Into Chile – Puerto Varas

Next, my itinerary took me across the border to Chile. The 5-hour bus ride went over a mountain pass and then down to the Chilean immigration post.

At the Chilean border post

Passport checks were quick, but Chilean customs controls were slow. They involved making an online declaration and then a search of every baggage item for fruit, meat and dairy products. Workers with rubber gloves opened suspect bags and confiscated apples and bananas from some members of our group, shaking their heads and taking photos of their passports and incorrectly completed customs declarations. The road then descended to a flat, verdant plane with farms and cows. I could have been back home in England if were not for the two snow-capped volcanos – Osorno and Calbuco – in the distance. Puerto Varas turned out to be a very pleasant town – nicer than Bariloche – with cute wooden houses, many constructed by a wave of German immigrants in the 1850s and 60s.  The Germans were welcomed by the fledgling independent Chilean state with a free plot of land and cattle. Even today, the German influence is strongly present in many ways – like the name of my hotel, “Dein Haus”. My room was brilliant, with a panoramic view of the lake and the volcanoes in the distance.

The view of Lake Llanquihe and Calbuco Volcano from my room

It was now late, so I unpacked and headed out into town for dinner in a German “Bierstube”. Like Bariloche, there was good excellent locally brewed craft beer in Puerto Varas, but the prices for food and drink were double what I had got used to paying in Argentina – similar to European prices. The next morning, my view of the volcanoes had disappeared behind cloud and mist, and it was raining. I should have realised that with landscapes this green, it must rain a lot, but after two weeks of continuous sun in Argentina I had forgotten that it could rain and stopped checking the weather forecast. I logged on to my computer and was distressed to see that rain and cloud was forecast for the next two days in Puerto Varas, and after that for the two days I would be spending further south in Puerto Natales. I set off all the same to explore the region and was rewarded when, contrary to expectations, the clouds lifted and the sun came out. The views of volcano Osorno became more and more impressive, and I took a side road to climb up to its summit.

Various views on the approach to endlessly photogenic Osorno volcano

A short walk from the car park was a place offering amazing views over the Andes and back towards Argentine.

The view from the top of Osorno back towards the Argentine border

Next, I decided to drive a less well-known route, making a big loop to the south through the town of Puelo.  The scenery was nice….

…….but the surfaced road turned into a dirt track, and my progress was much slower than I expected. I also had to take a ferry and then drive through the city of Puerto Montt, the regional capital, which turned out to be large, sprawling, ugly and choked with traffic jams.  I got home late and tired, and resolved to take it easier the next day (as I had often done before).

On the following day it was cloudy, and in the morning I spent a pleasant couple of hours exploring the wooden houses of Puerto Varas.

Wooden houses in Puerto Varas, dating from the first settlers
My favourite – this church looks like it has sunk into the ground

Photographing the town was made more difficult by the ubiquitous and ugly black cables hanging everywhere – this had been a feature of many of the places I had visited so far, and I was puzzled as to why so many were needed. I pondered this question whilst trying the traditional German “Kaffee und Kuchen”. 

Why so many cables?
Kaffee und Kuchen – a local tradition borrowed from Germany

In the afternoon I made a short drive to the Lago de Todos los Santos, one of the most famous sites in the area, but in the cloudy weather the views, whilst still pretty, were less spectacular than the day before.

On the way to the Lago de Todos los Santos

For once, I decided to have a lazy day, and headed back to my hotel to relax, have dinner, and catch up on my blog.

Tomorrow I had a big day ahead of me.

Bariloche -Blue Lakes, Yellow Flowers and Unexpected Problems

From Mendoza I flew to Bariloche, in Argentina’s lake district.  The town itself turned out to be an odd mixture of Alpine-style chalets and ugly concrete buildings. I had booked an AirBNB rather than a hotel because my clothes badly needed washing after ten days on the road. My flat turned out to be in the ugliest, most decrepit modern block in town. After checking in, I nervously checked the location of the fire exits, but at least it was very central and had a nice view of the lake. 

The view from my flat – better to be inside looking out, then outside looking at my building

In the afternoon, I relaxed and wrote my blog, and set off to explore the town. It felt like a European ski resort, with lots of cafes and shops catering to hikers and skiers – some of Argentina’s best ski slopes are a short drive away.  Bariloche also has lots of microbreweries serving craft beer. I tried the best-known one, called Manush. The beer was the best I had ever tasted – and remarkably cheap. 

Bariloche has some of the best beer I have ever tasted

I tried the IPA and chocolate stout, and then  left to try Bariloche’s next specialty – chocolate. The town has lots of shops selling a bewildering variety of the stuff, and even a chocolate museum. I stocked up with a 200g assortment, and then headed to the waterfront. Bariloche is located on a pretty lake, with bright blue water.

Bariloche Waterfront

The sun was setting and suddenly it got very cold. After the 30-35C temperatures of Mendoza, it was a shock to suddenly find temperatures of 5 to 10C – Bariloche is a long way south, and at high altitude. The cold drove me back to the flat where I spent a quiet evening before settling down to sleep – or so I thought. My room looked out onto the main plaza, which some people (visitors? locals?) used as a race track……..all through the night. The thin walls of my ancient building allowed me to follow every rev of an engine or crunch of gears.

When I got up in the morning, after a very poor night’s sleep, I resolved to write off my investment in my AirBnb flat and booked a new place to stay – outside of town, to have some peace. Before checking in, I picked up my hire car and set off to explore the “cuircuito chico” – a road trip to the west of Bariloche. The scenery was pretty – a bright blue lakes, mountains, and lots of golden broom flowers.

Views from the Circuito Chico

On the way back, I stopped at my hotel. It was a great place, set on the lake with a beach of black volcanic sand and its own waterfall. My room had a 180-degree view of lake and mountains. In the restaurant they served local trout (fish, finally!) with some good local white wine.  

Sunrise from my hotel room

I slept really well in my new, quite, luxurious room and woke up refreshed to drive the Route of the Seven Lakes, one of the famous scenic drives in Argentina. I set off early to avoid the traffic and was soon cruising along the now familiar RN40……….

My good friend the RN40. Now only 2100km to Tierra Del Fuego!

………..past some sublime countryside……….

Views from the Route of the Seven Lakes

I was making good progress and was even thinking I could extend my trip to Lanin volcano further north, when I arrived at the town of Villa La Angostura, where the main road had just been blocked for a bicycle race. Total chaos ensued. Race marshals waved the oncoming traffic up dusty side streets. We all arrived at a junction blocked by a grumpy policeman. I got out to ask how long the road would be blocked. At first, the policeman tried to ignore me; when I persisted, he finally told me that the road would be closed for three hours. I turned around and wound my way up and down more dusty tracks in attempt to find another way through, but there was none. Without warning, the authorities had completely blocked the main road running through the region for several hours, to the anger of both local drivers and tourists like me. I was very annoyed; had the road closure been indicated back at Bariloche, I could have done my circuit the other way round and avoided the mess.

The situation brought one unexpected bonus though. In my search for a way through, I found a very scenic spot – a pretty lake with a beach, shack selling coffee and a short river leading to another lake, which was apparently famous for its fly fishing.

Calming down after a monster traffic jam
The region holds many trout fishing records

After drinking some coffee and calming down, I decided to abandon my original plan. I headed back towards Bariloche and took a different road (the RN 237) heading north, which turned out to be very beautiful – with quite different scenery to my original route.  

View from the RN237
One of these rocks is “God’s finger”. Which rock – or which finger – I know not.

I turned off the main road onto a track leading to the village of Villa Traful, which had an impossibly scenic setting and restaurants selling good coffee……but no wifi or phone reception to allow me to check the traffic situation at Villa La Angosgtura.

On the way to Villa Traful

I drove on and reached the RN40 and the Route of the Seven Lakes again, at a point about 30km north of where I had been blocked in the morning. I was relieved to see many trucks go past loaded with bicycles – meaning that the race must have finished, so felt it was safe to head back south to home.

That evening I had dinner in a “parilla” – a place serving grilled meat, and one of Argentina’s culinary highlights. The meat – lamb and beef – was indeed excellent. After I had finished several steaks, they even asked if I wanted more. However, contrary to popular conceptions, bears are omnivores rather than pure carnivores, and I (unlike some of the human diners) had had enough.

In a “Parilla”

It had been a strange day. I had not managed to drive the full length of the Route of the Seven Lakes, but had found two good consolation prizes – the quiet, pretty lake with the fly fishermen, and the spectacular scenery of the RN 237, whose winding river valley and sculpted rocks had made a welcome change to the parade of pretty blue lakes and yellow flowers.

Aconcagua – the Summit of the Americas

My plan today was simple – to drive off to Aconcagua National Park to see the highest mountain in the Americas. It was a three-hour drive away, but this turned out to be one of the highlights of my trip so far. The road led west into the Andes, first passing through the foothills….

Approaching the Andes
In the Foothills

As I climbed, the scenery became increasingly rugged and spectacular……..

Reaching the high mountain

The road was beautiful almost all the away along its 190km length. I am a small teddy, but I felt much smaller as I contemplated the majestic landscapes. Shortly before my destination, there is a quirky natural rock bridge called Puente del Inca that I visited briefly. It was popular with people taking a break from the long drive from Mendoza to Santiago in Chile.

Puerta del Inca

The entrance to the park was just before the Chilean border. I found to my surprise that you needed to pre-register a visit on the internet. This must have been a new procedure, since it wasn’t mentioned in any of the websites I had seen or my guidebook. Luckily there was a small shop next to the park office, which had wifi (no mobile signal here!) and the friendly owner helped me navigate through the park authority’s registration website. The permit I bought allowed me to walk a short distance into the park to a point with a great view of the mountain – going in any further would require a very expensive climbing permit. The park ranger told me that the walk would take around 2 hours – especially for someone with little legs like me. However, his advice was based on visitors who were not acclimatised to the 3000m altitude; since I had already spent several days in mountains, I could walk much faster and got there in under an hour. I smugly passed several other walkers, who were struggling for breath.

On the way to Aconcagua
Aconcagua comes into view….
A selfie to prove I was there!

The mountain soon came into view. It is 6,960m tall (increasing by 2cm per year!) and easily the highest mountain in the Americas. Although it is very high, it is supposed to be technically an easy climb; I had been briefly tempted by this idea until I discovered that at least 10 days acclimatisation to extreme altitude is needed before attempting it.

I was lucky to have brilliant sunshine; as with any tall mountain, the top of Aconcagua is often covered in cloud. I soon reached the bridge that marked the end of the route for non-climbers. I stopped for half an hour to admire the view and met some new friends…….

The Magnificent Aconcagua
Mountain, Bear and Bear’s New Friends

The drive back was equally spectacular, giving a different perspective to the mind-blowing views I had seen on the way up.  

The way back was just as impressive as the outward trip

I finally arrived in Mendoza, returned my hire car, and headed to Western Union for some more pesos. I was both lucky and unlucky – they just had enough money left in their branch to pay my latest transfer but had to resort to paying part of my 200,000 pesos with (a lot of) 100 peso notes. I left with all of my pockets filled with wads of cash.

It was now time for dinner. I was tired of eating meat and wanted to have fish for a change.  My guidebook had listed seafood or vegetarian restaurants for all the towns I had visited so far, but these recommendations had all closed! It seems that the life expectancy of a restaurant not serving meat is very short in Argentina. A long internet search revealed one (and only one) restaurant that specialised in seafood, so I headed there to have a nice paella.

More Mendoza Street Life

Back in my flat I collapsed into bed and fell fast asleep. I was very tired. So far, almost every day of my holiday had started early, finished late, and involved lots of driving. There was so much to do, and the never-ending display of beautiful landscapes was almost overpowering. It was getting harder and harder to write my blog. I resolved to take it a bit easier at my next destination, Bariloche in Argentina’s lake district.

Mendoza – Argentina’s biggest wine region

From Cachi, I was thinking of driving along a large loop around to the south to visit the wine growing area of Cayafate, but after the long drive through the desert, I realised that I did not have time. So instead I retraced my steps to Salta airport along the same road I used when I came. It was another chance to absorb some brilliant mountain and desert scenery.

More mountain scenery

My flight left on time and I arrived in Mendoza in the early evening. I stayed in a quirky house that was 100-years old and still partially occupied by its friendly owner, who bombarded me with information about what to do in the city. Mendoza is a pleasant, rather laid-back city laid out along a grid with several pleasant parks and with lots of outdoor cafes and restaurants.

Mendoza Street Scene
One of Mendoza’s pleasant squares

In itself, it would be a nice place but not a major tourist destination. People come here for two things – the vineyards around the city and Aconagua National Park, a three-hour drive towards Chile into the mountains.

On my first day, I decided to check out the wine growing area. There are several to choose from. The closest to the city are Maipu (very close to the centre) or Luyan de Cuyo, where wine has been made for a hundred years. I chose to make a one hour drive to the Valle de Uco, where production only started in the 1990s.  The road first went along the busy and boring RN40, before turning off onto smaller provincial roads lined with trees and surrounded by vineyards and mountains.

Driving through the Uco Valley

I decided to visit the Salentein estate, which was founded by a Dutch expat who fell in love with the area – the owners claimed he was the very first wine producer in Uco, although others also claim this title.The estate had a visitor centre with restaurant and art gallery (it seems many of the estates invest in art), where I spend time before my tour started.

Many of the Estates have Art Collections

Outside of the visitor centre we were surrounded by vines and, in the distance, the Andean foothills.

Salentein Estate’s vineyards

The guide explained that the valley offered many different climates depending upon the altitude, with each area having its own types of grapes and styles of wine. We walked through the fields to a large, low, modern building where wines are fermented, then stored in oak barrels and bottled.

It was an interesting construction, designed to resemble a cathedral, with four wings leading off from a central area where wine-tasting concerts are performed. Most of the structure was underground, and the total volume was much bigger than its looked from the outside.

Inside the “wine cathedral”

It was hot outside – maybe 30C – but inside, the temperature was pleasantly cool. This was achieved naturally through clever ventilation and without air-conditioning. There was a very pleasant, almost overpowering smell of wine permeating the cool air.

Fermentation in Steel Vats….
First maturation in wooden barrels
Further maturation in smaller barrels
Storage of bottles…

After visiting the various steps in the wine-producing process it was the time everyone had been waiting for – tasting! The estate offered some of their best wines showing the different styles they could produce.

Tasting! Before….

I am very happy that I had invited my editorial assistant to join me on the tour; it meant that I could drink, whilst my driver-assistant had to taste and spit. After the tasting, we were of course invited to visit the shop. I chose to buy a bottle of Petit Verdot, a grape usually found in blends but here offered on its own. Back in my house in Mendoza I enjoyed my purchase with some sausage and cheese in my private patio. A nice way to end a day devoted to wine.

Onwards to Cachi – Desert, Mountains, and an Adobe Village

My next day was spent exploring South of Salta, driving to a village called Cachi, lost in the Andean foothills. The road followed a now familiar pattern. First lush, flat green fields with horses and other four-legged road hazards………

…then a pretty, winding river valley…..

….next a steep climb up dry mountains along a rough track with many hairpin bends.

Praying to safely negotiate the many hairpin bends seems like a good idea

Near the top of the track, I stopped to buy sausage and cheese from some local people. I had now entered the Parque Nacional de los Cardones – (translated literally as the “Cactus National Park”.), and I stopped to enjoy a short walk amidst the wild, empty hills and to eat my lunch.

The road continued and reached flat, wild plateau where the reason for the park’s name became evident – the plain was dotted with huge cacti.

In the flat landscape I could see for miles, and the open stretched away into the distance. However the park authorities imposed impossibly low speed limits on this empty road – on average 60km/h but dropping to 30km/h at the (very rare) junctions and even 20km/h on one stretch. There were also signs warning of the danger of hitting wild animals and more signs warning that removing road signs was a criminal offence (it was easy to imagine why – if a sign were to somehow disappear it would considerably reduce the driving times for the few local drivers).

You cannot be serious!! (and this is km/h, not miles/h)

At first, I found progress frustratingly slow. But after a while I got to enjoy the slow progress, as the vastness and emptiness of my surroundings soaked into my brain.

My route left the park and joined the Route National 40 – a famous road that runs the entire length of Argentina. I had joined it 4,500km from where it starts in Tierra del Fuego.

4500km to Tierra del Fuego

I finally arrived in Cachi five hours after I had left Salta – for a trip that Google said should have taken me three. Perhaps Google agreed with the occasional local drivers who had sped past me in the desert, ignoring the ridiculous speed limits. Cachi is by far the biggest place in the area, but turned out to be more of a village than a town. It was comprised of low rise buildings made from mud brick (“adobe”) and painted white against the sun set around a pretty central plaza. Like most of the places I had visited in Argentina so far, the Andean foothills loomed impressively in the distance.

Scenery in and around pretty Cachi

There was not much to do. I soaked in the slow, small-town atmosphere in the central square before going to visit a local wine producer on the outskirts of town. They had a beautiful garden for wine tastings, with views over the mountains. 

An exceptional setting and some sublime wine

I enjoyed a refreshing glass of their Torrentes (white) before trying some of their signature Malbec wine. The first wine was good, the second was sublime – a huge, velvety red. I abandoned my plan to visit a restaurant, bought a bottle of the red, and enjoyed it with the rest of my sausage and cheese. Wakefulness turned to sleep in a pleasant alcoholic haze.

From Salt to Salta

Sadly, today I had to leave the Quebrada of Humahuaca to drive back to Salta. I chose a different route, to avoid the boring stretch of highway I had driven last time. The spectacularly coloured, dry, mountains continued to flank the road up until the city of Jujuy, where they gave way to flat fields, with mountains brooding in the distance.

On the road to Salta from Purmamarca

I turned off onto RN9. After a few km the road entered a nature reserve and became very narrow and winding, with barely room for two normal cars to pass. It was a very pretty route, but also tiring as I continually crossed more experienced local drivers hogging more than their share of the available road space. I finally reached Salta at around 4 o’clock and checked into a wonderfully retro hotel located on the central Plaza – the Colonial. My room had two balconies, one that looked onto an ornate church and the other that looked out over the plaza, and I relaxed and enjoyed the view for a bit before setting off to explore the town.

The view from one of my balconies
Grand Old Buildings on Salta’s plaza

Most impressive of all of Salta’s colonial buildings was the cathedral, which was built in 1878.

The exterior and interior of Salta’s cathedral

They seem to like gaudily coloured churches here – near the cathedral is the Iglesia San Francisco.

Iglesia San Francisco

For a rather different experience, I visited the Museum of High Altitude Archaeology, which was mostly devoted to an expedition to the volcano Llullaillaco in 1999 which discovered the bodies of three children offered to the mountain by the Incas. As part of an elaborate Inca ceremony, two young children from noble families were “married”, given an alcoholic drink to drug them, and then buried alive, high up on a mountain, whilst they slept. The Incas believed that the children simply passed to another state of existence, where they continued to watch over the living from the land of the dead. With the high altitude and dry air, the corpses were preserved and became mummified. One of the three children was on display – a young girl. Some time ago, her grave had been struck by lightning and part of her face was burnt. It was a macabre sight. I wondered whether they should not have been left in peace, where they had been found, but the museum’s display text claimed that they would have soon fallen victim to thieves. As a justification, the museum displayed a different body, which had been dug up by thieves and trafficked to private collectors before being recovered – in a poor state of preservation. Photos were not allowed, so you will have to imagine the bizarre sight yourself. To lift my mood after such a strange sight, I headed to small restaurant where I had dinner – a good steak with a bottle of wine from the nearby wine region of Cayafate. It was made from the “bonarda” grape– a variety I had never tried before, and which I liked a lot.  Then I spent some time enjoying the lively atmosphere on the main plaza at night, before heading back to my room.

The view of my hotel (left) at night from the Plaza

I finally had some spare time to catch up on my blog and sort out my next delivery of pesos by Western Union

Salt, Inca Ruins and Hungry Donkeys

Today I set off early again, but this time I headed west towards Salinas Grande.  At first the road ran past some spectacularly coloured rocks similar to those surrounding Purmamarca.

Mountains outside of Purmamarca

Then it climbed steeply, with many hairpin bends, to a pass of 4000m……

….. before dropping back down again to a flat, white plain.  On the way down I saw some wild guanacos (an animal similar to the llama). I stopped to photograph them, and my car was suddenly besieged by hungry wild donkeys that appeared out of nowhere. One pushed into my car to say hello….or perhaps to see if I was edible. Things were getting a little scary, when a large truck passed me and sounded its horn, scaring off the donkeys.

Too close for comfort!

I continued my route; my destination was the salt plain of Salinas Grandes, a large expanse of glittering white salt left over from the evaporation of a large inland lake. A rough track allowed me to drive onto the salt pan to experience this strange phenomenon first hand and to watch a salt-mining operation located in the centre of the area.  

The salt flats of Salinas Grandes

The straight open road continuing west from the salt plain beckoned me onwards. I would have liked to carry on driving all the way into Chile, only 100km away, but this wasn’t part of my complicated travel plan. Chile would have to wait until later in my trip. Instead, I drove back to Purmamarca and had a light lunch before heading north again, this time to the town of Tilcara. There I visited the Pucara, a site where archaeologists have restored an Inca village dating from Pre-Columbian times. The restored buildings were modest, and probably of interest only to specialists in Inca history, but the site offered amazing views of the main Humahuaca valley and a couple of pretty side-valleys. The Pucara also had an impressive collection of huge cacti.

Huge cacti at Tilcara’s Pucara

My final destination for the day was the Garganta del Diabolo, a waterfall in a canyon a short way outside of Tilcara.  I found the start of the path, where a signpost offered the choice of a direct 4km walk or an 8km drive by a different, longer route. It was baking hot, so I decided to a be lazy and drive. This may have been a mistake since the track was very steep, with a heavily pockmarked surface. Even though I went very slowly, it was a very stressful drive.  I finally reached a car park and gave a big sigh of relief. From there, it was a short walk to the waterfall, which turned out to be rather disappointing after all the effort to get there, but the canyon I walked through offered some interesting views and good photos.

In the canyon descending from the Garganta del Diabolo

After a full day exploring, I was tired and headed back to Purmamarca. I enjoyed the now very familiar display of coloured mountains – this time with strong early evening sunlight, which gave yet another set of colours to the rocks.  On arriving, I enjoyed a beer at an outdoor table of a café, admiring the final colours of the setting sun on the hills around the town.

Ending the day at a Purmamarca Cafe

I visited a different peña and enjoyed some more local music before collapsing into bed back in my hotel.  Every day of my holiday so far has started very early and finished late – there has been so much to see. As a result, I am bit behind in writing my blog. Maybe tomorrow I can catch up a bit.

50 Shades of Red (and Orange, and Green, and Purple)

My next day was spent with getting to the Quebrada to Humahuaca in the far northwest of the country, near the borders with Boliva and Chile – famous for its spectacular coloured rock formations.  I had a couple of hours free in the morning before my flight, which I spent unsuccessfully looking for a Western Union branch that had enough money to pay my second transfer. After that it was a two-hour flight to Salta, and a three hour drive to the small town of Purmamarca. At first the road passed through nondescript, flat, featureless and dry country, with litter strewn by the side of the road. As I approached my destination, it climbed. The weather had become cloudy, but I could still make out the outlines of tall mountains all around me. I arrived at six, to find a town bustling with travellers and full of bars, shops and restaurants serving them; it had a nice, busy atmosphere.  I celebrated my arrival with a beer in a café on the town’s central plaza The clouds had lifted, and I could see that all around the town was surrounded by bright red, brown and green rock formations, promising some interesting exploration over the next two days.

After my beer, I had dinner in a peña – a restaurant where live music is played. The singer asked where everyone was from – the other diners were all from Argentina or other parts of Latin America. Everyone was very interested to meet a bear from London, and I had my photo taken with the singer.  The menu was very reasonably priced and even had a bottle of local red wine for 990 pesos (less than 3€). I was so intrigued that I ordered a bottle, and it turned out to be pretty good. I had a fun evening eating, drinking and listening to the others singing (my Spanish was not good enough to join in).

The next morning my jet lag caused me to wake early, at six. I had a slight headache, which I attributed to the high altitude rather than last night’s wine ;).  I got dressed and set off to explore the town of Purmamarca, hoping to find somewhere for a coffee. Everything was closed and the streets were quiet except for the traders setting up their stalls around the central square.

I abandoned my hunt for breakfast and explored the town instead, with its handsome old church…

……colourful shops

…colourful houses

I walked up a steep hill on the outskirts of the town to a mirador (viewing platform) with a 360 view of the town and the surrounding mountains, which glowed in the morning sun. The scenery resembled an impressionist artists pallets, with many shades of red, orange, green, brown and purple. As the sun rose higher, the colours changed, a transformation that continued for the whole day.

The view from the Mirador

It was now eight, and a finally found a place for a reviving coffee before setting off north to explore the valley. The road was spectacular, running along a deep valley with towering, coloured mountains on either side. My first stop was a set of restored buildings which were one of the staging posts for travellers and mail along the route from Bolivia to Buenos Aires. The complex had a beautiful setting, and in the mid-morning sun the colours of the rocks had evolved again, becoming more subtle than the bright display of the dawn.

Next stop was an upmarket restaurant recommended to me by the Tourist Information Office as having the best coffee in the valley. When I arrived though, they had no electricity and could only make me some tea and a huge jug of lemonade, which helped my headache. This place also had amazing surroundings.

I continued driving north past many different strange and colourful rock formations until I reached the town of Humahuarca, the largest settlement in the region. It was a pleasant place with interesting old architecture, and I stopped to eat in the central plaza. I continued my exploration of the town after lunch and even managed to find a Western Union branch that actually had money!

In the late afternoon I set off to see one of the highlights of the region – the Serrania de Hornocal. I drove along a rough track for about an hour, which rose steeply until at 4350 metres I reached a viewing point for one of the most spectacular natural phenomena I have ever scene – a panorama of brightly coloured mountains shaped liked jagged shark’s teeth. It was quite cold and there was a strong wind. The few human visitors were shivering, but I was comfortable under my fur.

I had hoped to sit and enjoy the view for a long time, watching as the rocks changed colour in the setting sun, but I was unlucky. I had only been there about fifteen minutes when clouds emerged.  The dramatic colours occasionally reappeared when the sun broke through the clouds, but the periods of light got shorter and shorter until the sky and the rocks were both dull grey. I comforted myself that I had arrived just in time to see something that I will remember for ever.

It was a long drive back to Purmamarca, but it was made memorable by yet more wonderful landscapes, now with the colours of the evening sun, which had now re-emerged.

When I arrived the sun had already set. I opted for a quiet dinner this time – it had been a long but inspiring day with some of the most beautiful scenery I have ever seen.

A Bear in Buenos Aires

¡Hola! This time I am writing from Buenos Aires (BA), at the start of a month-long trip around Argentina that I invite you to follow on my blog. I have an ambitious schedule aiming to cover most of this huge country and part of Chile, with the aid of seven internal flights. I am little worried that if anything goes wrong – like a single cancelled flight – my whole plan will fall apart. I arrived on the overnight flight from London via Madrid, and to my relief my bags arrived with me, and I got through immigration and customs very quickly. One less thing to worry about. My plan for today is simple – chill out to recover from my flight and prepare for the next stages of my trip.

During the long taxi ride in from the airport was struck by the mix of architecture in the city. There are many skyscrapers, but also grand old buildings like the Congress…

The National Congress seen from my taxi

And crumbling but pretty older buildings like this…..

My hotel room was not ready yet, so I spent some time chilling in the Botanical Gardens. The part of Buenos Aires where I am staying is called Palermo and has lots of parks and gardens.

In the Botanical Gardens

I got my Argentine Sim-Card, and then some local currency – Pesos.  There are two exchange rates in Argentina. The official rate is what you get if change money in a bank or bureau de change, or if you use your credit card. It is about 160 peso to the US$. The unofficial rate is 290 – almost twice as good. This great deal is available from shady and risky money changes in parts of Buenos Aires…….and with Western Union money transfers. WU is very popular here, and there are offices all over town. I found the one closest to my hotel, but they only had enough money for one of my two transfers…….- and in small denomination notes. Still it was enough for the next few days, and I enjoyed a reviving coffee with my newly purchase pesos.

A much needed coffee and one of several wads of pesos from Western Union

I checked back into my hotel at one, and after a short rest, set off to explore the city. First I found the 3rd of February park, a favourite haunt for Portenos (residents of Buenos Aires). It has rose gardens, lawns where people play football, and a lake where you can rent boats.

In the 3rd of February Park

After the public park I visited the Japanese Garden. I was not sure quite what it was doing in the centre of BA, but it was a nice place to explore.

The Japanese Garden

From there I headed to the Museum of Latin American Arts to see some really good displays of contemporary art.

BA has a thriving arts scene

My last stop was an early dinner at a wine bar with a pavement terrace – of which there are lot, because both the weather and the wine are very good in Argentina.

Wine, Food, and Al Fresco restaurants – three things Argentina does very well

I enjoyed tasting some fantastic Argentine wine and food before heading back to the hotel for an early night.  The time difference between BA and London is only 3 hours, but even so my body was telling me it was past midnight.

I was happy with my first day in Argentina. The sights I had seen had been pleasant rather than memorable, but I had really liked the atmosphere of BA. The people are very friendly and seem relaxed and happy. They spend a lot of their time in the excellent open air cafes and restaurants – and so would I, with food and wine this good. My carefully-planned route takes me around the country without returning to BA before the very end, but I am looking forward to reporting back in more detail on this pleasant city.

Sri Lanka Summary – go now before it gets busy again!

When I set off for Sri Lanka, lots of my friends were surprised at my “bravery” to continue my trip despite the constant headlines about fuel shortages and riots.  But my decision to go was based not on blind courage but instead on sound information from traveller websites like Tripadvisor. Everyone actually in Sri Lanka advised that travel was a bit more complicated, but still possible, and there was no reason to cancel.

Hunting for fuel was the only downside to visiting at this time

My own experience was very positive. Finding fuel took up, on average, maybe 15 minutes each day, but apart from that, travelling was very easy. I had many more difficulties getting back home when my plane arrived back in Europe than I ever had travelling around Sri Lanka. I also felt safer and less hassled than in many other Asian countries. The people were wonderful, there were no tourist crowds, and the food excellent (and food hygiene was also good – not a single stomach problem in three weeks).

Excellent food all the way through the trip

Most of all though, I liked the variety of things to do and see. Sri Lanka may not have any must-do, “bucket list” sights like the Taj Mahal or Niagara Falls, but instead it crams ancient ruins, busy temples, beaches, mountains and nature reserves into a relatively small area. It never took more than a few hours to get from one interesting place to another – unlike the big distances you might have to cover in larger countries.  I had the added bonus of having many of these wonderful places almost entirely to myself.

Here are my most memorable experiences of the trip:

The unexpected Hindu/Buddhist procession at Kataragama

Safaris in Bundala and Kaudulla National Parks

Ruin hunting by bicycle in Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa

Staying at the Hill Club

The view from my guest house in Ella and the “tea train” to Nuwara Eliya

Breakfast with an armed guard to scare off monkeys at Polonnaruwa

The Buddhas of the cave temples of Dambulla

Puja (service) at the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, Kandy

And here is a “best of” list:

Best Hotels (there were a lot!): Heaven Upon Rice Fields, Anuradhapura; Ekho Lake House, Polonnaruwa; Paraiso Guest House, Ella; The Hill Club, Nuwara Eliya; Thaulle Resort, Tissa; Radh Hotel, Kandy; Le Jardin Du Fort, Galle

Best Food: Seafood in Nilaveli; Indian Hut, Galle; Take away Dosas, Kandy; Curry feast at the Radha Tourist home; Dinner at the Hill Club.

Best Beach: Nilaveli

Best City: Galle

Best National Park: Bundala

Overall, as of today (August 2022), my advice is go now. Plan carefully and you should have a brilliant time without crowds. Your travel budget will really help the hotels, restaurants and guides you spend it with. Yes, there is a risk that the political situation gets bad again, so check popular traveller websites regularly to see what is really happening on the ground – not the sensationalist western newspaper headlines. Currently, I evaluate this risk as very low, and it has to considered in the context of a country that is otherwise very safe for travel (low crime, good roads and high driving standards for Asia, excellent food hygiene, no malaria). The Sri Lankans are wonderful people and deserve your help, and their country is one of my favourites!

That’s all for this trip. Please sign up to follow my blog and get automatic email notifications the next time I hit the road. If you would like to ask a question, type it in the section for “thoughts” at the bottom of the page and I will get back to you.

I leave the very last word to one of my fellow animal friends….

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