most of the breakfast that has been laid out for the morning, especially for Remy as he’s supposedly leaving early but doesn’t. Remy gets the blame for it in the morning and decides to leave but then he did flood the bathroom too.
  The stay dog situation is interesting in South America; they are everywhere. The last time I was in Paris visiting a friend, we talked about how good it would be if you could hire a dog to accompany you home late at night so single females wouldn’t be forced to take taxi’s everywhere, pick them up from kennels, have them take you home, attack anyone that looked suspicious and then walk back to the kennels nearest to your home, rather like BoJo’s Bike Scheme in London. This is sort of the case in South America. Dogs generally seem to be friendly (they’re usually just after food) and there’s always two or three that will walk down the street with you. They’re not so friendly if you are on wheels though. They go mental and bark like crazy and try and eat your rubber for a good mile or so. Sometimes dogs do entire day treks with you too, all of them know the trails. I have been lost on trails before and paw prints have saved me more than once. Not such a pleasant sight was when I was in Pucon where I witnessed a gangbang in the bushes with four males dogs on one poor bitch. Actually thinking about it they’re always on heat. What else is there for stray dogs to do other than eat and shag? You never seem to see puppies though and some of the dogs surprisingly don’t look that mangy and skinny. I’ve come to the conclusion that they eat their offspring. OILA.

 Something that has been really frustrating in South America is spending hours in bus stations and agencies, shuffling from one to the next in the hope of trying to organise the next stages of my trip. I reckon I would have saved about a month if I’d been able to book transport through a website with a current timetable, up to date prices and having the option to pay by card. Something that resembles this service for buses is only available in Argentina but I still don’t trust it 100%. I ended up waiting weeks to see if I could get a boat down to the South of Chile from Puerto Montt (not a good place to hang, I chose to stay at the cute port town of Puerto Varas instead 20 minutes up the road), to get a peek of the fjords, (one of the things I was looking forward to seeing the most) with information that the boat might go, might not, then got cancelled, timetable changed, boat might go, might not, boat reduced in size by 90%, prices changed, boat might go, might not…. all the while the wet weather was beginning to loom over Patagonia. The idea was to get the boat down to Patagonia via the fjords, then go hike happy ‘doing the W’ (five day walk in the shape of a W to Torres del Paine) but I was running out of time fast before winter kicked in and all the Refugio’s on the W closed.

Palifitos, (cute colourful wooden houses built on stilts), Castro, Chiloe Island, Chile

Wood shingle in Chiloe, Lakes District, Chile

Ivan making pasta the Italian way

On the plus side, while I’m waiting for the boat that never came, I got to visit the Island of Chiloe (famous for it’s numerous wooden churches dotted around the Island) just south of the Lakes District and situated in Northern Pagagonia. I spent a few fun days in Castro (largest settlement on the Island) known for it’s colourful wooden houses called Palifitos, built on stilts that hug the shore. And then it was back to stinky Puerto Montt where the only way I would fit in the W was to fly down to Punta Arena, in Chile, (again booking the flight is a two day activity in itself,) miss out on going to Tierre del Fuego and further South and have to get the bus straight to Puerto Natales. Time to buy some thermals.

Before arriving I’d booked a really cute hostel over the phone. ‘Dime’ (tell me) the woman on the other end of the line shouts. I can’t bring myself to use the command form, which is commonly used here, as I just feel that it sounds rude. OK well maybe ‘dime por favour’. I guess it beats the English fluffyness when answering the phone ‘Good afternoon, this is Steve, I’ve just had a cup of tea, scratched my arse, watched Deal or no Deal, Jones, how can I help you?’ LA’s don’t mess around. OILA.

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