Parque Nacional Conguillío

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Thanks again to Chile’s love of feriados (bank holidays), me and a few others were able to escape the city and smog for another long weekend.

Lucy and I took a 9-hour overnight bus to Temuco (capital of Chile’s southern Araucanía Region, and the youngest of Chile’s main cities) where we joined some other friends – Polly, Gillian and Carmen – and caught a bus together to Melipeuco – a small town which sits at the base of the Andes.

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Our cabin

We were staying in a little cabaña all to ourselves just outside the town, surrounded by woods and complete with 3 layers of blankets on each bed and a stove heater (the south of Chile is cold this late into autumn). Lucy and Polly – in true rustic, DIY style – spent an hour getting the fire lit, throwing in anything flammable we could gather (receipts, egg cartons, chewing gum wrappers, toilet roll) in an effort to get the logs to catch fire. The cosiness of the cabin (in the woods) was only slightly blemished by the electricity flickering creepily, and eventually giving in until 3AM (when Poll was woken up by the kettle boiling – I had put it on whilst there was no power, considering this to be very forward-thinking).

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Magma rock and volcán Llaima

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Waterfall seen on our first day

In typical Chilean friendliness, when we arrived at the cabin, our host’s son drove us to a nearby waterfall, and then onto a viewpoint looking across a plain of dark rock that was formed from the lava spat out by Chile’s most active volcano – volcán Llaima, the name meaning ‘blood veins’ in the Mapuche language Mapudungun.

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Hitch-hiking

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Volcán Llaima

We hitch-hiked to Parque Nacional Conguillío on both of our days in Melipeuco. The first to have a short look around before it got dark, and did a miniature trek reading plaques about different Mapuche legends. The Mapuche people – who have long fought for the Araucanía region as their own and their imprint is more visible here than in other parts of Chile I have been to – believe that Llaima volcano is a living spirit, and her eruptions serve as punishment against the sins of the world: the earth’s imbalances taking shape in the form of spewing lava.

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The Park

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Canyons

On our second day, we opted for a more adventurous trail, and hitch-hiked deeper into the park – all of us wide-eyed as we drove past the plains of magma rock, snow-dusted mountain peaks and deep, dramatic canyons. We hiked through a patch of the woods and, like kids, were on a quest to discover the forest’s oldest inhabitant – an enormous, 1,800-year-old araucaria tree. In the afternoon, we picnicked beside Lago Conguillío (in total Conguillío has 608 sq km of lake): contemplating the silver water set against a radical backdrop of mountains, and framed by the forest’s autumnal oranges and reds. It was Quite Something. To mine and Gillian’s surprise and childlike joy, when we dipped our fingers hesitantly into the lake (preparing ourselves for Antarctic-temperatures) the water was warm (lukewarm – but warm), probably due to hot springs hidden somewhere in this treasure-trove of natural delights.

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A very old tree

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Araucaria forest

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Lago Conguillío

Our return hitch-hike was in the back of a pick-up, which was both Stunning and Freezing – the temperature slightly improved by swigging from the 1.5 litre box of wine we had brought along (true friends are those who support ideas like this).

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Autumn colours

I hadn’t heard much about Parque Nacional Conguillío before going there, surprising as it has turned out to be the most beautiful place I’ve visited in this country so far – I would strongly recommend visiting during the autumn months when the reds and oranges and yellows are overwhelmingly beautiful.

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Pucón

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Pucón boasts itself as a world-destination for adventure sports – The Place for adrenaline junkies seeking their fix. The area offers intense volcano treks, hydrospeeding, skydiving, horse-riding, white-water rafting, kayaking, mountain biking, and skiing (depending on the season).

Is it okay, then, to say that me and Lucy spent a lot of our long weekend-away by the hostel’s fire, playing cards? We guiltily stayed in our warm beds as “better” travellers  rose at 5.30 to hike up Volcán Villarica – a tirelessly fantastic view visible from any corner in the small town. As they returned to the hostel with incredible photos and aching muscles, we had spent the day at Termas Geométricas, bathing in hot spring water.

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Volcán Villarica

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Las Termas

We did enjoy one trip to Salto Claro, a beautiful waterfall two-hours from the town. Exhausted from this ‘intense’ day, we had to have a nap in a nearby field, enjoying the little sunshine Pucón offered us. (The area has amazing weather in Chile’s summer, but this is accompanied by heaps of tourists. The slight letdown of rain meant the Lago Villarica view was almost entirely our own). Our only major regret was that the restaurant everyone raved about – Latitude, famous for its burgers – was shut during our entire visit (if you have to choose between hiking up a volcano or an AMAZING burger – surely you opt for the latter?).

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Salto Claro

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The napping field

For future travellers to Pucón, I would definitely recommend Chili Kiwi – I have rarely been so warm and comfortable in a hostel, and it sits right by the lake’s edge. Any trip (if you have come to the adventure capital of Chile to do things – no judgement if not) is easily organized from the reception, and it felt more like we were staying in someone’s house than a hostel (lacking the typical cubicle-style showers).

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View from Chili Kiwi Hostel’s treehouse

Pucón is stunning – like all the places I’ve visited in Chile, it’s completely distinct from anywhere else in the country. The town is small, a harmonious mix of high-quality hotels, restaurant and boutique shops, and less-snazzy back-packer hostels. It’s expensive to do a lot of the activities on offer, but there are free (certain treks) or cheap (kayaking) options available. Forests – trees tinged orange and gold when we visited – and mountains wrap protectively around the town, this gorgeous setting topped off by snow-capped Volcán Villarica.

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Luce and me ❤

Creativity

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My favourite part of Chile, the part which always takes me by surprise even after eight months, is it creativity.

Creativity oozes from this country. It’s most obvious in the street art, which is like none I’ve ever seen before. Different from the graffiti words bubble-written across bridges and warehouses back in the UK, here bright, intricate art murals fill the empty spaces around Santiago: on the sides of homes, office buildings, park benches, skate ramps, public bathrooms, bus stops, rubbish bins. Every piece of this city presents an opportunity to add colour and life and stories. Santiago is even the birthplace of one of South America’s most famous street artists; INTI (Inti Castro). INTI paints bright, enormous murals, that have covered walls from Paris, to Lebanon.

The art extends beyond Santiago, to tiny towns, and beachside ruins – colour seeps everywhere. Valparaíso is the most famous example of a city saturated to the point of explosion in creativity, exhibiting urban art from Chilean and international artists. Valpo citizens once used the city’s then-empty walls and doors and stairways to express themselves against the oppressive regime of Augusto Pinochet; a silent, yet loudly colourful, form of resistance. Now the city erupts; its buildings retelling stories and history as they wind up the hills, enticing its inhabitants and tourists until they have lost themselves within the canvas.

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Release

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In summer, Santiago sweats. Skin against cloth. Skin against skin. Skyscrapers melting as air conditioners drip down their sides. The visible disappearance of snow from the Andes. The Metro transforming into a sauna, its passengers stuck to one another and sighing. Sunny pavements lay bare, empty of citizens who favor the street’s shadier other side.

It was strange to wear Christmas hats alongside our shorts and sunglasses, and stranger still to hang up decorations of snowflakes as our iced drinks melted hurriedly in sweaty palms.

The heat was everywhere; in every crack of our bodies and every conversation we had. It is what I hated about Santiago’s summer, and what I will achingly miss during England’s winter next year.

Autumn arrived with slow relief. Much as the UK’s sun will break through for an occasional – much needed – appearance after months of monotonous cloudy skies, a cool wind sporadically breaths down Santiago’s streets and alleyways. The mornings are now refreshing, with the absence of such heavy heat. And with these slight changes, I marvel at how this will be the last season change I see in Santiago.

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Playa Blanca

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At our hostel in Cartagena, Frieke and I were strongly recommended by many to visit Playa Blanca (but NOT to eat the seafood – which we did almost immediately and promptly for food poisoning). From Cartagena we took a local bus – door always wide open, never so much stopping as slowing down enough to let people jump on or off – to Pascaballos where mototaxi drivers – slightly terrifyingly – dragged us and our backpacks onto their bikes.

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Photo creds: the wonderful Frieke de Raadt

The motorbike drive was a dream – driving through wide, empty roads fringed by palm trees, tinged gold and auburn as the sun set – and the driver suggested we stop to buy supplies at a small grocery on the way (Playa Blanca has the power of isolation against its tourists and charges outrageously) – conveniently forgetting water in favour of beer and crisps.

In Cartagena were told that it wasn’t necessary to book anything in advance (a wildly spontaneous plan that made my normally over-prepared self uncomfortable) and when we reached Playa Blanca it was obvious why: the long, thin beach is full of hostels and cabanas that beg for attention as they cram against one another, each hogging a small front-seat space a few metres from a perfectly, ridiculously blue ocean. Within 15 minutes we had found a double room for £6 total, and were drinking the budget beers on our balcony.

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View from our balcony (and me matching the sea in my kikoys!)

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Our hostel

In the morning, the beach is peaceful. We swam and ate breakfast presented to us by our slightly strange (in a charming sort of way) hostess, undisturbed by other tourists or food vendors. We walked the length of the beach and admired a myriad of cabanas: each donning hammocks and colourful signs which alternatively declared peace, love or the importance of nature. The hippiness of Playa Blanca blared louder as swarms of dreadlocked tourists wandered leisurely by, happy and high. At the far end of the beach you can see one of Colombia’s largest resorts, which is separated from its bohemian counterpart by a jungle of mangroves and a break in the beach as the ocean streams into a lagoon.

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However, the peace is short-lived as, around lunchtime, the flood hits. Boats from Cartagena pile onto the shore, inundating the beach with tourists that occupy every jet ski and deckchair, whilst vendors twist their way expertly through the crowds selling fruit, coconuts and massages. By the evening, the crowds recede back to the city, and the sunset was ours to join once again. At night, the beach glows a happy neon, and reggaeton blares from bars and hostels.

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One evening we took a boat out to the lagoon to see the glowing plankton. After a short ride around the beach, we jumped cautiously into pitch-black water and marvelled at the strange light that erupted in the dark; microscopic creatures bursting into life at even our slightest movement, so that strands of our hair sparkled, and light curled and twisted around our flailing arms and legs.

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We were very sad to leave Playa Blanca… sadder still when I discovered that my passport has also been left behind… TO BE CONTINUED.

 

Cartagena

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Yellow. This is the word that comes to mind when I think of Cartagena, a port city on Colombia’s Caribbean coast. Of course, Cartagena is more than yellow – its colours come in excess. The blues and pinks and oranges spill through windows and across pavements, a child’s painting before they’ve learnt to stay within the lines. But yellow is the primary colour – whole buildings have resigned themselves to this happy shade, a lifetime’s dedication to Yellow.

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Amongst the colour is chaos. Street vendors sell everything – from freshly squeezed lime juice in broad, happy daylight, to grams of cocaine, sold in uncertain whispers in the dark corners of Cartagena’s nightlife. My favourite street delicacy was mango biche: sliced unripe mango topped with salt and lime – a strange combination I was opposed to at first. Performances erupt in street corners and on pavements – in Plaza de la Trinidad we found ourselves joining an impromptu aerobics class that had taken over the square, and attracted an audience of some 50 people. Heat adds to the commotion – colours melt and merge under the pounding sun, and sweaty tourists give in to overpriced iced water and coconut milk. At night, the chaos intensifies as Chiva buses wind round and round the city, blaring reggaeton and serving unlimited aguardiente (the local liquor – terrible) to groups of uncomfortable-looking tourists who self-consciously shake maracas in an attempt to be Part of the Spirit of Things.

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In Cartagena, we spent our days wandering (a more fun word for being lost), as Frieke (travel-companion, childhood best friend, leggy blonde with an insistence on doing everything) recounted an uncle’s advice “never take the same road twice”. We did in fact walk many roads twice (constantly losing ourselves amongst the street art), but took the advice to heart as we set out to see as much of the city as possible. We wandered along the 7-mile wall that encloses Cartagena’s old town (built over 2 centuries in defence against pirates), around the old town itself (embossed with bougainvillea and balconies) and around the city to reach Playa Bocagrande (packed with paddlers and ceviche sellers).

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Cartagena is like one enormous work of art, and everything within the city has been swept up to become part of the exhibition: locals leaning out turquoise window frames and purple vines crawling confidently up multi-coloured walls. The portrait lives and breathes, almost bursting at its rainbow seams in an effort to contain the explosion of heat and noise and so much colour.

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Photo of the Day No. 30

Photo of the Day

Two Colombian boys with their arms affectionately round each other.

The last week I’ve been getting to know Colombia’s countryside around the small town of San Agustín. Surrounded by the most stunning landscape, I’ve been working on a farm and reinforcing my knowledge about the fragility of the planet, but how there are so many ways we can start to mend it.

Parks, parks, parks

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Cities are fun, and exciting, and filled with fascinating things that clamour for attention all at once. But cities are also overwhelming. After a few days of people and metros, the countryside kid inside me (grown up surrounded by more trees than humans) whines for green.

And, luckily for me, Santiago has many interesting and stunning parks. So, in the last couple of days, I have done what I do best in big cities – visited parks. In this post I want to highlight five of my favourites:

Cerro San Cristobal:

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La Virgen de la Inmaculada Concepción

The classic. Every tourist is told to climb to the top of this cerro (hill) in Parque Metropolitano (the biggest area of green in Santiago), and enjoy the view from above (which is marvellous, except often hindered by the city’s relentless smog –I am told that after rain, the smog clears, and you can finally see the city through clean air). There are a number of routes up and down the cerro, or you can take the funicular. At the top is an enormous statue of La Virgen de la Inmaculada Concepción and, on Monday in fact, Pope Francis will be saying mass at the outdoor church at the hill’s summit.

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A smog-covered view from the top of Cerro San Cristobal

Parque Bicentenario

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Looking across the lagoon to Costanera Centre

 

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I thought this building was going to be something really cool – but it was just a bank

This park is in the fancy area of town – Vitacura. It’s a relatively new park – building completed in 2011 to commemorate 200 years since Chile’s independence from Spain. The park is beautiful though, and the view of trees against skyscrapers is quite spectacular.

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Plus, there are geese and flamingos, AND you can buy bird food for 100-pesos-a-handful (so obviously I used all the change I had to repeatedly feed the birds in the laguna de aves). I fell asleep in one of the many deckchairs you can lounge in (for free), which was exactly the kind of park afternoon I was hunting for.

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Flamencos

Quinta Normal

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Quinta Normal is my absolute favourite. The park was built in 1841 for greenhouses to grow foreign plant species. Now, though, just a skeleton of one greenhouse remains, and the trees have grown so enormous, you could actually pretend that you’re no longer in the city. There are three museums in the park: Museo de historia natural (free entrance), museo de ciencias (800CLP for adults), and one of the museos de arte contemporáneo (free). I wandered around the natural history museum and learnt about the history of Chile’s landscape, as well as saw the 18-metre-long skeleton of a Sei whale that washed up on the shore of Valparaíso in 1889.

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Old greenhouse

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Museo de historia natural

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Bizarre art on the side of museo de ciencia

I also learn about the Selk’nam people and their supposed origin (indigenous people of the Patagonian region, now considered extinct except for one man of part Selk’nam ancestry who is the last remaining speaker of the language): Selk’nam women used to paint their bodies and faces, and pretend to be spirits so that their men would be afraid of them, and subsequently submit to their will (brilliant). However, unfortunately for these amazing women, when the men found out they were begin tricked, they fought the women, killing most of them, and a new society took over where the men were in charge.

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The best thing about Quinta Normal is probably how much food you can buy there on the weekend: the main pathway swells with mini stalls selling pizza, chocolate-covered fruit, sopapillas, smoothies and anything you could want. You literally don’t have to get up, as vendors will come to wherever you are lounging.

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Adorable school trip I came across – clearly not allowed to let go of each other

Parque Arauco

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Another park in the fancy part of Santiago, Parque Arauco has a very upmarket mall in the middle of it. The park itself is surrounded by shiny blue skyscrapers, so it’s difficult to feel as though you’ve escaped the city. However, it’s fun to wander around since there’s a fake-beach (bizarre), tons of sports facilities and a skate park.

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Skate park

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Fake beach

Cerro Santa Lucía

In the center of Santiago, Cerro Santa Lucía offers another (less high) viewpoint of the city. The hill is actually a remnant of a 15-million-year-old volcano, and there is lots of shade and hidden statues in the little park. The view from the hill’s top of city against mountain summits is, like most views of Santiago, quite incredible.

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View from the top of Santa Lucía (then the Andes still had snow on them)