Arequipa and Colca Canyon

After exploring both Machu Picchu and the Peruvian jungle, the next natural step for our travels took us to Arequipa, about 500km south of Cusco. One of the main reasons to visit Arequipa is to trek the Colca Canyon, the second deepest canyon in the world and a great place to spot giant Andean condors. Arequipa itself is known for it's beautiful white volcanic-stone architecture, so we were excited to spend a few days there before our trek.

Arequipa

Being the second largest city in Peru, we were surprised to find that the city centre of Arequipa was quite peaceful, with many small streets leading to beautiful old buildings and not too much traffic. We had arrived by night bus from Cusco which had taken around 10 hours, and after a busy week were feeling pretty tired, so we checked into a reasonably priced hostel (La Posada Del Kuraka) and crashed. The hostel had a great roof terrace giving a great view of the city and the perfectly cone-shaped volcano Misti in the distance.

On our first day we took a walk through the Plaza San Fransisco to the pretty main square Plaza de Armes, taking in the white stone architecture such as the Basilica Catedral church and the many arches surrounding the square. As the sun was shining, we decided to grab an ice cream and found a bench to people-watch in the square. We then spent an hour or two wandering around the beautiful cobbled streets, peering into textile shops and exploring the quiet alleyways of the historic centre.

After watching the sunset from our rooftop we noticed that the Basilica Cathedral was beautifully lit, so we headed to the square once more for a closer look. At night it was just as busy as it was in the day, and there was even a classical music concert drawing in a small crowd. For dinner we went to Hatunpa, where they served dishes with varieties of Andean potatoes as the main ingredient with a choice of toppings. It was cheap and the service was excellent, and we even got to sample some Peruvian craft ales.

On our last day we had a lazy morning, and after lunch decided to go to the Monasterio de Santa Catalina, an old yet still functioning 20,000 square-meter monastery for nuns in Arequipa. We had to pay a rather steep 40 soles each for entry, but as its quite a big place we were told it was worth the money. On entrance we were greeted with a beautiful courtyard with many painted arches, plants and intricate tiles. As we wandered through the maze of passageways it started to feel like we'd wondered back in time, and we really enjoyed exploring the Mudejar-style architecture, with walls painted red, blue and orange to define the various sections. It felt more like a small town than a monastery!

The monastery was comprised of many rooms including kitchens, bedrooms, prayer rooms and chapels, all surrounded by very well kept gardens and water fountains. It seemed surprisingly quaint and comfortable considering nuns lived there, and was quite unusual compared to typically minimal religions dwellings. After an hour or so the monastery was about to close, and so we headed back to the hostel just in time to watch the sun set from our hostel roof terrace, having really enjoyed Santa Catalinas rustic charm and tranquil ambiance.

We had been recommended Sonccollay on our travels, a restaurant in Arequipa that was known for it’s ‘pre-inca’ cuisine, an ancient style of cooking that used no oil or butter to prepare traditional andean ingredients. Curious by this, we decided to pay it a visit while we were there. The restaurant was situated on the main square overlooking the cathedral, and we arrived with high expectations and empty stomachs. On entering, we noticed that the restaurant actually wasn’t that busy, with only a few other people there. We sat outside (which was a little chilly), and ordered our food. The menu was surprisingly pricey, but we assumed it would be worth it once it came.

To our disappointment we ended up waiting for over an hour for the food, with one dish arriving 20 minutes before the other. On top of this portions were less than generous, and we were a bit annoyed to leave feeling hungry, despite it being the most expensive meal we'd had in Peru so far. On the plus side, the food was really tasty, and the charcoal-grilled duck was beautifully cooked, as was the river lobster ceviche cured in passionfruit. It was also nice to meet the chef and see his rustic kitchen and traditional cooking techniques. However, we probably wouldn’t recommend the place unless you come in a group (so you can try more of the dishes), don't mind a long wait and are prepared to splash out! 

Colca Canyon

Colca Canyon is the most popular place to visit from Arequipa, and being the second deepest canyon in the world (more than twice the depth of the Grand Canyon in Arizona) and with stunning scenery it's not hard to see why. We had met a couple of travellers at our hostel the day before who had told us the 2 day trek was pretty intense and that it was much better to do the 3 day option, so taking their advice we booked the slightly longer trek from our hostel. The tour agency was called Oasis Palmeras Travel Tour, and having read good reviews online and with a time-efficient itinerary for a decent price, we felt confident we would enjoy our trek.

Day 1

We got picked up from our hostel at 4am to get the 3 hour minibus to the Colca Canyon with a few other trekkers. After driving for a couple of hours the sun rose and we began to see the incredible scenery that led to the canyon, with green hills, Inca-style terracing and the impressive mountains that made up the Salinas and Aguada Blanca National Reservation. We stopped for a quick and basic breakfast at a small cafe before continuing to our first stop, Cruz del Condor.

Cruz del Condor is a popular tourist spot on the way to the Colca Canyon where you can see giant Andean condors, a huge bird with a wing span of up to 3 meters and an important icon of South American culture. When we got there we found swarms of tourists already there, but luckily the condors didn't seem phased, and silently glided all around us in their numbers, often flying right overhead.

After getting a few photos we got back in the minibus and were driven to the starting point of the trek. We met our guide and introduced ourselves to our fellow trekkers, including a French couple and a group of elderly guys from Holland. Before we set off our guide explained the reason behind the name 'Colca', originating from a combination of the Inca settlements Collagua and Cabana (hence Col-Ca). He also explained that a Colca is a kind of Inca food store built into the mountains. We the set off in our small group down the steep canyon path, edging deeper each step we took, taking in the incredible scenery as we went.

About 2 hours later we approached the bottom where we arrived at a river crossing, and took a much needed break from the heat in the shelter of a shaded hut. After we got our breath back we crossed the bridge and headed up a short but very steep path. At the top we took another break amongst bunny ear cacti and from there it was only a 20 minute walk through farmland along flat terrain (much to our relief) to our lodging.

We finally arrived at our accommodation, a farmhouse settlement with a few rooms and a small restaurant. We had a lunch of soup and Lomo Saltado (fried steak and peppers with rice) and chatted to the other Trekkers. We then went for a short siesta, finding that our rooms were basic but cosy, and only lit by candle light. After a relaxing afternoon we grabbed a few beers and watched the incredibly clear starry sky before dinner and bed.

Day 2

On the second day we woke around 7am and had a great pancake breakfast before we started our trek. To our relief we were told that the days trek would be much less steep as we were now deep inside the canyon itself. Our guide led us along the stony path, pointing out some interesting landmarks such as the '5 warriors', a series of statue like rock formations and an ancient Inca waterway carved into the vertical cliffside. It was a lot hotter lower down the canyon, and as the heat of the day approached the trek became a little more tiring, despite being less challenging in terms of terrain.

We took a rest at a small family farm, and got a much needed cold drink and some snacks to keep our energy levels up. The lady who worked there offered us some cactus fruit, which was really tasty if you could avoid the spines! Shortly after an excited little Peruvian boy, who was spending his holidays on the farm, showed us the various animals that lived there including ducks, chickens and a lot of Guinea pigs (or cuy) stored in a series of hutches - all of them clearly would end up on the menu! 

After exploring the farm and saying our farewells to the family, we set off once again through the canyon, passing through small towns along the way. The scenery was spectacular and the sheer size of the canyon walls never seemed to grow old. We continued along the canyon path where we gradually started ascending and descending up and down the dusty path.

As we approached 3 hours of walking we started to see the green Oasis de Sangalle nestled in the bottom of the canyon. We could see waterfalls leading to a river that flowed right through the middle, with tropical plants and palm trees surrounding them. With this very inviting view in sight we descended quite quickly, keen to take off our shoes and relax after a day of walking in the heat.

Finally we arrived at the Oasis de Sangalle, and wandered past a few other hostels and hotels before finding ours, the Paraiso las Palmeras Lodge. It was absolute paradise, with our own small private hut and a large swimming pool surrounded by palm trees in the most idillic setting. Taking advantage of the sun we quickly changed into our swimming gear, grabbed a beer and dived into the refreshing pool to cool off.

The sun set fairly quickly in the canyon (around 4pm) due to the surrounding mountains, and so once the pool became shaded we got changed and headed to the bar for a few drinks with the other trekkers. This led straight into a typical Peruvian dinner (soup, rice and meat) which filled the gap. Feeling tired after this we headed to bed early before our final day and the big ascent.

Day 3

After an early night and chilled afternoon the 4am start wasn't too painful, but the temperature had dropped substantially over night so it still wasn't that pleasant. We followed our guide upwards, using our torches to navigate the stony pathway in the dark. After an hour the sun started to rise making it a bit warmer making for ideal trekking conditions. The higher we'de climb, and the further we walked from Sangalle Oasis we really began to appreciate how isolated it was. 

Spreading the trek over three days meant we were well rested and with the help of some snickers we powered up in a time of 2:15 mins, even with multiple stops for photos on the way which we felt was quite an achievement for us! More impressively though, was that one of the guys in our group (aged 70!) also made it to the top which was really inspiring to see.

At the top of the canyon there were many people congratulating each other on making it up and taking victory photos. We took a much needed breather and got a few group shots ourselves before heading along the remaining flat path to a small town. We then walked to a little breakfast spot with a few other groups, and had eggs, bread and coca tea to refuel after our intense morning trek.

Once we'd finished breakfast we continued in the minivan on the road back to Arequipa, and stopped off at at the Apachetas of Chivay, a series of cairns thought to be made by the Incas, with an amazing mountain backdrop. The sheer number of them scaling the valley with a clear blue sky was an awesome sight. Additionally, and much to our surprise, we were shown the snowy peak of the Mismi mountain and were told that it is thought that it's glacial stream is the most distant source of the mighty Amazon River!

One thing we were really looking forward to on our trek was the Tambo hot springs. We made our way there, keen to soak our tired legs in the hot water. After walking down a short path and crossing a river we arrived at a series of pools. There were a few people in already, who warned that some of them were scorching! We decided to grab some cold victory beers while we dipped our toes into different pools to find the best temperature, and slowly lowered ourselves into one that felt as hot as we could manage.

After a few minutes we got used to the temperature, and relaxed for half an hour or so in the steaming natural spring water with our fellow trekkers. Our feet and legs felt almost fully rejuvenated as we made our way back to the bus and continued on our journey back to Arequipa, and was more than worth the 10 Soles entrance fee. While we were there we met with Amanda and Daniel, an Australian couple we had met during the trek, and enjoyed some beers together in one of the milder pools. 

Continuing onwards we were taken to the small town of Chivay for lunch. The whole group piled into the Los Portales de Chivay restaurant where a large buffet table was on display with various typical Peruvian foods. Luckily it was an all-you-can-eat menu, meaning we could go to town! While we ate a local band started playing in front of our table, singing traditional music with pan pipes and guitars.

Once finished we were then back in the mini bus and headed up towards our next look out of the nearby volcanoes. The air temperature was really cold as we had reached an altitude of 3,650 meters, and so we only spent a few minutes there to get some pictures, but it was great to see the smoking Volcan Hualca in the distance and the hundreds of small rock piles that had been carefully balanced. We then headed a little further to a Llama park where wild Llama and Guanaco were roaming in the green and yellow fields.

Our 4 days in Arequipa and Colca Canyon affirmed our decision to stop there during our trip. We loved the architecture, food and vibe of the city, and the Colca Canyon tour was probably one of our favourite treks of the trip since Patagonia. Having a well organised tour really did make a difference, and the incredible scenery and landscapes made the steep and often tiring stretches more than worth it. We were also lucky enough to have a friendly and like-minded group who helped make the three days even more enjoyable. The canyon oasis and hot springs were a luxurious surprise for us, and extremely welcome for our legs after the inclines. We left Arequipa feeling energised, keen for more exciting adventures ahead.

Machu Picchu and Sacred Valley

Machu Picchu marked the half-way point of our travels around South America; 120 days since leaving London behind. Arguably one of the most famous ruins in the world, and situated in the stunning Urubamba River valley, there's a reason why it's on a lot of travellers bucket list. The ancient city of Cusco is the gateway to the world-renowned Inca Trail, and having heard great things about it we decided to stay there for 3 nights to explore the city before our trek. Unfortunately, 5 months in advance was still too late to book the full inca trail (to our annoyance) and so we settled for the 2 day mini-trek, which we were excited about none-the-less. We were also keen to visit the Sacred Valley, a region filled with various archaeological sights and small villages, and so we planned a few key stop-offs on the journey from Machu Picchu back to Cusco.


Cusco

After getting a 7 hour night bus from Puno we arrived in city's main bus terminal at about 6am, and still feeling pretty tired we got a cab to our hostel for a few more hours rest. As our friend Tom from London was joining us for a couple of weeks, we decided to stay in the popular Pariwana Hostel, conveniently located in the city centre and boasting a pretty decent bar/restaurant and a ping pong table in their large courtyard. After showering and settling into our dorm, we decided to have a quick explore of the old city centre before Tom arrived. Our first port of call was the beautiful old Plaza de Armas square surrounded by Santa Domingo Cathedral, La Compañia Church and various other Spanish Colonial buildings.

As we had acclimatised in Bolivia, the lower altitude in Cusco didn't affect us, and so once Tom arrived early afternoon (also unaffected by the altitude) we decided to take advantage of this and get stuck into some pisco sours. We then headed to Uchu Peruvian Steakhouse to sample alpaca steaks cooked on volcanic stones. The food was brilliantly presented, and the surf and turn option allowed us to try both the shrimp and steak cooked on hot stones at our table. The highlight was the desert, entitled 'chocolate madness' consisting of 3 amazing chocolate deserts including mouse, truffle and fondant. It was the best desert we'd had in South America and was eaten embarrassingly quickly by the three of us! From there we headed to a string of clubs including the popular 'Chango', turning it into a very fun and messy night!

We woke up the following day with pretty bad hangovers (we had definitely lost our alcohol tolerance since travelling!), and after recovering over breakfast at the hostel bar, helped by plenty of fruit juice, we decided take the free walking tour of the city. The tour started in the main square, where our friendly guide explained some of the history of Cusco, the capital of the Inca Empire and the oldest existing city in South America. He explained how many of the Inca temples and buildings had been destroyed and built over by the Spanish during their colonisation. It was interesting to hear how the two religions (Catholic and Inca) compromised both spiritually and culturally in order to keep peace once the Spanish had arrived.

The group got a minivan to the top of the Pukamoqo hill, and within 5 minutes we had completely left the built-up streets of Cusco behind and arrived in the rural outskirts. At the top was the Cristo Blanco, a large white statue that ‘watches over’ the city. We also got a glimpse of Sacsayhuaman, an ancient inca fortress that overlooked the city. We then headed to a textile shop where a local lady demonstrated the colouring and weaving techniques used to create traditional Peruvian fabrics. She showed us the plants, spices and even insects that are used to create the various pigments in their colourful textiles. 

After the demonstration we headed back to San Blas, the boheniam district of Cusco to a small music shop where our guide played some traditional instruments including the charango, a small guitar made from an armadillo shell. We then walked through the San Blas area, taking in the beautiful cobbled streets, intricate balconies and small handicraft stores. The tour finished at Limbus Resto Bar for some food and a Pisco sour tasting session with great views of the city. We felt the tour gave us a great introduction to Cusco, and showed us some interesting places we otherwise wouldn’t have visited.

On our final day we decided to go for lunch at Marcelo Batata, boasting one of the best roof-top balconies in the city and with highly rated (although a little expensive) food. We opted for appetisers only to keep the price down, but all our dishes were beautifully presented and equally delicious, and as we basked in the sunshine we sampled the regional beer (Cusquena) as we looked out over the picturesque rooftops of Cusco. It was a perfect lunch time spot! We then headed back to pack for our 2 day inca trail, and after 3 days in the city we felt ready to hit the fresh air and finally see the world-renowned Machu Picchu.

Inca Trail Day 1

The day had finally came for our much awaited 2 day Inca trail. We were picked up from our hostel at 4am, and bundled into a rather bumpy minivan to the train station to board the train at Ollantaytambo at 6.10am. As we were picked up about 20 minutes late it felt as if we only just made the train on time, and being one of the most expensive train rides in the world we definitely couldn't miss it! After boarding we were given breakfast, tea and coffee and began our journey through the incredible Peruvian mountains, following the river Urubamba River until we reached 'kilometre 104' where we had to disembark. We jumped off the train with our day bags, and waited for the train to leave before setting off.

Much to our luck, it had started to rain heavily just as we set off. We decided to not let it affect our spirits, and so once we were as soaked through as is physically possible (we should have brought rain ponchos!) we ignored the wet and focused on enjoying the amazing misty scenery as we trekked up the Inca stairway through the cloud forest. Following our guide, we hiked up the ancient stone steps, being careful with our footing as the drops were pretty sheer.

During our route our guide explained about some of the native plants that were used by the Incas, as well as the importance of water in the Inca culture, and that we should be thankful for the rain as it symbolised life! Over the next few hours we wound our way along the mountain ledges to some breathtaking scenery that either looked out over the amazing valley or led us through more jungle-type surroundings with fast-flowing rivers and waterfalls.

Another thing that made our trek special was that that we were almost completely alone with our guide on the trail for the entire time. Although we would have loved to have completed the full 5 day trek, we had heard was that it was often very crowed on the trail, and having this spectacular scenery to ourselves was not something we had not expected, and we felt very lucky to be able to experience it in such a small, personal group.

Around mid day the rain began to ease up, just in time for lunch and our visit to the amazing Winaywayna ruins, a series of inca farming balconies cut into the near-vertical mountain side. Our guide explained various historic features of the ruins that were specific to ancient Inca culture, including the incredibly sophisticated water system, the 'niches' (sacred storage) in the walls, and the exact positioning of certain windows that were used as astronomical calendars through the position of the sun. It was an amazing place, and so nice to see it with hardly any other trekkers there. After an hour or so of exploring the ruins we climbed our way up to the top to get the best view before continuing our trek.

After another hour or so of walking we arrived at the Sun Gate, or Inti Punku, a door that was once the main entrance to Machu Picchu and the top most view of the ruins. Due to the rain, Machu Picchu was mostly covered in cloud, and we only managed to get a small glimpse of the ruins before descending to the bottom. Our guide explained that the iconic mountain seen in the typical photos of Machu Picchu is actually Huayna Picchu mountain (not Machu Picchu which is a common misconception). 

We walked through the ruins for an hour or so, but as it started to rain heavily again (and we were feeling pretty soggy!) we decided to head back and wait until the following day to do the detailed tour. As we approached the bus bay we realised everyone had the same idea, and a huge queue had formed, meaning we had to wait for a not-so-fun hour and a half to get the bus to Aguas Calientes. In hind sight we can laugh how unlucky we'd got on our first day, but at the time it was pretty miserable!

Once we arrived at Aguas Calientes, our bags and their contents were completely soaked through, so after checking into our hostel we sent all our clothes to the launderette, had a hot shower and tucked into the decent dinner provided by our hostel. There wasn't a huge amount to see in Aguas Calientes, and so we grabbed a few cold beers after dinner and relaxed in the warm hostel and prepared for another early start the following day.

Inca Trail Day 2

When we woke the following day we were relieved to find a perfect blue sky, and were excited (and a little anxious) to get to the top of Machu Picchu again to see it properly. We had learnt that the weather can be very changeable there, and so managed our expectations until we got off the bus at 9am. We were thrilled to see it was still clear, and we spent the first hour marvelling at the historic ruins from various angles, getting our stereotypical pictures along the way. The ruins really lived up to our expectations, with cascading balconies, blue sky, and the occasional wisp of white clouds and mist. It was a truly magical setting.

Our guide then began explaining in detail the main features of the ruins. He showed us the different types of rooms, including rooms for cooking and storage, rooms for royalty (with larger doorways) and temples, which had a different kind of doorway to indicate it’s religious significance. We also learnt about the inca trinity: three sacred animals that represent the earth, the sky and underworld. According to the incas, the puma shows patients and strength on land, the condor is the only animal that can fly high enough to communicate with the heavens, and the snake travels to the underworld when it sheds its skin. All three symbolise the circle of life, and throughout the tour we were shown many references to them, both iconic and metaphoric, including a hidden puma that had been cleverly formed from the gaps in a huge stone wall (you'd be forgiven for not spotting it though!)

After an informative 2 hours from our guide and exploring the majority of the ruins of Machu Picchu we walked to the inca bridge, a now closed-off pathway across a treacherous, narrow ledge with sheer drop that links up another ruin on the other side of the hill. Tourists are no longer allowed to walk across it as it's too dangerous, but it was interesting to see the risks the inca's took to build and connect their settlements. We then headed back down the hill to catch our bus back to Aguas Calientes, picked up our bags and jumped on the train towards the Sacred Valley, still reeling from how incredible our visit had been.

The Sacred Valley

After our trip to Machu Picchu we had decided to visit the Sacred Valley on our way back to Cusco, stopping off at the circular balconies of Moray, and the impressive Salinas de Maras, a salt mine built into a mountain side. We got off the Peru Rail train at the small town of Ollantaytambo, about 80 km from Cusco. It was dark when we arrived, and so made our way to La Casa del Abuelo Riverside, a hostel we had booked a few days earlier. By chance we had arrived during a festival weekend in Ollantaytambo, and as fireworks, music and dancing were kicking off we decided to check it out. After witnessing a comically dangerous firework display in the main square, we headed to Mayupata Restaurant to sampled some of the local cuisine including alpaca, Peruvian rice pudding and a glass of Chicha, a sweet purple corn based beer.

The following day we work early for our hostel breakfast of scrambled eggs and bread (a South American Classic) and made a plan for the day. Our first stop was to visit the ruins of Ollantaytambo, and so we strolled around the fortress overlooking the town for an hour or two, seeing familiar inca architectural features that we recognised from Machu Picchu. We then had a quick lunch in the square. By this point the festival (which we discovered was the Santisima Cruz de Senor Choquekillca) was in full swing, and many groups of local gathered in the main square dressed in weird and wonderful costumes. It was a surreal experience, and some of the costumes were quite creepy!

After lunch we hunted around for a taxi that would take us back to Cusco via the Sacred Valley stops for a decent price. After finding one for 30 soles for the 3 of us, we headed back to our hostel to pick up our bags, and jumped into the taxi and made our way to our first stop: the Moray ruins.

Moray

Having seen pictures of the archeological site in tour agencies around Cusco, we were excited to see Moray in real life. The perfectly formed steps orbited the crater, making it look like some kind of 3 dimensional crop circle. We learnt that the reason for the shape and design of the circular balconies was likely to be an agricultural experiment to test the growth rates of vegetables at different temperatures and altitudes (for example potatoes grow best in cooler, higher altitudes, and maize in warmer, lower altitudes). After around half an hour of exploring, we got back in our cab and headed onwards.

It was an impressive sight, particularly from the top, and as we descended down into the balconies we started to get a better sense of the scale of the site where inca farmers once worked. Around the corner from the main ruins was a second, older and more weathered looking version of Moray that looked like a practice version of the more modern ruins. After around half an hour of exploring we jumped back into our taxi (waking up our driver who was having a nap!) and continued on our way.

Salinas de Maras

We continued in our taxi through the hills, with our driver beeping away as he sped around blind corners as if his life depended on it! Thankfully we arrived in one piece to the Salinas de Maras, a huge salt mine carved into the side of the mountain that was once used by the Incas to obtain salt using evaporation pools. We had to pay a small fee to enter, but it was more than worth it. Our taxi driver dropped us off and we headed down the short path until we could see the expansive series of stepped salt pools.

All the pools were different shades of white, brown and orange due to the salt quantities and minerals in each, and we could actually walk down through them, passing along the ancient subterranean stream that had been built to supply salt water to each pool. We found a few locals working amongst the mines; rebuilding and strengthening the walls of the pools. It was a fantastic and surreal sight, and we were really glad we'd made the stop off. 

Ever since leaving for South America in January, Machu Picchu had been top of our list of places we wanted to see. Despite the hype, being a very touristy destination and a bit of rain, we found it to be just as special as we were hoping. Cusco was definitely the prettiest city we’d been to, with beautiful Colonial architecture, great cuisine and a decent nightlife making it a perfect stop-off for the 3 of us before our trek. The sacred valley was something we hadn’t planned on visiting before we left, but was a great added bonus when heading back to Cusco from Machu Picchu. Although it was sad to say bye to our friend Tom, we left Cusco feeling both content and exited for what the rest of Peru had in store.

Bolivia — Uyuni Salt Flats

The 3 day Jeep tour from San Pedro de Atacama to Salar de Uyuni was, for us, one of the things we had been looking forward to most during our trip around South America. After a few days in San Pedro de Atacama we finally decided on a tour company (there are loads to chose from, we went with Atacama Mistica). We had heard plenty of horror stories about drunk drivers, and therefore did a lot of research and asked around to make sure that it was going to be safe. The night before we bought some final provisions for the trip, including snacks and 6 litres of water each, and settled in for a much needed sleep before the adventures ahead.

Day 1

We were picked up from our hostel by our tour bus at 7.30am, and made our way to the border. Only 20 minutes into the trip we were met with complications: it had snowed heavily near the boarder crossing due to the storm the night before, and so we had to wait 2 hours for the snow to be cleared. Because of this we had breakfast early, and took the chance to chat with other members of the group before we were split into 2 separate Toyota Land Cruisers, with our packs and water on top of the roof in tarpaulins. After being introduced to our driver we were finally ready to set off on our 3 day adventure.

After driving through the snow-covered mountains we arrived at the first stop on the tour, Laguna Verde and Lagna Blanco, two beautiful mineral-filled lakes named after their green and white colour. As the lakes were pretty exposed it was quite cold and windy, so we only stopped for about 10 minutes to get a few snaps and continued on our way.

We drove onwards passing the Desierto Salvador Dalí, and arrived at Laguna Polques, a natural hot springs at an altitude of 4400m. We parked up with the rest of the Jeeps, quickly put our bathers on (the air temperature was pretty chilly!) and sank into the amazing hot water that had been warmed by the earths core. With guanaco and flamingos wandering in the lake beyond it was a really special experience. It was difficult to leave the water once we’d got used to the temperature, but after half an hour or so we finally dragged ourselves out and got changed speedily before continuing our journey.

Next on the route were the Sol de Mañana Geysers, natural pillars of steam that shot out of gaps in the earths crust. The entire area was surrounded by warm bubbling potholes of yellow, orange and grey clay; neither of us had ever seen anything like it before! The smell from the geysers was pretty unpleasant (kind of an eggy sulphur), but it was fascinating to be in an area that was so impacted by the incredible activity from the earths molten core.

We continued on our journey until we reached the final stop of the day; Laguna Colorada (or the red lake), a stunning expanse of salt water home to flocks of three types of pink flamingo: the James, the Chilean and the Andean. Seeing such majestic birds up close in the wild was made even more special due to the beautiful surroundings. After about an hour of walking around the lake and taking pictures we headed back to the Jeep and drove to our first nights accommodation, passing a few more wild guanacos on the way. 

We were told that the first nights accommodation would be basic and very cold due to the altitude and remote location. On arrival we found the description pretty accurate as we were guided to our concrete-based beds. Electricity was only on for a few hours, so after our three course meal of soup, spaghetti and peaches (which was tasty considering!) we took advantage of the lights by playing cards and drinking rum with our tour companions (one being a professional poker player!)

Day 2

After sleeping better then expected despite the high altitude and below freezing temperatures (thank you rum blanket) we woke early for breakfast and set off in the Jeeps for our second day of adventure. Our first stop was to the Siloli desert where the famous Stone Tree rock formation is found. It stood amongst various other interesting rock formations in an expanse of dusty, exposed desert, and as we were battered by the winds and sand it was easy to understand how after thousands of years of erosion these amazing natural rock sculptures could have been formed.

We then made our way along the bumpy road into the Inca Canyon where we spotted a viscacha (a large rabbit-like animal) hidden amongst the canyon wall, as well as a group of vicuña and a few llamas crossing the road. With snow topped mountains in the distance contrasting with the dry, rocky desert, it made for a very picturesque drive.

After 2 hours of driving we arrived at two lakes, Laguna Honda and Laguna Hedionda. With crystal clear waters, white sands, pink flamingoes and snow topped mountains all around us, it was a total treat for the eyes. We stopped for lunch with the other tour groups at a small, basic shelter not far from the lake. Again the food was pretty basic, but was hot and filled us up enough for the afternoon.

Once finished we got back into the Jeep and headed past more stunning lakes with even more flamingo's and snowy mountains in the distance. With Pink Floyd's Dark side of the Moon playing from our iPod it made for a pretty epic drive as we continued past Volcano Ollagüe and stopped at the mirador. We noticed a dramatic change in the landscape - it was completely covered in volcanic rock. We pictured how thousands of years ago the lava had flown through the land and finally cooled before being battered by the weather to create such fascinating rock formations. 

After half an hour or so it was time to head onwards to our second nights accommodation. This hostel was a bit different however: it was mostly made of Salt! The circular structure consisted of salt rock bricks, a salt floor and salt rock furniture finished in traditional Bolivian textiles. It was a great little space to socialise, drink beer and enjoy talking about the amazing sights we’d seen so far. After another evening of nice hot food, wine, rum and cards we headed to our private rooms for some sleep before our 4.30am start the next day.

Day 3

Getting up at 4.30am was made a lot easier knowing that we were about to visit the main highlight of the tour: the Salar de Uyuni. We piled into the jeep in the dark, still feeling a little sleepy, and drove for around an hour until we started to see the ground beneath us turn white. It was surreal driving in an area so removed from scenery and landscapes, and the ground seemed to go on infinitely, with only the clouds and tiny mountains in the distance marking the end of vast white canvas.

As the sun rose we were treated to a beautiful pink and orange sky surrounded by vast salt desert. It was a magical way to see the salt flats for the first time. As far as the eye could see was brilliant white salt with beautiful hexagonal patterning. We waited for the sun to rise fully, and our cold feet and hands began to regain some feeling as we continued our journey to our next stop, Isla Incahuasi.

After half an hour or so of driving, Isla Incahuasi came into view, an island located right in the middle of the salt flats. Surrounded by giant cacti, we began to climb the stone steps to the look out point. We were told that this entire island had once been under water, and as we walked to the top we spotted amazing fossilised coral and caves that had once been totally submerged by the sea around 40,000 years ago. 

We then walked to the mirador to take in the view and get some pictures. At the top we were surrounded by thousands of huge cacti and had a fantastic 360° view, with only a few tiny cars in the distance revealing the scale of the worlds biggest salt flats.

We then descended back down to the bottom and met our fellow tour members at the ’shoreline’ of the island for some breakfast, consisting of tea and an enormous slice of sponge cake! We spotted an Alpaca (who looked like he needed to be hugged!) and then got back in the Jeep and set off once again into the salt flats. 

We drove for a little while and parked up without a car or person in sight, and were told we had time to take some of the novelty photos everyone takes when on the salt flats. Embracing the cliché we spent an hour messing around with our scale and practising kung-foo moves against the surreal white back-drop.

After a quick visit to the salt museum and the Dakar rally sculpture we headed to the final stop of the tour: the Train Cemetery. We learnt that the town of Uyuni was once a distribution hub for many trains carrying minerals on their way to the Pacific Ocean ports, but became obsolete after the mining industry collapsed in the 1940s, leaving the old trains to rust. We spent a fun half an hour or so playing train bandits and climbing up the rusty old carriages before heading into Uyuni. 

We pulled into Uyuni at 3pm, sadly marking the end of our trip. We had lunch prepared for us while we wandered around the many stalls selling touristy trinkets, and then headed into the town. Despite all the money that tourism brings to the salt flats, the town of Uyuni sadly didn't look like it had benefited much, and seemed pretty run down and poverty-stricken in places. We decided to get a bus straight out of town that evening, and with a few guys from our tour group we boarded a cheap local bus and headed north to the city of Potosi.

Like many of the big sights of South America, theres a lot of hype surrounding them, adding often unrealistic expectations to travellers when visiting. We found the salt flats tour more than met our expectations, with fantastic scenery, interesting wildlife, an excellent driver and a fun group to travel with, making the 4 days a completely unique experience for us. Our highlights included seeing pink flamingoes, swimming in the hot springs and of course the incredible salt flat itself. It turned out to be one of our favourite tours we've had so far, and definitely one that will stand out when looking back on our trip around South America.

San Pedro de Atacama

After a week of exploring Salta and the Jujuy region it was time for us to move on to the desert. We took an early day bus from Purmamarca as we’d heard the scenery was particularly beautiful along the road to the Atacama. By chance we had front window seats giving us amazing cinemaesque view of the Andes as we cut through the towering mountains toward Chile, passing through salt flats, volcanoes and deserts. The boarder crossing was quick and painless, and after a basic lunch provided by the bus company we arrived in San Pedro, the gateway to the Atacama desert and the salt flats of Uyuni.

San Pedro is a small but touristy town due to it’s proximity to the Uyuni Salt Flats, making it a popular stop off for backpackers working their way up to Bolivia. There are also some highly recommended things to do around the town including star and planet gazing, the Luna Valley and trips to Volcanos and Geysers. Positioned in the heart of the Atacama desert, and surrounded by volcanoes and canyons, the town is comprised of single-level huts made from mud bricks, with a few bars, restaurants and numerous tour operators all selling pretty much the same tours.

We decided to stay in Hostel Rural, a hippy hostel that looked like something out of Burning Man festival. With hammocks, a bar and helpful staff giving advice on tours, it was a great place to stay while we prepared for our Salt flats trip. San Pedro is one of the best places in the world to see planets due to its high altitude and lack of ozone. Unfortunately, the day we arrived the moon was too bright, meaning the conditions weren’t suitable for star gazing that evening (which we were a bit gutted about). Instead, we booked the Luna Valley tour the following day, one of the main attractions in San Pedro. That evening we had a few beers with fellow travellers, and found a great sandwich shop offering lentil burgers and shredded beef sandwiches (we made more than one visit!).

The Luna Valley

Our tour to the Luna Valley started at 4pm in the afternoon, so we had time for a lazy lunch before setting off. We were picked up in a minivan with several others and driven about 30 minutes out of the town to the first stop on the tour. On arrival we had to pay a park entrance fee before were taken to Pedra do Coyote, an amazing mirador overlooking the Luna Valley. Our guide explained the geological history of the area, and how the valley had been created by rising tectonic plates and evaporating salt lakes.

We then jumped back on the minivan and were driven down into the huge expanse of orange and white mountains made out of rock salt. We could understand why the area had been named Luna Valley, as it definitely felt like another planet! We trekked along a steep, narrow path through the rock salt formations and into the Salt Cavern, where we needed torches to navigate the tight passageways and tunnels to get to the other side.

After the cave we got back in the minivan for a short drive to an interesting rock formation called The Three Marys, a group of rocks that looked like three women praying. One of the Marys had been knocked down by tourists over a decade ago, but the other remaining two still bared a resemblance at the right angle.

We then were taken to our final stop, the Great Dune, to watch the sun set over the central crater. We climbed our way up to a narrow ridge on top of the huge sand dune in order to get the best spot. There were already a number of people waiting at the top, but it didn’t detract from the incredible 360 view.

It was a fantastic sunset, with vibrant reds and oranges beaming through the clouds and turning the Andes behind us vivid pinks and purples. The panoramic views were spectacular and we spent half an hour watching the light fade away before we made our way back down the ridge to the minivan.

The Salt Lagoons

Much to our luck, the day we decided to go on the lagoons tour was overcast, and the temperature had dropped a lot. This meant that the pools were a bit on the chilly side, but that didn’t stop us from going along to experience swimming in the floating salt pools. We were picked up at 4pm, and with spirits still high made our way to the first lagoon.

On arrival we had to pay another park fee (which was pretty expensive!) before heading to the changing rooms not far from the lakes. The water was very cold - It reminded us of swimming on a ’summers day’ in England! It was, however, a lot of fun floating in the salt water, and was near impossible to swim due to our buoyancy! We stayed in until we started getting really cold, clambered out and made our way back to the bus feeling very salty!

After a 20 minute drive we reached the second pool, and by now most people were not feeling keen to jump in: the dramatic drop in temperature was not what they’d signed up for! Us being Brits, and having experienced colder water, couldn’t turn down the chance, so we led the way with big dives, much to public applause! It was pretty cold but as this pool was fresh water it got a lot of the salt of us.

We then made our way to the Salar de Atacama to watch the sun set. By now the weather had really started to kick off and a storm was taking place over the mountains with dramatic bolts of lighting every minute or so! We were given Pisco Sours and some snacks, and chatted with the other tour members whilst trying to get a photo of the lightening. 

Despite unusually cold weather during our stay (We’ll blame it on El Niño!), we found San Pedro to be a great place to relax, meet lots of new people and gather research and recommendations for our trip ahead. The Luna Valley tour was excellent, with stunning scenery and wild weather revealing the desert landscapes at their most colourful. San Pedro was, for us, a stop gap between the Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolivia, but we were really glad we stayed for an extra few nights to experience some of what the Atacama desert had to offer.

Salta and Jujuy Province

Due to the huge distance from Santiago to Salta, we decided to stop off at Mendoza to sample the best wines in the region. The stop off felt immediately worth while due the incredible bus journey through the Andes to get to Mendoza. With roads that wound through the dramatic and constantly changing scenery, it felt like we were watching a movie! The border crossing into Argentina took quite a while, but it didn't detract from the beautiful scenery.

We decided to spend a day hiring bikes to explore the Maipú region of Mendoza, and visited some great vineyards including Tempus Alba and Trapiche where we got to taste world class reds. Maipú itself, however, turned out to be a bit of an industrial estate, and wasn't particularly safe to cycle around. We were pretty underwhelmed by Mendoza overall and without much charm or sights we were glad to move on to the more interesting regions further north. 

Salta

After a 17 hour night bus ride from Mendoza we arrived in Salta, northern Argentinian. We wanted to use Salta as a launch pad in order to visit the many interesting places around the area including Cafayate, Purmamarca and Humahuaca, all which boast breathtaking scenery and a more traditional local culture. We decided to spend a day exploring the centre of Salta before booking 3 day tours to the key sights with a local company.

With its colonial architecture and peaceful vibe we immediately warmed to the city of Salta. The main Plaza 9 de Julio was surrounded by beautiful 18th and 19th century buildings including the Cathedral de la Virgen del Milagro and the Museo de Arqueologia de Alta Montana. It was a lovely place to relax and soak up the atmosphere after a long journey. We also visited the amazing red and gold Iglesia San Francisco, with exterior equally impressive as it's exterior.

We then walked a few blocks, passing some interesting street art (and a vintage car show!) to the small but charming craft market to pick up a few things we needed. On our walk back to the plaza we stumbled across a beautifully designed boutique shop called FED that was selling wonderfully quirky hand-made interior bits and pieces. We then headed back to the square to visit the Museo de Arqueología de Alta Montaña, or MAAM (Museum of High Altitude Archaeology).  

Luckily the museum was open until 9pm so after a quick empanada at the bakery (Salta boasts the best) we arrived at the archaeological museum, home to the Children of Llullaillaco, arguably the best preserved mummies of all time. The collections of inca artefacts that had been found on the top of the Llullaillaco volcano were fascinating, and due to cold temperatures and ice had all been perfectly persevered. We learnt about the ancient rituals of child sacrifices in the mountains, ceremonies that took place to praise gods or when an Inka ruler died. On display was El Niño, the mummy of a 8-year-old boy with perfectly preserved clothing, hair and skin in a foetal like position. We weren't allowed to take photos, but it was totally surreal to see someone who had been dead for 500 years so intact.

(Photos by Maria Stenzel)

Cafayate

Our first tour from Salta was to the town of Cafayate, 3 hours south of the city with various points of interest along on the way. The drive is know to be one of the most beautiful in South America, with stunning mountains, giant valleys and interesting rock formations that make up the Quebrada de las Conchas. Our first stop was the ‘Devils Throat’, a tall, narrow passageway carved into a cliff face. Locals played traditional Inca music on flutes as we walked through the terracotta coloured rock that towered around us.

The next stop just around the corner was the ‘Amphitheatre’, a huge natural arena of rock that surrounded you on all sides. Inside there was a busker playing ‘Wish You Were Here’ by Pink Floyd, and the echoing acoustics were truly magical. The wall of rock was so big it was difficult to get a full photo, and without a person in the shot the scale was totally lost.

After driving for a few more kilometres we stopped at a lookout over the Valles Calchaquíes. We were given 20 minutes at the viewpoint to get some pictures of the incredible view of the dramatic orange and green mountains. We were driven past other interesting and appropriately named rock formations including the El Titanic, the Nail and China Town.

For lunch, we stopped in the small town of Cafayate, which was a pretty place although the restaurant chosen by the tour guide wasn’t the best (we learnt that choosing our own was a much better option when on a tour). The food was average but we got to try the local dish Locro and listen to some traditional live music. We then had a walk around the picturesque town and handicraft stalls before getting back on the bus.

After lunch we continued to the Finca Quara vineyard where we got to sample local wines and tour the factory. Unfortunately the tour was only in Spanish, but luckily we had an english-speaking Argentinean on our tour who helped translate most of the information. We sampled some amazing reds including Malbec and Cabinet Sauvignon, and even bought a bottle for our evening meal. The prices were ridiculously cheap, around £1.60 per bottle! Cafayate was how we envisioned the wine regions of Argentina to be: a charming town nestled amongst vineyards and beautiful countryside. We could easily have stayed a night!

Cachi

Our second day tour was a trip to the small town of Cachi, a 3 hour drive west of Salta. The route reaches altitudes over 5,000 metres, and we could start to feel it as we climbed the hills in our small tour bus. The locals on the bus kindly offered us some Mate, a bitter tea and tradition popular with Argentinians.

We were also advised to take coca leaves to help with altitude sickness, and our tour guide showed us the technique of rolling up 10 leaves into a small bundle and keeping them inside your cheek for around half and hour. We weren't sure if they worked or not but they seemed to calm us down a bit, and it was interesting to try something that was so integral to South American culture. We wound high up into the giant green hills and stopped at the lookout where a small shack was selling Llama Salami!

From there we continued to the small town of Cachi. There wasn’t too much to do in the town to be honest, and besides a small Inca artefcats exhibition we found the tour to be a little less interesting compared with our trip to Cafayate the day before. On the way in and out of the town we noticed large red fields where the local farmers were drying vast quantities of sweet red peppers. Unfortunately we didn’t get to stop and look as we were on a quite tight schedule, but it would have been interesting to see the fields up close.

After leaving Cachi we set off to the final stop, the Los Cardones National Park. It was a huge expanse of land filled with giant cacti as far as the eye could see. We spend 20 minutes or so taking pictures and wandering around the desert landscape. The tour guide decided to play a trick on us and pretended to drive off, leaving us stranded with nothing but our cameras in the desert! We eventually saw the funny side once the bus stopped and the doors opened!

Humahuaca and Purmamarca

Our third and final tour was to Humahuaca, but we wanted to use the tour to travel up towards our next stop, San Pedro de Atacama. The road to San Pedro passes through the small but beautiful town of Purmamarca, so we decided to stay there after our tour and catch the bus en route to northern Chile. Due to a political protest, we didn’t stop at the city of Jujuy on our tour, so an hours drive later we stopped in Purmarmarca where were treated to a small but bustling town with locals selling colourful garments and a handful of decent restaurants. As we'd decided to stay in Purmamarca we popped into a recommended hostel and booked a nights stay before continuing north with our tour.

We continued onwards passing amazing colourful zig-zagging mountains until we stopped at Tilcara, a small town with ruins of a pre-inca fortification nearby (Pucará de Tilcara). We took a short guided tour of the ruins, learning about the purpose and layout of the structure. It was a shame to see that archeologists had destroyed part of the ancient ruins to build a memorial for themselves (something that the guide was rightly quite upset about!)

Our lunch stop was in Humahuaca, another small city in Jujuy Province. Having learnt from a couple of bad lunch experiences we decided to break from the group and head to a small restaurant specialising in empanadas. They had about 10 varieties, and we sampled a range of the local specialties which were both delicious and cheap. The town was very similar to Purmamarca, if not a bit bigger, and had some impressive steps surrounded by market stalls selling knitted goods and ceramics.

After an hour were were summoned back to the bus, and by our request they dropped us back in Purmararca where we made our way to our very quiet hostel, El Viaje Algarrobo. We spent that evening in a nearby restaurant called Tierra de Colores, listening to a brilliant local band over a steak dinner with cheap (but good) Argentinian wine. 

The following morning we woke up at 6am to see the sun rise over the Cerro de los Siete Colores (Hill of the Seven Colours) that puts Purmamarca on the map. We scrambled up the dark, rocky hillside to the viewpoint and waited for the sun to rise. As the light increased, the colours of the mountain got more intense, revealing the greens, reds and orange layers of minerals and metals that gives the mountain its name. The town was very peaceful and beautiful in the morning light, especially as there was nobody else around except a couple of gauchos on an early morning horse ride.

Serranias del Hornocal

Although our tours were a great way to see the surrounding sights of Jujuy, we felt they were a little rushed. Because of this we had missed a sight we were really anticipating: the 14 Coloured Mountain, or Serranias del Hornocal, about an hours drive north of Humahuaca. The only way to get to the mountain from Humahuaca is by tour van or jeep, meaning we had to get a bus back to Humahuaca first. After some negotiations with locals and a bit of luck bumping into people we’d previously met on our trip, we managed to get a spot on a jeep. We drove along a bumpy, dusty road until we reached about 5000 metres above sea level. Two of us had to sit in the back, which was definitely the more fun and picturesque option!

On arrival we were met with a jaw-dropping view of the 14 coloured mountain. It was incredible, and definitely the most beautiful mountain we’d seen around the Jujuy province. We decided to walk another 10 minutes down hill to the ridge where you get the best view. Coming back up hill was definitely a struggle with the altitude, but well worth extra effort. After a good half an hour of taking photos and gazing in awe at the view we jumped back into the jeep and descended back towards Humahuaca, before getting a cab to Purmamarca.

We really warmed to the city of Salta, and found it to be a perfect base to see the sights of the Jujuy region. It was also a treat to stay in a hostel for more than just one night, allowing us to focus on enjoying the surroundings without packing up our bags so frequently. Although a little rushed at times, the tours were a relatively economic option that allowed us to explore the surrounding mountains, viewpoints and towns that we may otherwise have missed. The colourful landscapes of Jujuy were spectacular to see, and accompanied by the peaceful towns, local traditions, food and clothing, we felt that we'd really started to experience a much more traditional way of Andean life.  

Patagonia — Vistas and Volcanoes

After the W trek we needed a few days to recover, launder clothes and plan the next stage of our journey. We had a lot of distance to cover and a few strategic points to visit in a relatively small window of time if we were to keep the trip on track. We'd researched the areas between Southern and Northern Patagonia, and knew there were some exciting things to do and see. Our route took us up the Andes, weaving in and out of Argentina and Chile, stopping at key cities and sights along the way.

El Chalten

Our first destination was the small town of El Chalten, 420km north of Puerto Natales, and home to the famous Fitz Roy mountain. There were no direct buses from Puerto Natales so after crossing the border into Argentina we had to make an over night stop back in El Calafate and catch an early bus to El Chalten. El Chalten’s mountains are visible from the town and so you instantaneously feel the rewards. With vast valleys, rivers, lakes, circling condors, autumn trees and towering mountains: it's Patagonia at it’s best.

Seeing as it was a beautiful day we dropped our bags off in our hostel and got our (still recovering) knees back into action. We’d arrived late afternoon so decided to do a short hike to the Fitz Roy Mirador before dark. We stopped off at various look-out points along the way and had great views of the surrounding landscapes. As we reached the look out for Fitz Roy, even though it was a clear day, a cloud had perched itself on top of the iconic peaks! Despite the obscured mountains, the setting was beautiful, and being so close to the town felt like a complete luxury. 

The following day we set off for another hike to Laguna Torre in hopes of seeing the iconic Torre massif. The hike was around 3 hours each way but it was relatively flat, and without heavy bags it felt easy in comparison to Torres del Paine. Unfortunately the clouds descended again as we arrived at the lagoon and the epic mountain view wasn't visible. As it started to rain we powered back to our hostel to have a quick shower and dinner before boarding the night bus to our next destination: Bariloche, Northern Patagonia. 

Bariloche

After a pretty uncomfortable 30 hour coach ride from El Chalten (with bumpy roads and very few breaks) we were relieved when we started to pass the amazing lakes and lush mountains of Bariloche. Feeling a little sleepy from the journey we slowly made our way up to our hostel, Penthouse 1001. The hostel was located in a converted 10th floor apartment block, giving great views of Lago Nahuel Huapi, the largest lake in Bariloche. We cooked up some much-needed roast vegetables for dinner and watched the sun set, excited to explore the area the next day.

Unfortunately it was raining the following morning, so we took the opportunity to catch up on our admin from the last few weeks in the comfort of the lovely hostel. By the afternoon the weather perked up so we caught the local bus to the base of the chairlift to see the famous 7 lakes view. From the top it was easy to understand why Bariloche was so highly rated; the blue lakes surrounded by tree-covered hills and jagged mountains, the dramatic scenery reminded us a bit of Rio! After taking in the views we headed back to our hostel to try out the industrial-style kitchen and cook up our favourite recipe, chicken a l'orange! We had a lovely evening drinking with fellow travellers in a hostel that had definitely positioned itself as one of our favourites. 

The following day brought rain once again, so we begrudgingly canceled our kayaking plan and explored the town instead. Bariloche itself is a lovely Swiss-style town with wooden alpine architecture, great restaurants, Saint Bernard dogs(!) but also amazing artisan chocolate shops! We felt it would be culturally irresponsible to not try out the local specialities, and we were not disappointed. The chocolate was ridiculously cheap and very good, and after stocking up, we made our way back to hostel to pack and devour our treats. 

Puerto Varas

The following morning we took a 6 hour bus from Bariloche, which included a very lengthy border crossing back into Chile, and arrived in the picturesque town of Puerto Varas mid afternoon. After checking into Casa Azul hostel we did a short self-guided walking tour of the town, walking past the Iglesia Sagrado Corazón church and the many protected traditional German-style wooden houses.

We ended up at the lake front at sunset where we could see the snow-topped Osorno Volcano in the distance, as well as Calbuco Volcano, the third most active in Chile. Not wanting to miss the opportunity we decided to book a tour to the Vicente Pérez Rosales National Park for the following day where we could visit Osorno up close.

The following day we got picked up by our tour guide for a full day of exploring the Vicente Pérez Rosales National Park. Half an hour into the drive we took a quick stop to feed some llamas at a local farm which was (according to one of us) the ‘best dollar ever spent!’. Needless to say the food was gone in seconds.

We continued along the lakeside road until we arrived at the Vicente Pérez Rosales park entrance. We walked past a few small lakes (and even spotted a baby southern river otter!) and then took a short catamaran ride around the Todos los Santos lake, taking in the beautiful scenery. We even docked the boat up to next a small waterfall where we could fill up our bottle with fresh spring water.

We then moved on to Petrohué Waterfalls, an incredible mass of water that had found it’s way through cracks in the volcanic rock after many large earthquakes. You could really start to see the effects that the volcanoes and tectonic activity had on the surrounding ash-covered landscape. We spent half an hour looking out over the walkways at the various viewpoints of the prehistoric waterway.

After the waterfall it was time to make our way up the Volcano Osorno. The best way to see the volcano is getting two separate chairlifts (used for skiing in the winter months) and then walking as far as you can go from there. It was a surreal experience being on a chairlift without snow, and seeing the ash-covered landscape with patches of red rock and cold mist rising from the sides of volcano. 

At the summit we were treated to breathtaking views of the lake and of the Andes mountain range that shot up around us. Walking further up the steep path we could feel the awesome energy and power of the sleeping volcano beneath our feet, and as clouds floated around us we both felt incredibly glad we'd made the effort to visit.

The following day we wanted to rent a kayak, but as we’d just hit low season it was near impossible to find availability. Determined to find some kind of water-based activity, we asked the local tourist information office who explained that we could visit a thermal spa in a nearby forest. As our options were pretty low we decided to go along, and after being picked up from our hostel we arrived at the small retreat. The location was beautiful and we could hear the river nearby as we sank into the secluded thermal baths surrounded by forest. After 10 minutes in the tub we would race up the steps to the sauna, repeating the process for 2 hours. It was very relaxing, although it did feel a bit indulgent for a couple of travellers!

Even though we had been met with a few minor frustrations on this leg of our trip, it put into perspective about how lucky we'd been up to this point. This was our first time travelling really long distances, and with quite short stops in between we had little margin for error. It helped us remember that it's better to dedicate a bit more time to get the best out of each place we visit. We rounded up our trip in Patagonia with an amazing fish dinner at Casavaldes and looked forward to continuing our journey north to Chile's capital.

Patagonia — The W Trek

The W Trek is one of the most famous treks in Patagonia, and also one of the best ways to experience Torres del Paine National Park. With world-class landscapes, wild weather and breathtaking views, for many it's the experience of a lifetime. Having not had much trekking practice we were a little apprehensive about the 5-day 70km trek in the wilderness, but having spoken to other travellers about just how amazing it is we had to throw ourselves in headfirst and accept the challenge. After a 6 hour bus ride from El Calafate we arrived at Puerto Natales, Chile, the gateway to Torres del Paine.

We'd heard there was an informative talk at the hostel and hire shop Erratic Rock at 3pm every day. We decided to stay a couple of nights so we could hear the talk, hire the relevant equipment and prepare our food for the next 5 days. They offered detailed information on the route (west to east was recommended) as well as transportation to and from the park. The staff couldn’t have been more helpful, and we were grateful for the extra tips and expertise passed on by these passionate hikers. After the talk we hired our camping gear before visiting local stores to pick up food supplies, ensuring that the quantity and weight was suitable for our 5 days ahead. The following day we got up at 6am, had a final hot shower and set off for the bus to Torres del Paine National Park.

Day 1

Trail section: Paine Grande Campsite to Refugio Grey
Distance: 11 km
Duration: 3.5 hours

After a 7am bus to the national park, paying our entrance fees and listening to fire safety talks, we were dropped off by the ferry port and waited an hour or so for our catamaran. We were advised by Erratic rock to walk to a small but pretty waterfall not far from the docks. The wind was incredibly strong and at first we found it difficult to walk, even without our heavy packs! On return, we realised there was a big queue for the boat, and didn't end up getting the first one, so annoyingly had to wait for the second boat.

Once we landed, we set off to Refugio Grey, an 11km (mainly uphill) hike against the strongest winds we'd ever been in. It was quite a shock to the system, so were relieved when the winds finally died down halfway through and we were able to take in the views of Glacier Grey and Lago Grey. At 6pm we finally arrived and set up in the shelter of the campsite. We then walked to the lookout point of Glacier Grey, about 10 minutes from the camp, which was impressive even from a distance. We then walked back and prepared our first of many pasta meals in the communal kitchen in the company of fellow trekkers.

Day 2

Trail section: Refugio Grey to Campsite Italiano
Distance: 18.6 km
Duration: 6 hours

The following morning we made porridge and tea before packing up our tent and setting off on our next stint to Campsite Italiano. As we were walking back on ourselves the scenery was fairly uninteresting until we passed our starting point where the Catamaran dropped us. We wandered through scorched black and white trees where a fire had torn through the park a few years before (you can read up on it here). After a quick lunch of our own chorizo quesadillas (highly recommended) the clouds cleared in front of us to reveal Los Cuernos del Paine, an epic group of jagged pewter-coloured mountains.

The good weather held up all afternoon and we had fantastic views of the mountains ahead of us until we reached our second stop, Campsite Italiano, where we set up our tent in a small sheltered forest. The campsite had no running water so we had to climb down a river bank to a raging river to collect the ice cold fresh-off-the-glacier water! After cooking another much needed carb-heavy pasta dish and eating Nutella by the spoon-full (acceptable when trekking!) we got chatting to others we’d met along the way about their trips and experiences until it got dark and we headed back for an early nights sleep.

Day 3

Trail section: Campsite Italiano to Los Cuernos Campsite
Distance: 16.5 km
Duration: 7.5 hours

After a very wet and windy night we woke up to clear blue skies, much to our relief! We hung our wet tent up to dry during breakfast, left our packed bags at the campsite and ventured out with light daypacks to the Valle del Francés (or French Valley). Not having to carry such weight made a massive difference, and we felt a new wave of energy with our lighter packs and trekked through the stunning valleys in the beaming sunshine. Surrounded by towering snow-covered mountains, sprawling glaciers, waterfalls, raging rivers and turquoise lakes, for us it was the most amazing panoramic view we’d ever seen. After following the river through thick forest, the footpath ended at Mirador Britanico where we stopped for lunch completely surrounded by the breathtaking landscape.

Once we’d fuelled up on more quesadillas, snickers and trail mix we headed back down to Campsite Italiano to (begrudgingly) pick up our heavy packs again to head onwards to our next stop. The 3 hour hike was broken up nicely by Mirador Nordenskjöld, a beautiful panoramic lookout of Lake Nordenskjöld, before descending to a small pebbled beach. We took a short break, skimmed a few stones on the clear and completely still water before walking another 1km to our 3rd stop, Campsite Cuernos.

Day 4

Trail section: Los Cuernos Campsite to Torres Campsite
Distance: 20 km
Duration: 8.5 hours

We were pleased to wake up to clear skies once again, and after having our staple breakfast of porridge and tea we set off to the final stop: Campsite Torres. Our legs were starting to feel a little bit weary after 3 solid days of trekking, but the lighter packs and great weather kept spirits high as we walked up the steep cliff side in the warmth of the sun. As we’d made good time we stopped for a leisurely lunch at a small lake and took a 10 minute sunbathe and rested our feet.

The final stretch got really steep, and it took quite a lot of our energy to scramble up the boulder-filled path in the heat of the day. Once we finally arrived at the campsite, we decided to dump our packs, set up camp and make our way to Mirador Torres straight away. We were quite tired by this point, but the excitement of seeing Torres in clear weather was all the motivation we needed. Despite seeing other trekkers stop for the day we decided to quickly fill up our water bottles and venture up the final 1km steep incline to the final and much anticipated viewpoint. We were so glad we did, as once we arrived we were treated with an amazing clear view of Torres del Paine and the turquoise lake in front. 

Day 5

Trail section: Torres Campsite to Las Torres Hotel
Distance: 10 km
Duration: 5 hours

When doing the W trek west to east, on the final day its tradition to get up in the early hours and see Torres at sunrise. At 5am we begrudgingly woke up, packed a sleeping bag and warm clothes and set off in the dark to Mirador Torres once again, eager to witness the classic sunrise. Using head torches, we followed the small reflective arrows up the steep rocky path in the rain, not really sure why we were putting ourselves through it again! Towards the top it started to snow, but we powered on determined to make it before the sun came up. Sadly we arrived in thick fog, and could barely see the mountains at all. Although this was disappointing, it made us feel even more glad that we’d gone up the day before.

We waited as long as we could in case the fog cleared, but had to charge back down the mountain at around 9am to pack up our tent and complete the final stretch of the W. The last 8km was downhill, and although our packs were lighter without food, it was pretty tough on our knees. Hotel Torres finally came into view, and it was a huge relief to arrive at the finish line of this epic trek (there were even a few tears of joy from one of us!). We then heaved our tired bodies onto the busy shuttle bus that took us back to the park entrance, and we waited for the final coach to pick us up and take us back to Puerto Natales where well earned victory beers, dinner and hot showers awaited.

On reflection, we were so glad we’d made the effort to do the complete W trek experience. From carrying all our camping equipment through all types of weather to rationing our food and collecting our water from fresh streams, we felt a huge sense of achievement. Trekking through Torres del Paine National Park for 5 days was a real privilege, and definitely an experience of a lifetime. After a tasty grilled lamb dinner at Aldea Restaurant we headed to the Basecamp Bar for celebratory beers with our fellow trekkers, and reminisced about our incredible Patagonian experience.

Patagonia — Glacier Perito Moreno

El Calafate

After 10 brilliant days in Buenos Aires we decided to take our first inland flight south, and within three hours of leaving the vibrant, bustling capital we landed amongst blue skies, snow-topped mountains and dazzling turquoise lakes. We had arrived in El Calefate, Patagonia! A short bus ride later we were dropped at our hostel America del Sur, sat high on a hill overlooking the small town. It was a great mix of contemporary architecture and rustic hostel living, and gave fantastic panoramic views of the Lago Argentino. The hostel staff were very helpful and got us booked up on our exciting trek for the following day.

Glacier Perito Moreno

After a 2 hour bus ride through incredible Patagonian landscapes we were dropped at our first stop: the Balcony. We were given a few hours to walk around the various glacier viewing platforms, taking in the epic mass of ice from all angles. It was truly amazing; neither of us had ever seen anything like it before.

At 5km wide and 70m high it's sheer size is astounding, and it's surroundings equally impressive - it was hard to get your head around the scale! Every so often large chunks of ice would break off and crash into the freezing water below, and for 20 minutes or so we patiently waited and listened to see if we could catch one before it hit the water. We had a quick packed lunch we'd previously prepared overlooking the amazing glacier.