Thursday, May 26, 2011

Back across the Andes – this time at 4700m and going solo...

Entonces... adventuras con mi moto (… and so – adventures with my motorbike). After leaving Diego and his very small backpack in La Serena after a very successful transfer of ownership of the bike, I headed north for the first time absolutely solo - my destination was Copiapo (yes the town of last year's big Chilean mine collapse)  

Part of the attraction of having a bike, is that I can take any turn off that looks appealing – and so I did that about 200kms north of where I started and ended up in a smaller fishing village called Huasco. There I met a Chilean – Fernando, a sailor who ended up living in Norway for 30 years but returned to his village about 10 years ago. He had some wonderful stories and I ended up spending 2 nights there enjoying the village, eating seafood and visiting Fernando's olive farm.

From there I headed along a desolate but beautiful coastline of sand dunes, where I had the first of my mechanical adventures – in addition to the self inflicted running out of fuel I also had a dead battery. With the help of some locals in Caldera (nice laid back coastal town) and Copiapo (um, sorry to say not terribly exciting) I got back on the road and got ready to cross the border back into Argentina – across a 4700m called Paso San Francisco.

starting out in the foggy morning

Steadily climbing up the tarmac

The road to the pass on the Chilean side is about 200km of tarmac and gravel roads, and after steadily rising in altitude and opening up my air box because of the thinning air, I reached the Chilean border around 2pm. The original plan had been to continue up, but after some warming tea and biscuits, I was very fortunate to be invited to stay in the casa de Carabinero (the Police in Chile), which along with my first hot hot shower in 5 days and the freezing nightime temps was totally appreciated!

At the border with Mario - the carabinero

The next day I had about 30kms of sandy fine gravel to negotiate, but I got through it successfully, and made it to Laguna Verde (Green lake) – a stunning salt talk at 4500m, set in yellow/brown high altitude desert planes – an absolute marvel when you chance upon it in the barren high altitude landscape! The next day after sneakily camping inside the carabinero summer post house I had fun taking copious amounts of pictures at the border – after all how many times do you get to cross the Andes solo with a 200cc bike?? I also passed the highest volcano in South America – Ojos de Salado (source/eyes of the salt planes) and other beautiful mountains.

Cerros Tres Cruces

Cerro Ojos del Salado - highest volcano in world AND 2nd highest mountain in south america

FIrst sight of Laguna Verde - it blew my mind. I was just yelling out loud to well no-one.

After suitably jumping around under the international border crossing and flying my kite in celebration, I made my way back into Argentina proper – and after all that gravel, to see pavement was absolute heaven!

At the border - 4726m high!

Cerro San Francisco

Why did the guanaco cross the road?

So it's been a week now since the crossing – I've met some very generous locals – both in Chile and Argentina (I'm soon going to do a blog on the characters I met), visited 2 Inca ruins at El Shincal and Quilmes, have passed through Cafayate (a fantastic wine region and also laid back town which is one of the places I'd like to return to), achieved my first helmet face tan (very attractive) as I passed through ancient rock pinnacles north of Cafayate, zipped through the cute touristic town of Cachi and rode pedestrian bridges to small campsites, and now I'm in my last big city in Argentina – Salta. From here the plan is to hopefully meet up with another female motorbike rider – and do the Salar de Uyuni – high altitude salt planes between Chile and Bolivia.

Back on Ruta 40

Garganta del diablo - near Cafayate

Quebrada de las Conchas - near Cafayate

A little bit dead and sore after 50kms cycling

Adobe houses on the way to Cachi

Way to Cachi

Amazing rock formations

Near Cachi

I am enjoying riding the bike so so so so so so much – the freedom, the 'bad ass'-ness of it all, and the reactions of locals (you are travelling – alone – on a motorbike – alone – a woman? – really?!), picking routes on the map, stopping waay to much for pics – all of this is definitely making it THE way to travel South America. Also getting to do things like ride over footbridges first thing in the morning....

Bolivia is next after a bit of bike maintenance in Salta – it's going to be a completely different country to travel in, and I am looking forward to it!”

So – until I've conquered the salt flats...adios amigos :)


Saturday, May 21, 2011

The taste of my travels

I've written a lot on the amazing scenery and experiences I've been having so far on my travels, but not much on the food; and considering I spend approximately 16 hours a day either thinking about what to eat, looking for things to eat, eating, planning the next meal or musing on what I've just eaten, it's high time I write about it as well. However due to the way I'm travelling, instead of being a critique on restaurants and the usual tourist fare, it will be more of a reflection of those moments my nose and taste buds have made my face break into a big grin, and my tummy smile on the inside (and at times develop a little bit of a pot belly).

So to do my tummy justice, I've compiled a 'food' album for those interested in the good things in life:)

Most of you know me pretty well, and so you know that food just makes me happy. What you might not know is how happy – one of the best things for me about going to bed is that I get to wake up and start eating again! A bad meal is just so disappointing – like I've wasted a chance to eat on something crap.

One of the great things about hiking a lot and staying in campsites is that you can easily cook something up – and get inventive in the process! Some of the best meals (there's a list below) were fired up over coals.

I'm going to do a bit of reflection on the best food and wine moments so far, then hopefully as the trip continues I'll post up the individual moments as they occur...
As well as the pics I've posted up below, there's more on a dedicated food album. Oh yes, there is a food album. Some are repeated from previous posts/albums, but there's some new ones as well.

The good stuff...
First off – Argentina. On the whole Argentina has sadly not been a particular food destination in my experience, but there have been a couple of stand out ingredients and dishes that I'll try to relay the experience off:

  • Simply – carne (meat): what all the tourist guides say is true – the meat here is really, really amazing. Even in a top end meal, whatever fancy things they try to do around it or in lead up dishes, the flavour and melting texture of beef just stands out and makes everything else cry. You can buy good quality meat in even the smallest town, and what may look like a rolled up slab of marbled back loin, just needs to be thrown on a grill over coals and cooked as you like it. You can definitely season it, but even on its own it just is bursting with flavour and tenderness. There are many cuts available; and having a parilla (grill) or asado (bbq) is an integral part of family gatherings and other meals.
  • Potatoes (papas): they are tasty tasty as here – and there's a lot of it so that's good. Don't quite beat the potatoes that I had in Nepal (the high altitude appartently is perfect for growing) but pretty close.
  • Empanadas – pastry/turnovers/pasties – for me the best are when the pastry is flaky (like puff pastry). The most fancy one I've had was chicken, orange and cashew, and the best on the street one was chicken, olive, egg and vegetable.Also like the simplicity of caprese (in Argentina – basil, cheese, tomato) as well Humita (corn). In Santiago I also got happily engrossed in making these at the hostel – there's more on that below. They are either baked in an oven, or fried. Generally in Argentina I had baked, but on the coast in Chile, particularly in the small fishing ports they are generally fried, and let me tell you, on a cold misty morning nothing beats a fried jaiba (crab) or mariscos (seafood) parcel of steaming tasty fried goodness.
Jaiba (crab) empanada in Horcon, Chile
  • Choclo (corn) – in the husk, on the coals... exploding golden nuggets. Priceless.
  • Batata (like quince paste) – sold in big blocks in Argentina, nice (obviously) with cheese:).
  • Helado in Argentina (ice-cream) – I've devoted many words to this already. Suffice to say that especially at Jauja in Patagonia it is simply heaven in a cup.
  • Chorizo especial from Villa Trafful, Patagonia in Argentina. Chorizo everywhere was pretty good, but this one was muy espeical y rico (tasty)!
  • Dulce de leche – caramel. In both Chile and Argentina, eaten by the potful, and used a lot in pastries and other sweeties.

if the saving grace for Argentina is carne, then for Chile it's mariscos – seafood. On the whole though, I enjoyed the food more in Chile – maybe that was who I ate with or that I LOVE seafood and had loads of it but on the whole I found it a little more enjoyable on the whole. If you're keen to see typical types of Chilean food, check out this handy list of pics and descriptions. For me, the highlights were:
  • Ceviche/mariscos (raw fish, seafood) – only had in Chile – can cheaply pick these up in street markets, or at the small fishing ports.
Paila Marina (seafood chowder) in Caldera, Chile

In the market - Copiapo. Pots of Ceviche for $2

  • Macha con parmesana (shellfish) – this was cooked for me by a couch surfing host – Victor in Valparaiso. Fantastic.

  • Cazuela (like a stew) – very simple, good hearty food.

Best meals so far:
  • Steak on numerous campfires – no fancy stuff. Just ask for a cut for asado or parilla, and throw it on a grill over hot coals. Juicy, succulent, full of flavour, delish.
  • Hamburgesa completa (a BIG hamburger, well with everything) – The best I had was in Puerto Natales, it still ranks as one of my top meals. Maybe that was to do with eating it after 5 days in the rain in Torres del Paine? It was beautiful and with palta – avocado.
  • Meals cooked with Yas and Matt in our hostel kitchen in Santiago – from home made empanadas, thai coconut soup, fig and cheese tart.

  • Bread baked on a campfire – yes it's easy and very very tasty!
  • Spinach & egg pasta – this has become a favourite, spinach, onion with pasta in raw egg.
  • Meals at the eco yoga park – early on in my journey I stayed at a hare krishna park – the food was mostly grown on the farm, entirely vegetarian, and very tasty.

Where I've been shopping:
  • Markets – esp for fruit & veg, and my staple, nuts and grains. Anyone who's travelled with me knows I have an seemingly endless supply of nuts, sultanas, grains etc. The street markets are miles cheaper than supermarkets as well.
  • Bread baked on a campfire – yes it's easy and very very tasty!
  • Todo suelto (everything loose) shops – the secret source of my stashes of nuts, dried fruits, legumes, grains and spices.
Haul post visit to everything loose shop

The alcohol
First off – wine, it's fantastic – big bold Syrah/Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvingon in Argentina and Chile, smooth Carmenere and crisp whites in Chile also. Dare I say it, although I drank more in Argentina, I think I like it better in Chile. It might just be the Carmenere; a variety smooth like a merlot, but much more full bodied. This was a variety of grape that for decades had been lost but was found growing in multitudes in Chile and marketed as Merlot.
In the UK or Australia, you spend about £15 or $20 for a decent bottle, here you spend the equivalent of £2-4, $2-5 for something decent. It's heaven.

Beer for me as well has been great – not so much that it's great, but on a hot day travelling through desert landscapes, it's worth it's weight in gold.

Pisco sour – Pisco is distilled from grapes, and Chilean/Peruvian. I first overindulged with these on the boat in Antarctica with Dana, and tucked into them again in Santiago. A Pisco Sour is pisco, lemon juice, sugar and egg white. Awesome.

Other drinks
Unfortunately for me, the coffee has been disappointing, so I'm going to save writing about this until I get further north. But, I can tell you about:
  • Mote con huesillo – this is wheat grains with peaches and syrup. Found in Chile, it's an odd combo but not bad!

  • Mate – found mostly in Argentina and southern Chile, the best thing about mate is the way you drink it. It is shared with others, and sipped slowly, so becomes much of a contemplative or social experience. In Argentina I had some, but wasn't at the point of making it myself, but since I've been in Chile, I've started making it for myself and really enjoying it. It's drunk out of a metal straw, out of a wooden cup (gourd).