Travelling over 3,000 kilometres by bus without even thinking about it, finally reaching one of our dream destinations in South America, discovering one of our new favourite cities and gaining two furry friends, August was a pretty memorable month.
a new route, another new route, another new route
Given that we had somewhere to be by August 19th (more on that later), we had some decisions to make.
We were pretty much done with Peru, but Chile is renowned as being an expensive place for travellers; friends and research had told us us that costs were akin to travelling in Europe. After the clusterf*ck on the budget in July, we were hesitant about putting ourselves out of pocket for another month, and so had to to work out how we were going to spend the first two weeks of August.
We learned last year, when we had some time to kill before Christmas, that overstaying your time in one place purely for economical reasons isn't always the best decision. You might save money in the short-term, but, if you're stuck somewhere you don't really want to be, then it will cost you in other ways. We also wanted to make the most of our last fortnight of adventure and backpacking before having to settle down with some fixed responsibilities. And, to be honest, the more we read about the north of Chile, the more we wanted to spend a decent amount of time there.
So, with our litre bottles of Cusqueña beer and the sun on our backs, we spent the afternoon seeing just how much we could afford to do and see in Chile.
On this trip, we're usually quite off-the-cuff with our plans so when necessity compels us to sit down and make an itinerary, we put a lot of time into it. We plot out the dates, spend hours reading blogs and other websites for recommendations, work out travel times and try to match up all of this with our budget - it's actually rather fun.
The biggest challenge with planning Chile is that the country is just so vast that, in trying to cover a lot of ground in a short time, you're inevitably going to spend a lot of nights on buses. But, with several re-writes, compromises and scrunched up bits of paper encircling our feet, we came up with a feasible plan.
Our biggest fear was that an entire month's budget would be eaten up in only two weeks of travel.
but before all that....
....we had Emily's birthday to celebrate! We treated ourselves by paying WAY over the odds for a nice double room in the gringoiest (that's a word right?) of gringo hostels in the small beach town of Paracas, Peru.
There's nothing too remarkable going on in here except lots of seafood and tourists taking boat tours to the Isla de Ballestas. After reading about the islands - populated by hundreds of sea lions and penguins - it was high up on our list of activities for Peru. This, plus the fact that this part of the coast was closest we were going to get to reliable t-shirt weather and a pool in the Peruvian winter, meant it would be a good spot for Emily's birthday.
We treated ourselves to a weekend spent lazing by the pool, indulging in shrimp, late-night frolics and recovering from smuggled-in bottles of gin hangovers, and planned to head to the islands early on Monday or Tuesday morning.
Now, the previous week had coincided with Peruvian Independence Day, arguably the biggest and busiest holiday period in the country. Prices go up, buses are full and every hotspot is teeming; that's why we waited until Monday, so we didn't have to share the sea lions with such huge crowds.
However, luck was not on our side.
It turns out that, on the day that Peruvians all went back to work, the sea conditions dramatically become too rough for anyone to take us out; not a soul was running boats to the island.
"What about Tuesday then?"
"No, it'll still be bad. It's going to be open on Wednesday morning though."
"We leave on Wednesday morning."
"Oh. Well, we're running tours on Wednesday morning all the same."
"But the sea looks fine."
"It's not. It'll be fine on Wednesday though."
"We leave on Wednesday morning."
We've become a little hardened to the little white lies of people on this trip. For us, it just seemed too great a coincidence that on the first day after the busiest holiday period in the country, the sea decided to buck for two days. A more likely reason appeared to be that the boatmen had been worked hard for seven days straight and were taking these two days of well-earned holiday in the relative calm of Monday and Tuesday, when the number of visiting Peruvians had dropped by about 95%.
Maybe, maybe not. Either way, we were both pretty devastated that we wouldn't be able to see the sea lions.
sipo, estan en chile ahora
To reach Chile, we steeled ourselves for another long travel day. Thus far in Peru, we had been sucked into the developed transport system on offer in the country and for the majority of our overnight journeys had booked on-line and paid that little (or lot) extra to be guaranteed a good, comfortable bus with a reputable company.
For a couple of reasons, namely laziness and ineptitude, we decided for our journey out of the country to revert to the method we had used in the rest of Latin America - namely, just turning up.
Unfortunately, this didn't quite work - all the buses were full. We needed a plan B, and quick!
After a small public argument with eachother, we ended up on a very basic night bus to Arequipa. After being awoken from a fitful sleep by a man selling books and DVDs at 6 a.m., we grabbed a very quick bus station breakfast of crap coffee and stale bread with egg, before taking another bus to Tacna.
As we've said above, Chile is expensive by Latin American standards. Thus, Tacna's international bus station is FULL of Chileans stocking up on cheaper booze, shampoos, clothes and cigarettes. It's quite a sight to behold, with all the goods sprawled out on the floor as they frantically try to pack it away in boxes and bags. We've crossed over twelve borders by bus/foot now and it's always a special travel experience; noting the little changes between each country, hearing the nuances in the Spanish, seeing the physical manifestation of economic differences.
In our first few hours in Chile, the huge difference in accent was immediately clear - for the first time on this trip, we literally couldn't understand a single word of some of the people we asked for directions.
some unexpected surprises...
We had arrived in Chile, our twelfth country in seventeen months! As night was falling, we were still wandering around trying to find the hostel listed in our Lonely Planet, having that all too frequent experience of no bugger knowing the street you're asking for (and, as we said above, us not necessarily understanding the response). A lady with several cats eventually pointed us in the right way and we were happy to be in a homey, Kiwi run place with a great kitchen. Peru had been pretty awful for providing decent kitchens, and we were missing home cooked meals.
A big bowl of chilli and fresh guacamole sounded like a great idea so we headed to the nearby supermarket. But, alack and alas, there were no bloody limes!!! And the avocado was $3500/kg (£3.50) - basically the same cost as in the UK! This was BAD NEWS Chile.
After a long sweaty 20-odd hours of travelling on buses overnight, and as a consolation for avocado/lime-gate, we decided to grab some beers.
And, it was there, in that supermarket aisle that we received the BEST NEWS possible.
Wine. Red Wine. White Wine. GOOD wine. CHEAP wine. CHEAP GOOD WINE! There was a montaña of the stuff. And we could bloody well afford it!!! A litre of wine was actually cheaper, way cheaper, than a litre of beer!
If you've followed our journey for a while, you'll know that we have gone for months on end (Guatemala to Nicaragua in fact) without wine (which we sort of love, if you hadn't already realised). It's all too often out of our budget and, if we can afford it, then it comes in a carton and is awful.
This was the first of several surprises we received during our two night stay in Arica.
The next was over breakfast with the elderly owner of the hostel. There was cheese, actual cheddar cheese, on offer. Chile, it turns out, actually does two of life's most important substances rather well and at rather affordable prices.
We may have lost cheap limes and avocados, but we were pretty happy with what we had gained.
Over this same breakfast, we were asking for his recommendations on how to spend our one morning in town.
"Well, you could take a walk down to the port."
"What's there apart from boats?"
"There's some nice seafood restaurants"
"Oh and some sea lions"
"Yes. The fishermen feed them so a group of them just hang out there all day."
Our luck was finally back!
The port, as with many around the world, was actually full of drunks, destitution and stank of a mixture of fish and depravity.
And this was only 11 a.m.
However, there were indeed a group of thirteen sea lions hanging out. After the disappointment in Paracas, we were so happy to be given a chance so soon after; this was the first time either of us had seen them in the flesh. The conditions weren't the best for them (this was after all a working industrial port so the water has a permanent slick of oil and there's a lot of litter floating around) but, we convinced ourselves that the sea lions wouldn't hang around there for so many years if they were really suffering? Answers on a postcard please. Or maybe not.
In the afternoon, we devoured some delicious cheese and prawn empanadas and caught up on a little bit of work before it was straight back on another long overnight bus.
cycling and chilly nights in the driest place in the world
Two years ago, when we were younger, thinner and had more money to our names, we had grand plans for the Atacama desert. With its hypnotically long straight roads bisecting the desert landscape, the dream was to rent a car and drive and camp through it for a few days.
Flash forward to August 2015 and with seventeen months of budget travel under our belts, it's not a surprise we had to adjust those lofty and pricy aspirations.
San Pedro de Atacama is a cute little town with dusty streets lined with one-story adobe houses. On a crisp sunny morning, when the streets are empty and shops have yet to open, it's gorgeous. However, after 10 a.m. it becomes filled with hundreds of tourists - foreign and domestic - and the walls are plastered in cheap, garish tour offers.
It's very popular and therefore very expensive. After getting off the bus early in the morning, we trudged around to find an affordable hostel. One hour turned into three, but we struck lucky and got a couple of dorm beds for $8,000 pesos each (£8 / $11.6) in a basic hostel with a big kitchen and reliable hot water - both of which were hugely necessary for our stay. You see, in the Chilean winter, if the sun is out then it's a very pleasant, warm climate. However, as soon as it sets and you are under cover of darkness, you are reaching for every piece of warm clothing in your bag.
The big-hitting items to do in and around San Pedro de Atacama are an early morning tour to the geysers, floating in a desert lagoon, star-gazing and wandering through the desert. The first three options, unfortunately, were wildly out of our budget. For example, entrance to the lagoon had increased this year from $2,500 to $15,000 per person. Motorbike rental to make our own way through the desert and sites was also a bit too much for us to justify, no matter how much one half of us tried to persuade the other!
However, our research whilst in Peru had prepared us for this outcome and so we rented two bicycles for $3,000 each. The result? One of the best travel experiences we've had.
Renting the bikes, finding cheap lunches at a vegetarian cafe, cooking our own dinners and breakfasts and hanging out with Chileans at night with some shop-bought wine meant that we actually came under budget for our time in San Pedro - a huge surprise to us. Yes, we missed out on some of the 'must see' items but we have absolutely no regrets.
star gazing and pisco
After three nights in the desert, we were on the move again. And yes, you've guessed it, it would be via another overnight bus journey.
We both really wanted to experience star gazing in the Atacama desert but, our research showed us that we could actually do it for 30% of the price in Valle del Elqui. Supposedly, this was one of the best skies in the world for the Milky Way and also one of the most frequent reporting sites for UFOs. But first, there would be pisco!
Pisco is the national drink of both Chile and Peru, with both laying claim to its creation. For our money, Peru sort of wins the argument given that they have a city called Pisco.
It's probably due to this sort of rationale that somebody in the Chilean government decided to rename 'La Union', a small town in the region, 'Pisco Elqui'! Our orginal plan was to stay in nearby Vicuña and cycle out to see the pisco breweries in Pisco Elqui but, to be honest, neither of us could be bothered. Sometimes you miss out on experiences because of cost barriers and, on other occasions, you just can't muster up the energy or motivation to be adventurous. We also managed to find our first affordable private double room for a while, so it was nice to be able to just be a little lazy and hide from other travellers.
We did eventually manage to make it to a lovely artisanal distillery just outside Vicuña however for a short tour and tasting.
As you may have picked up, August was a month where we had to make a few changes and compromises along the way; this trend would continue when we set out to see the stars.
Most people stopping off in Valle del Elqui for astrological curiosity head to Cerro Mamlluca observatory, and this looked like the best option to us. We visited their office in town to buy the tickets for that evening only to see a sign saying tours were cancelled that evening as the road was in a bad condition. Andrew enquired further:
"Hello, we're only here for two nights and really wanted to see the stars. Will the road be open tomorrow?"
"Yes, it will be open."
"Are you 100% sure? We don't want to stay another night if it's not going to be possible to go the observatory tomorrow."
"Yes, 100% - you can go on the tour tomorrow night."
We returned the next day only to see the same sign.
Andrew got pretty angry at the lady. As above in Paracas, it's more frustrating when people give you false hope or outright lies, rather than just tell you that you're going to have to face being disappointed. At least that allows you to make alternative plans in good time. The lady never apologised either, another common trend when arguing with service providers in Latin America.
However, our loss turned out to be our gain. We saw a flyer for a 'garden star-gazing' experience and gave them a call.
That evening, Kiko gave us and a young Chilean couple a lift in his pick-up truck to his home about 10 minutes outside Vicuña. We got out and looked up and - BAM! - there was the Milky Way above us. Through a large telescope and our own binoculars we got to appreciate what the night sky really looks like, even spotting Saturn, Venus and another galaxy.
Once the cold had gotten a little to much to bear, we we taken inside for fresh bread, homemade jam and hot tea around a large reclaimed wood table whilst learning a little more about the sky.
It might not have been the official tour but after having spent a lot of time at ultra-touristy destinations, it was really lovely to enjoy a little of the personal touch. (It also didn't hurt that Kiko palmed off a large bottle of red wine upon Andrew that did wonders for warming us all up later on!)
we're so very very valparaiso
Sometimes you arrive in a city and just know that you and it are going to get along. 'Valpo' reminded us a little of Berlin: bohemians, students and artists everywhere, colourful and slightly ramshackle in parts with a thriving nightlife.
It would have to be a three night flying visit but, as with all love affairs, we think we're going to return in the future. Our days were spent doing just what we do best, being two camera-carrying flâneurs.
And, we must confess, we were lucky enough to stumble upon the most fantastic empanadas we've ever tasted about 20 minutes walk from our hostel; we went back every single day. Andrew initially belittled empanadas as 'just a fat Cornish pasty' but he's now thoroughly converted!
a temporary home for these two nomads
If you've already read our post from last week, you'll know that over the past few months we both felt there was a serious case of travel fatigue on the horizon. This was why we had recently been mulling over our options for finding somewhere to settle down for a few weeks.
Off the back of learning about the excellent experiences of other travellers who have house sat around the world (read our interview series here), we kept looking on Trusted Housesitters for opportunities. Unfortunately, very few were cropping up in South America and those that did appear weren't suited to our route.
All that changed when we were in the middle of Peru.
We got an e-mail notification for a house sit in Santiago and applied straight away. A few skype calls and e-mails later and we were picked! We were ridiculously happy. This would be a totally new experience for us but we think it's going to be the right change of pace at the right time (more on this here).
And this is why we had to be in Santiago by August 19th.
Let us introduce you to these two lovely dogs we get to play with and look after - Mario and Pfiffi!
In our first week, aside from daily duties like dog walking and tending to the garden, we've enjoyed being able to do a 'big shop', making use of our own kitchen for some lovely meals (including the first lasagne in 17 months!) and appreciated all the things we would have taken for granted before when we we were renting a flat. Lots of people in the north of Chile were telling us how cold Santiago was going to be, but we seem to have lucked out and arrived just as spring is starting to bloom. And we absolutely adore having the dogs!
But this isn't just going to a walk in the park for six weeks (see what we did there?!)
For a while, we've had we've been planning big changes for the website. Due to always being on the go, plans changing last minute and unreliable internet, it's been frustrating that we haven't been able to implement many of them. This house sit will present is with the first opportunity to actually put in the hours since, well, since we actually launched.
Along Dusty Roads is something that we want to accompany us on our travels in the future, to continue to inspire and support a growing number of travellers, display our photography at its finest and, hopefully, become a viable on-line enterprise for us.
So, we've got our work cut out!
p.s. the eagle-eyed amongst you may have noticed that Emily purchased a new wooly hat this month; she clearly likes it a lot!