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Hot springs and strawberries for Christmas

Posted: 2014-12-29 16:13:00, Categories: Travel, Cycling, Chile, Argentina, 930 words (permalink)

Our plate of delicacies for Christmas eve. This year we spent an alternative Christmas by camping and visiting thermal baths along a small road crossing the Andes between Coñaripe, Chile and San Martin de Los Andes, Argentina. In the morning of Christmas eve we were the last time within the reach of mobile networks and sent some "Merry Christmas" messages to our family and friends, before being unreachable for several days.

Lying in the bath tub in Termas Trafipan, Liquiñe, Chile. On December 23rd we cycled from Coñaripe on the shore of Lake Calafquén further south-east to Liquiñe, the last village before the climb up to the Carririñe mountain pass and the Chilean-Argentinian border. There were several thermal baths in the village and nearby. We followed the suggestion of the tourist info and chose a modest one called Termas Trafipan where it was also possible to camp. It had one bigger pool with warm water, perhaps around 35 degrees, and a separate building with small private rooms, each containing a bath tub. Nothing fancy, but a good place to wash out the dust of the road.

Being used to Europe it was a little funny to have Christmas in the summer, in the middle of strawberry and raspberry season. The shops in Liquiñe didn't have a very large selection of fruits, but we did find strawberries in one of them. Knowing that it would be the last chance of shopping before over 100 km of slow mountain roads, we also bought some apples and bananas before heading forwards. A sufficient stock of rice, pasta and other dry foods we had already acquired a couple of days earlier.

Bathing in the hot pool of Termas Hipolito Muñoz. After 10 km of up and downhills we came to Termas Hipolito Muñoz. After a short look around it was clear that we'd stop there for the rest of the Christmas eve. It had an idyllic setting in the river valley, plenty of trees to provide shade from the afternoon sun and good, clean sanitary facilities. For bathing, there was one warm pool and another hot one with clearly over 40 degrees, plus showers and the river providing for cold water. All of them were outside, open day and night so it was possible to take a bath under the stars too. It was peaceful and quiet, simply a wonderful place. There was also a small rustic steam sauna, which looked interesting but the smell of sulfur was so strong that we came out after a few seconds.

There would have been cabins to rent but the weather was constantly sunny so we didn't see any need for one and set up our tent. We were the only ones camping, in addition to us there were just one family in a cabin and a couple of day guests who didn't stay overnight. We spent a relaxed afternoon in and outside the pools before preparing dinner. It consisted of spaghetti with tomato sauce, followed by tea, strawberries and a selection of cookies for dessert. We invited a Chilean couple to share the cookies with us and they brought us orange juice and avocadoes, which we had for breakfast next morning. After the sunset we had a night bath before going to sleep.

Road towards the Chilean-Argentinian border. We thought of staying a second day but decided to continue towards the border on the following day. The road became smaller and smaller but at the same time easier to cycle, because the surface was smoother than on most gravel roads which are covered with a layer of small stones. Traffic was non-existant, so we also didn't have any dust to worry about. In the afternoon we reached the Chilean border post, which was manned but closed. The suprised border guards had a short negotiation between them about whether we could stay at the border, but decided to send us away. We pedaled about a kilometer back, camped in the forest out of sight of the guards and came back the next morning.

This time we had better luck, there had been a change of shift and the new guards were ready to open the border. We were apparently the first ones wanting to cross, as it took a bit of time before they started their computer, examined our documents, took a photo of us with a mobile phone (!), and adjusted the right date in the stamp after first stamping our passports with completely wrong date. All of that was carried out in a very friendly manner and then we were off towards Argentina.

A natural hot spring in National Park Lanin, Argentina. The last three kilometers before the highest point of the pass were very steep and we had to push our bikes at least half of the way. After that it was almost as steep downhill on the Argentinian side, descending to the Lanin National Park. There we had one more visit to thermal pools, this time free ones next to a trail in the park. However, those pools had more murky water and were in general less attractive so we didn't spend too much time there.

Dry mountain scenery in Argentina. It took us two days to cycle through the park. It had less trails and facilities than the parks we had been visiting in Chile, but a similar mix of forest, lakes, rivers and mountains. When moving more east the terrain became slowly more and more dry, opening a whole new type of scenery in front of us. Eventually we also reached the Argentinian border control post, which was more than 50 km away from the actual border. Again stamps in the passports and we were officially in a new country. One more day of cycling brought us to San Martin de Los Andes, the biggest town of the region with about 24000 inhabitants.

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Volcanic scenery in Malalcahuello and Conguillio

Posted: 2014-12-29 16:06:00, Categories: Travel, Cycling, Hiking, Chile, 823 words (permalink)

The Conguillio lake, with Volcano Llaima in the background and a row of Araucarias in the front. We spent 1,5 weeks exploring the Malalcahuello National Reserve and the Conguillio National Park, both on foot and by bicycle. Both parks were dominated by volcanoes and their past activity, including several eruptions during the last 100 years. The contrast between almost black volcanic sand and lush green forests was dramatic. There were a lot of magnificent hundreds of years old trees, with thick layers of lichen growing on the trunks and hanging from the branches.

The road crossing the volcanic area in the Malalcahuello National Reserve. We started by cycling from Victoria to Curacautin and further to Malalcahuello where we stayed with Claudia from CouchSurfing. She had a beautiful house a few km outside the village, so deep in a valley between the mountains that we didn't even have mobile phone reception there. It was a good place for relaxing and an excellent base for tours in the region.

. On one day we cycled up along the road leading to a ski center at the Lonquimay volcano, the highest peak of the area. There was still quite a bit of snow covering the higher parts of the volcano, but not enough for skiing so it was off-season and quiet. From the ski center started a still smaller road, marked as being for 4x4 vehicles only but it was also suitable for bicycles.

Crater Navidad and the lava flow behind it. The road led us across dark volcanic sand to a sign which marked the start of a walking trail to Crater Navidad, the crater of the last eruption of the volcano on Christmas day 1988. After a 1,5 hour walk through the dusty sand field and a slope of loose stones we stood at the edge of the crater, at 1891 meters of altitude. It was almost 1000 meters lower than the main volcano but had a panoramic view over the lava flow and the surrounding area. The rocks at the crater had many different colours, a lot of varioud shades of red, some white, brown and yellow in addition to the dominatic nearly black rocks.

. On another day we walked the Piedra Santa trail which started down in the village and went through a forest on top of a hill. There were a lot of old trees with lichen hanging from every small branch, creating a quite special atmosphere. In higher altitudes, other tree types gave way to the Araucarias, our favourite tree because of their beautiful shapes against the blue sky. Because of the approaching holidays we called them the Christmas trees of Chile. We also saw a pair of condors cruising in the air. Otherwise there were surprisinly few birds to see or hear, we thought that in such an old forest we'd be hearing birds singing almost all the time.

. From Malalcahuello we returned to Curacautin and continued south through the Conguillio National Park. It had also black volcanic scenery like the Malalcahuello Reserve, but more lakes and also non-volcanic peaks of more than 2000 meters. The main road through the park was a narrow gravel and earth road, allowed for all kinds of vehicles but some parts would have been fairly difficult to manage with a normal car. No wonder that the most common vehicles in the Chilean countryside are 4-wheel-drive pickups, jeeps and SUVs. There it at least makes sense to have one, unlike in most places in Europe and North America where even minor roads are so good that a normal car is not only more fuel efficient but also better to drive.

Colours in the water of the Laguna Arco Iris. The highlights of Conguillio were the lakes, each of which had a different character. Laguna Captrén had sunken trees sticking out of the water and several bays with more bird life than we saw in other areas of the park. The Conguillio lake was the biggest lake with a panoramic view of the mountain range behind it, and an interesting mix of volcanic rocks and plants on the shore. But perhaps the most beautiful was the tiny Laguna Arco Iris, which was surrounded from one side by a lava field and from the other side by forest, and had wonderful colours in the water when looking down from the shore.

Me on the Sierra Nevada trail in Conguillio National Park. We also did a one day hike on the Sierra Nevada trail, which went up from the Conguillio lake to the non-volcanic peaks. We didn't climb until the top but above treeline and had very varying scenery on the way. From a distance the mountains looked a lot like the Alps in Europe, but both the trees and other vegetation were quite different.

Overall, we were surprised how few people we met on the trails. They were easy to walk and well marked, but it seemed that most of the visitors just drove through the park by car, perhaps stopping at a couple of sightseeing spots. We think that by doing so we'd be missing a lot — even by going slowly on a bicycle it's not possible to reach areas away from the roads and see the nature in the same detail than on the walking trails.

Cycling and camping in Chilean summer

Posted: 2014-12-13 14:52:00, Categories: Travel, Cycling, Chile, 931 words (permalink)

In Santiago at Elba's family's garden, ready to go. Our honeymoon trip has begun. We are currently in Curacautin in Chile, about 600 km south of Santiago and will continue towards the south. We plan to travel mainly by bicycle and take a bus or ferry for some parts of the way to reach Ushuaia, Argentina by the end of February. Here on the southern hemisphere it's the beginning of summer, with daily maximum temperatures between 20 and 30 °C and nightly minimum around 10 °C. It will get colder towards the south, but should still be good weather for camping and outdoor life.

Santiago de Chile, view from Santa Lucia hill. We packed our bicycles and other gear in two carton boxes and two backpacks and flew to Santiago, where we had the pleasure of staying with the family of Elba, our Spanish teacher in Germany. That was a great introduction to Chilean culture and a full time Spanish course for a week, with different family members coming by and talking with us. In addition to seeing around in the city and spending time with the family we took care of various practical things such as changing money, getting Chilean SIM cards for our phones and reassembling our bicycles. We also did a 1,5 day bus trip to Valparaiso, a seaside city with old colourful houses on hills.

Sandra taking a look at a waterfall by the Diguillio river. From Santiago we took a bus 400 km south to Chillan, a city of about 160 000 inhabitants in the Bio-Bio region. It was already much more relaxed than the metropolitan region and our Couchsurfing host Camila took us to a trip to the nature near the mountains. We walked to an idyllic spot by the Diguillin river, went swimming in the crystal clear water and had a picnic on the riverside rocks enjoying the sun. There was also a beautiful waterfall with a possibility to go in a small cave behind the falling water.

Sandra cycling on the Pan-American Highway. From Chillan we started our cycling tour, first following the Pan-American Highway (Panamericana). It is the main route going across the whole North, Central and South America. It was noisy and not the nicest road to cycle on, but quite safe because of the large shoulders and not as bad for the amount of traffic as most highways in Germany. In some places it was also possible to ride on a smaller service road next to the main highway.

About 80 km further south we stopped to see Saltos de Laja, well known waterfalls near the Panamericana. The walkway to the falls was lined with snack and souvenir shops, but the waterfalls themselves and the river were in a natural state, not spoiled with fences or other constructions. A great view and a refreshing shower of millions of tiny waterdrops carried by the wind from the falls.

Arto crossing a river on a small gravel road. After Saltos de Laja we chose an alternative route and got our first taste of gravel roads in Chile. First it was quite good to cycle but soon turned into fairly rough and narrow road. At one point we even had to cross a 10 meters wide and 20 cm deep river. One house had a sign saying cheese for sale — we bought some homemade fresh cheese and got a big bag of cherries from the garden as a present. It took us more than 3 hours to cycle the 20 km gravel section, but traffic was minimal and the scenery beautiful so it wasn't too bad. The last 10 km were nice, paved, quiet road and after that we joined the Panamericana again for two days.

Sunset over the river Bio-Bio. During the 240 km between the cities of Chillan and Victoria we camped four nights, every time next to a river. One of them was a campsite with facilities, in all other cases we just looked for a place ourselves or asked the locals where to pitch the tent. Sometimes it took a bit of time to find a suitable spot, as fields and forests tend to be surrounded by fences, but mostly it was quite easy. The rivers were clean and good to swim in, for cooking and drinking we filled our water bottles beforehand at a gas station or by asking for water at a house by the roadside. We're glad that tap water is drinkable almost everywhere in Chile, so we don't have to buy and leave behind heaps of plastic bottles.

Having wine with our hosts in the town of Victoria. In Victoria we thought about going to a guesthouse, but had hard time deciding whether to look for one in the city or cycle still a bit forwards. Just as we thought about leaving from the tourist info, a woman came to talk to us and invited us for a tea at her home. She was Veronica, an English teacher who wanted to practise her English with us. That suited us perfectly, we followed her to her house, had not only tea but also something to eat and soon also a place to stay. Her sisters and other members of the family came to meet us too so we had both English and Spanish practise. We showed some photos of Finland and Germany, had a bit of wine and spent a nice evening with our new friends.

From Victoria we continued further east towards the mountains on a nice, relatively quiet paved road. We saw some amazing volcanic scenery in Malalcahuello National Reserve, and tomorrow we're heading to the Conguillio National Park, planning to cross it from north to south.

Back home in Germany we arranged through CouchSurfing that a small Czech family of three are living in our flat through winter and spring until we're coming back. They're taking care of our cat Germaine, so we can travel with a peaceful mind knowing that she's in good hands.

Sabai dii Pi Mai Lao

Posted: 2013-04-30 14:00:28, Categories: Travel, Cycling, Laos, 903 words (permalink)

Playing with water during the Lao New Year. Photo by Son Paphayson. In Mid-April, in the town of Vang Vieng, we attended the cheerful celebration of Pi Mai Lao, the Lao New Year. Hundreds of people poured small buckets of water over us, wishing us Happy New Year. We joined the teams by the roadside and did our own share of watering people passing by. Beer Lao was generously offered to friends and strangers alike, music was played from large loudspeakers all around the town and everybody had a great time.

Arto sprinkling water on Buddha statues during the Lao New Year. Photo by Sandra Wilke. Traditionally, people prepare flowers and perfumed water which is taken to temples and sprinkled over buddha statues. Some of the water is carried back home and gently poured on relatives and friends, to purify them and give a good start for the New Year. This all still happens and the Buddhist New Year is a beautiful time to visit a temple, stop for a prayer and do the ceremony following the locals. We also did.

Schoolchildren wishing Arto Happy Lao New Year in the traditional way. Photo by Sandra Wilke. A newer habit is to stand in small groups by the roadside, armed with a garden hose, buckets and water guns, and to pour or throw water on everyone who passes by. People in Laos usually drive small motorcycles, which makes them good targets. Even the majority of cars are pickups or half-open trucks, with people sitting in the back unprotected from water. If someone doesn't like to get wet, it's simply best to stay indoors. Most people don't mind, as it's part of the New Year and the sun dries everything quickly anyway.

A free shower cools the body nicely when cycling. :-) In the gentle and polite version of the New Year greeting, people first wave the driver to stop. Then they pour a small amount of water on the neck so that it runs down along the back, accompanied with a cheerful wish of "Sabai dii Pi Mai", "Souksan van Pi Mai" or "Suk dii Pi Mai", which translate to "Happy New Year" or "Good luck for the New Year". If someone has a bag or something else which shouldn't get wet, it can be lifted up so that no damage is done. Especially elderly people were mostly greeted this way.

Sandra getting a full dose of water, powder and beer. Sabai dii Pi Mai Lao! We as young foreigners on bicycles were naturally fair targets for all variants of the game. Often we got several buckets of water poured over us, followed by a glass of beer to drink, which we were expected to finish before being allowed to ride forwards. Children sprayed us with water guns, sometimes with water coloured in yellow, green or red. A couple of times we also got white talcum powder sprinkled on our heads. It was fun to ride around to see and feel the party.

Motorcyclists getting wet. When we wanted to play with water ourselves, we simply stopped at one of the groups of locals by the roadside. They welcomed us enthusiastically with an extra dose of water to make sure we'd be wet enough, we got buckets, a bit of colour to the face and a glass of beer, and were ready to join the team. So we also poured and threw water on passers-by, on each other and on everybody around, wished all Happy New Year and danced to the music. As for the beer, we tried our best to drink a little bit with everyone while avoiding to get too drunk. I'd say it worked out quite well.

Water play between a pickup and a roadside team. There were also many groups driving around in pickup trucks, equipped with barrels full of water, buckets, water guns and sometimes small water bombs. They engaged in water fights with other pickups and with the teams by the roadside. Even a bigger truck with a several thousand liter tank of water drove around spraying water from a big hose. We heard that spraying water directly from garden hoses and coloured water are actually forbidden, but nobody seemed to mind. These were joyful water fights where everybody wins.

Water play: a big truck versus a group in a small dtokdtok. Officially the celebrations lasted for three days, from 14th until 16th of April. Some people started a day or two earlier, but 16th was really the last day with water play. Eating, drinking and dancing continued a day or two more, extending the party to a full week. Most of the activity happened during daytime, from about 10 am until 5 or 6 pm. In the evening nobody was throwing water any more: it was time to sit down, eat and drink with friends. Music was played at all times. In Laos nobody complains about loud music even at night, especially not during New Year. Still, after 9 or 10 pm most people went to sleep and it was already relatively quiet.

Video: A wild and funny water fight. We were impressed by the openness of people welcoming us, even though we didn't know more than a couple of words of Lao and the English abilities of our hosts were often on the same level. In Germany or Finland strangers passing by would not be so easily invited to join and warmly welcomed to a party. The attitude of the Lao people was that shared fun is more fun, and everybody is welcome. That's something we can also try to learn from them.

Overall, the Lao New Year was one the funniest festivals we've ever been to. People were happy, playful and relaxed, having a good party mood. The water play was sometimes wild, but not rough. If we happen to be in Laos or Thailand (where the festival is called Songkran) in the future at the same time of the year, we'll certainly be on the streets again.

Up and down the mountains in Northern Thailand and Laos

Posted: 2013-04-09 18:58:09, Categories: Travel, Thailand, Cycling, Laos, 1205 words (permalink)

Sandra greeting a kid by the roadside in Laos. Our bicycle tour continued to Chiang Mai, the largest city in Northern Thailand, and further North-East towards Laos. The landscape became more mountainous and the roads climbed up and down with numerous sharp curves. The temperatures were pleasantly a bit cooler than in Central Thailand, due to the higher altitude and the surrounding hills and mountains. Especially during the nights the temperatures dropped, making blankets more useful than air condition.

About 60 km north-east of Chiang Mai we came to the Bua Tong waterfall. We had seen several beautiful waterfalls a few days earlier in the Doi Inthanon national park, but Bua Tong totally surprised us. The water flowed down the cliffs in relatively small steps, which had a sandpaper like surface with a good grip. Children and adults alike were climbing up and down the falls, playing with the water. We naturally joined the party: a refreshing and fun experience!

Arto sitting in the middle of the Bua Tong waterfall, Thailand. In Chiang Khong we crossed the border over the Mekong river to Huay Xai, Laos. There we took a break from cycling and joined the Gibbon Experience, a one and a half day trip to the jungle with ziplines. Wearing a climbing harness and hanging from a metal wire, one glides through the forest and above the treetops. It was a series of exciting rides and great views to the nature at the same time, with the longest ziplines being almost a kilometer long. The night was spent in a treehouse, swinging gently in the wind several dozen meters above the ground. We didn't see any gibbons, but enjoyed the forest which had some magnificent giant trees. According to the Gibbon Experience website, the income of the activity is funding the protection of the forest. Without deeper knowledge it's hard to say how large a share truly goes to preservation, and how much building the ziplines and riding them disturbs the nature, but I do believe it's a more sustainable business model than logging and burning the forest to fields.

Riding a zipline through the jungle in the Gibbon Experience, Laos. From Huay Xai we continued further east across Northern Laos. The Lao road network is much less dense than in Thailand, so we couldn't easily plan a route on secondary roads. Fortunately the main road number 3 towards Luang Namtha was far from a busy highway, rather resembling the countryside roads we had been cycling in Thailand. The population density of Laos is less than a fifth of that in Thailand, and only few people have cars. Heavily loaded old trucks and minibuses occasionally unfreshened the air with thick black clouds of exhaust while passing us, but the traffic density was low enough not to bother us too much.

The road continued to go up and down large hills, with beautiful views down to the valleys on higher passes. The surface was paved and in good condition, a pleasure to ride. The land was partly covered by forest and partly deforested, with mainly Chinese and Vietnamese buying the wood. We saw many small rivers, which were generally cleaner than in Thailand, probably due to almost complete lack of any industry in the area.

A mountain road near Na Mor, Oudomxay, Laos. Visibility reduced due to the misty air. Both Lao and Thai people have a habit to burn patches of land, often to prepare a field but sometimes with no apparent purpose. Most of the burning happens between February and April, which in combination of the long dry period makes the air misty and dusty, like constantly being inside a thin cloud. It has not been difficult to breathe but we have certainly felt the difference from fresh and clear mountain air. We've also missed the blue sky, which will only appear again when the rainy season begins in May or June.

Roughly every five kilometers the road went through a small village. Children were happily waving and shouting "Hello" or "Sabaidee", often running to the roadside to meet us. They didn't have much but were laughing, playing and seemingly enjoying life. We rarely heard a child crying or anybody shouting in an angry voice. Adults were a bit more reserved but many still greeted us, staring, smiling and wondering why on earth were we pedaling all those uphills by bicycle when also motorcycles had been invented.

A typical bamboo hut in a Lao village, modernized with a satellite TV receiver. Most of the houses in villages were modest bamboo huts, probably similar than they've been for hundreds of years, except being nowadays equipped with electricity, tv and a satellite dish. Cooking was still commonly done on fire and washing at the village well. Here and there between the huts appeared fancier newer houses built from concrete, especially in villages located near bigger towns. Almost every village also had an elementary school, often built with the support of some charity organization. That was the situation in villages next to the main road. Rural villages tucked between the mountains, many of them accessible only via narrow dirt tracks, are apparently still less developed.

We cycled about 400 km from west to east via Luang Namtha and Oudomxay until Muang Khoua, a small town near the Vietnamese border. From there we took a two-day boat ride south on the Nam Ou river, finally joining the Mekong and arriving in Luang Prabang. The ride was very scenic, villages by the riverside only accessible by boat, fishermen, water buffaloes, small rapids, rock formations, sandy beaches and majestic mountains. Between the two days spent in the boat we stayed for two nights in Muang Ngoi, a riverside village transformed into a backpacker hangout as a result of all the boats stopping there. Despite the tourist crowds it was still a quiet and atmospheric place, having no cars and electricity only between 6 and 10 pm produced by a generator. That said, a new electricity line was just being installed and a road being built, which will certainly make a big change.

River boats on the Nam Ou river, in front of the Muang Ngoi village. In Luang Prabang we went to see some of the well-known sights. The old and beautiful Xiengthong temple and the Kuang Xi waterfalls 30 km outside the city with idyllic turquoise pools were really worth a visit. After that we headed again out to the countryside and started cycling towards Phonsavan. The road was even a bit more mountainous than earlier parts of our route, making some of the days quite exhausting. Villages seemed to be a bit wealthier than in the north, but ironically the first time children came to beg for candy and money. It didn't happen often, but a few times during our ride through the region.

Overall the pace of life in Laos is slow, slower than in Thailand. Selection in shops and on the markets is smaller, there is not much effort in arranging things attractively on the shelves and never a push to buy anything. Restaurants are serving more basic food, which however is usually tasty and not too spicy. Nobody seems to be in a hurry to go somewhere. This helps also the traveller to adopt a more relaxed and simple lifestyle. We will see how the atmosphere will change in a few days, during the celebration of Pi Mai, the Lao New Year. In addition to old traditions of cleaning homes and paying respect to the gods, the festivities include some wild partying and water throwing. In these temperatures being sprayed with water is a pleasure, so we're looking forward to joining and getting wet.

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