Tag Archives: South America

Day 3 – Ushered through Ushuaia

Monday 19 February 2024 – We were due to be collected at 0800 to be taken to Buenos Aires’s domestic airport for our flight to Ushuaia, so the alarm was a little early, but, hey, we’re travelling; early alarm calls are routine. The hotel breakfast was fancy but otherwise unsatisfactory; we like yoghurt and fruit and wholesome things, whereas what was on offer was elegant but largely pastry-based. No matter; we got some sustenance and a car turned up at 0800 to take us, via a strange and circuitous route, to what felt like a very dodgy entrance to the departures bit of Aeroparque Jorge Newbery – it was surrounded by people who looked like they had no business there, but there was at least the reassuring presence of some people wearing high-vis vests and earpieces to counter any nervousness.

Any nervousness which had been dispelled was immediately rekindled on entering the place. It was a fucking zoo.

It really was difficult to work where one was supposed to go, since absolutely everywhere seemed to start with a queue.  In the end, Jane spotted a desk with no queue marked “Sky Priority” and so we thought we’d blunder up and pretend to be ignorant British tourists, which was frankly not much of a stretch for our acting abilities.  Remarkably, it turned out to be exactly the right place to get us checked in and we were on our way upstairs to the departure gates in very short order.

The departure area was a splendidly calm contrast to the barely-contained stress of all those check-in queues.

We treated ourselves to coffee and then pottered on to security. The journey through the vetting seemed to be going OK until an operative, seeing me about to pick up my backpack, came over and said “yours?”.  When I said yes, he pointed to the tripod strapped to the outside and said something that sounded like “check or discard”.  I didn’t understand and he found an English-speaking colleague who explained that tripods weren’t allowed in cabin baggage as they might be used as weapons, so my options were: take it back downstairs; or discard it.

This was a bit of a facer, frankly. I had travelled to, across and home from the whole of continental North America with a tripod strapped to the very same backpack with nary a murmur from the authorities. Since we appeared to have only about 30 minutes until boarding and I simply couldn’t face the prospect of going back down into the zoo, I was on the point of discarding the thing when another official did what officials are normally trained not to do – he came to the rescue.  The tripod in question is a Joby Gorillapod, which has bendy, rubber-covered legs intended to enable setup wrapped around things or in other oddball circumstances.  As such, he deemed it not to be a weapon. Its status as a non-weapon could be confirmed if we could fit it inside our carry-on rather than strapped to the outside, thus rendering it completely non-dangerous. Fortunately, Jane’s backpack had room and we could carry on with our tripod as carry-on. Blimey, what a carry-on!

The rest of the journey to Ushuaia passed off perfectly uneventfully, except for the service of some undistinguished sandwiches, some adequate biscuits and a drink that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea*.

After about three and a half hours we arrived at Ushuaia. It was clear that this was not a major international air transport hub from the baggage collection area.

A couple of minutes after we arrived by the carousel, the belt started and a quite remarkable thing happened.

My bag was first off the plane!

Looking back, I’m not quite sure why I’m rejoicing, here.  It means that I’ve used up my lifetime quota of swift baggage delivery and it will never happen again! However, it was very satisfying for a few seconds there.

As usual with Sunvil’s excellent organisation, someone was there to meet us.  She wasn’t quite up to speed with the details of our itinerary, but got us delivered to a car, which got us delivered to our hotel. The car reminded us that we had come a long way from the Big City, as its seating had seen many, many better days and it had cardboard squares as its interior mats. This latter, though, makes sense if much of the time your likely passengers are wearing heavy boots because there’s a lot of snow and ice around.

Our hotel, the Cilene del Fuego, is a modern and rather funky building

in which our “room” was more of a family suite – two bedrooms, two bathrooms (one of which featured a very modern, Japanese-style loo with a heated seat and technology to burnish one’s post-visit bottom) and a kitchen. It also had great views over downtown Ushuaia.

It was barely mid-afternoon by this point, giving us a good opportunity to spend a little more time walking round the town than we had six years previously.  So we went for a walk. Obviously.

All the way round our walk, we were struck by the similarities between here, Iceland and some of the remoter towns we’d visited in Canada – colourful constructions,

street art

quirky corners

and dodgy pavements. It was often safer to walk in the road because the pavements were chewed up by, we assume, years of freezing, thawing, snow and ice and were seriously trappy for the unwary pedestrian.

For me, it was quite strange; walking along, I was often sure I was in Reykjavik and it jarred when I saw or heard Spanish – a slightly surreal experience.

We walked along by the seafront and the port, where in places the barrier rails have been rather nicely decorated,

and where you can walk past the hulk of the tugboat St. Christopher,

which has a bizarre and incomprehensible back story. Originally HMS Justice and built in America, it is still a mystery to me as to why one would rename a sunken and abandoned hulk after the patron saint of travellers.

Given that Ushuaia considers itself the capital of Las Islas Malvinas (!), it’s also inevitable to pass references to the war of some 40 years ago.

After all that walking, we needed to find a late lunch and so we blundered about until we happened upon Kuar,

unfortunately just in the interregnum between serving lunch and starting dinner.  With only 40 minutes or so to wait until the kitchen re-opened, it seemed a good idea to just take a drink and so we did, adding a local gin, Oid Mortales, to our repertoire as seasoned, nay pickled, gin drinkers. Its name comes from the “Argentinian” National Anthem, as it happens.

We eventually got some empenadas and salads which were only slightly affected by the fact that the kitchen had run out of lettuce.  All in all, it was a genial, if slightly eccentric, experience.

As we headed back to the hotel, our final action was to aim to recreate a photo that I’d taken on our previous visit here, for comparison purposes.  Here is how they look, side by side, now (left) and then (right).

This, then, was our time in Ushuaia – slightly more than the hour or so we had to wander about six years ago, and enough, particularly added to the places we’ve been and the sights we’ve seen since, to make us look more fondly on the place.

Tomorrow sees the start of the main chunk of this trip, as we embark on M/V Hondius to explore the Falklands, South Georgia and Antarctica. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading these pages about the early stages and you’ll stay with us over the next weeks. I’ll publish what I can as and when technology connects me to the internet to share our progress.

  • Hat tip to Douglas Adams, HHGG#1

…And Boats (well, Boat)…

19th April 2018

The last Major Tourist Thing on our itinerary was a boat ride on Lake Titicaca, proudly calling itself “the highest navigable lake in the world” on the basis that there is a steam ship in the harbour which took two years to assemble from 2,500 parts which were made in England and shipped to Puno by rail over a period of four years. So we’ll give them that, shall we?

As usual with Major Tourist Things, the bloody alarm went off at 0500 so we could catch a boat on the lake. We knew from the comprehensive itinerary that Sunvil had prepared for us that this Major Thing would have two component bits: a visit to the lake-dwelling Uros tribe; and a visit to another island called Taquile where we could wander round (lunch included). Nothing in the descriptions we’d seen prepared us for the utterly absorbing day we experienced.

The waters of Lake Titicaca (pronounced with very strong K sounds and meaning stone (titi) puma or cat (kaka) due to a fanciful interpretation of its shape) are very shallow in the Puno section (there’s a bottleneck caused by a pair of peninsulae which separate it from the main body of the lake). This shallow section hosts a vast area of reeds, which the Uros tribe (a pre-Inca people) used at first to make boats that they could live on which could easily be moved as a defensive tactic. This graduated into the building of rafts and there are now several dozen such rafts which are the location for an entire way of life.

OK; so far, so good. What we were utterly unprepared for was the scale and sophistication of the area. These pictures show you just one side of a channel, and the other side was of the same order of size.

Uros tribe rafts

Here are a couple of video clips, one of each side of the main channel, which I also hope get across the scale of what’s there.

A post shared by Steve Walker (@spwalker2016) on

A post shared by Steve Walker (@spwalker2016) on

We landed on one of the rafts and were treated to a comprehensive education on how the rafts are made.

Some day I shall try to make a video about it, but basically what you see in front of you is some approximately one-metre-square chunks of reeds that have been hacked out of the mass of reeds because they have broken free of the mud and started to float. These days the people use large saws to hack out sections, but they used to use much more primitive tools (something like a large, bladed hoe) to do this. They embed sticks into each section which they then bind together – again, today with nylon cord, but originally with rope made from reeds.

The bound sections are then left for a month so the living reeds can grow cross roots bonding the whole thing together; they can then be hauled into place and added into already-extant rafts, after which they’re covered in a reed flooring (about 1 metre of layers placed alternately at right angles to each other) and so are ready for building reed houses on. The flooring has to be continuously renewed as it rots away from the bottom, and so occasionally they have to lift a house, refresh its reed base and replace it. The whole raft is anchored in place to stop them waking up in Bolivia if the weather turns nasty.

It’s very obviously a major undertaking and it takes a lot of maintenance. But the end result is something that can support a group of people consisting of several families.

A post shared by Steve Walker (@spwalker2016) on

(We were told that if a family in a community annoyed everyone else they were simply cut free.) There is a medical centre, school, churches… a population of around 1,000… the mind boggles.

The original tribes lived on boats and it’s clear that boats are still very much part of their culture – apart from anything else, they need to use them to get necessities from the mainland such as fabric for clothing, fruit and veg (although the reeds are edible) and so forth. Some of the boats they build are large (double-decker, in fact) and capable of carrying several people, and are often decorated with ceremonial animals

People aboard an Uris boat

and they are moved by two Uros rowing at the front (as you can see from the first video clip in this post) – at that altitude, they must be really fit!

The Uros people don’t shun modern technology at all – they have solar panels for electricity, for example, although there’s no internet. Tourism is clearly a major source of income, although I gather that the tourist boats that visit them tend to alternate sides of the channel so that individual communities are not beset every day. The people knit and weave and so have produce that they can sell to visitors, but the retail opportunity is nicely managed and not at all importunate. They managed to separate us from a few dollars for something we didn’t really need, but we gladly paid up, as the experience, particularly that of being rowed about on one of their “Mercedes Benz” boats, was so striking and such a pleasure.

The next stage of the day was a visit to a real, solid, island called Taquile which is out into the major part of the lake. We landed at one pier, and embarked on a short hike around the island, on a prepared path, to another pier where our boat was there to meet us. We had to take things quite slowly, as the path was at times steep, and we were at over 3,800m above sea level.

Taquile Landscape

The island is a pleasant place, with much terracing for people to farm crops.

Taquile Landscape

and it’s divided into six neighbourhoods (based around the six families who originally settled the island in Inca times); each neighbourhood is demarcated by a stone arch.

A traditional stone arch

We stopped for lunch at a place which caters only for visitors. The island doesn’t have hotels and restaurants, although people can visit and stay with families to learn aspects of the local ways of life; and families eat at home. But we and other tourists were served a very agreeable lunch of quinoa soup and trout. Before lunch, our guide, Aidee, explained some details of the culture that the island people are working hard to keep active. A key aspect of this culture is the clothing, and there are many things that people wear to show their status or role in the society. All of these things are knitted (by men) or woven (by women) on the island and it was fascinating to learn about them.

Taquile hats and other knitted and woven garments

Above, moving roughly from right to left:

  • A loom which men use to weave belts made from the hair of their fiancee (collected from childhood onwards).
  • A felt hat which signifies a person of authority – mayor, head of council, police, with, underneath it the multi-coloured wollen headpiece signifying that this was the island’s mayor.
  • Above the hat, a shawl, with pom-poms. The pom-poms come in various sizes and levels of flamboyance, depening on whether the woman wearing it is on the lookout for a husband, or is married, etc.
  • Three woollen hats, knitted by the men of the island signifying (from right) a married man, a boy child and a girl child.
  • Among the hats is a part-knitted sample to show how fine the knitting is. We were told that one test a woman can make of a man’s knitting skill, when deciding whether to marry him or not, is to empty water into one of his woollen hats. If the water stays in the hat, he is a fine knitter; if it drains away, he needs to go and practice more.
  • At top left, a colourful bag which married men use to carry coca leaves (used instead of a handshake as greeting).
  • At bottom left, two belts, the upper one woven by a woman from wool and the lower one by a man from human hair. When a man and a woman get married, two of these belts are joined together as a symbol of the union.

The women really do spin wool in the old traditional way, with a spindle, and the men really do knit.

A man knits

This very well-defined culture was as unexpected of the island visit as the scale of the raft society was earlier in the day, and so we made it back to Puno feeling that we’d had a very rich pair of experiences, and that we got very much more out of our last day in South America than just a token piece of tourist activity.

Tomorrow will be Time For The Journey Home. But now it’s Time For The Bar.

Trains (well, train)….

18th April 2018

[Short read but lots of pictures alert]

All too soon our day of leisure in Cusco was over and the relentless tourism resumed with an 0500 alarm set for the next day, all so we could go and catch a train. Not just any old train, though – we would have got up later for that – but the Titicaca train, operated, as is the Machu Picchu service we travelled, by PeruRail, and thus sharing many of the same characteristics – friendly staff, drinks and food on board and a fashion show to try to extract a few extra tourist dollars. However, the journey we were undertaking was a significant one – over 10 hours to cover the 384 kilometres from Cusco across the mountains to Puno, on the shores of Lake, you guessed it, Titicaca. (Starting altitude 3,354m above sea level, finishing at 3,828m and, in the middle, getting up as high as 4,319m – over 14,000 feet, and within a very short spit of 2.7 miles high. By way of comparison, the cabin pressure you experience on a typical jet flight is equivalent to an altitude of 2,000 – 2,500m).

If one has to spend 10 hours on a train going over very significant mountainous terrain, it’s reassuring to know that a full meal (and bar) service is provided, as is an observation car.

Prompt at 0710 we started the journey and it was immediately clear that we were in for some great scenery.

The Titicaca Train rounds a bend

Landscape seen on the Titicaca Train

It was also nice to see the locals waving a friendly greeting as the train went by.

as well as some who were simply gettiing on with the daily grind of, for example, subsistence farming of quinoa,

A farmer with her crop of red quinoa

or llamas

Llamas roaming the plain

which may well have this as their home.

After a short while, the entertainment started in the bar.

and it became clear that the repertoire of traditional Peruvian music stopped at around El Condor Paso (yes, the tune immortalised by Simon and Garfunkel) and tunes such as Hotel California and Sweet Child of Mine were pressed into service – all with some skill and great verve. There was also a dancer

who had at least one costume change and who also got passengers involved in the fun.

And then it was time for the fashion show.

before we had a stop at the highest point, La Raya, where – goodness me! – there was a retail as well as a photo opportunity. My, what a surprise!

Retail opportunity at La Raya

The train stops at La Raya

Then lunch was served and we could all settle in to a nice siesta.

The scenery continued, of course

(the power of prayer clearly being insufficient to hold this church together)

Landscape seen on the Titicaca Train

and then we noticed a bit of a change in the landscape, from the absolutely ubiquitous terracing (e.g. above) to stone-walled corrals

perhaps indicative of a move out of the Inca influence and towards the Titicaca tribes, who it is thought were the first to people the land in Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia. But this was only temporary, and before too long we were back to terracing, so who knows?

As time moved on, the landscape flattened out and we passed all sorts of rural scenes: evidence of oat farming on quite a big scale;

as well as subsistence farming (this is quinoa)

Subsistence farming near Juliaca

and we’re not sure what this chap was carrying.

Adobe is a common building material

and we even saw a couple of flamingoes, something I had never expected.

And then….we hit the outskirts of the major town of the area, Juliaca (whence we shall fly en route home in a couple of days). It was, frankly, dispiriting, with a very scruffy industrial area outside the town

which gave way to an extraordinary scene – a market of sorts, bordering the railway, for what seemed like several kilometres into the town.

The Juliaca railside market
with stalls literally within centimetres of the train as it went by – and even….

…on the track itself! I’ve called it dispiriting, but I guess it’s just how life goes here, and people were calling out cheerily to the train as we went by; they didn’t seem dispirited.

From Juliaca to Puno is flat and uneventful, although you do start to see the incursion of Lake Titicaca as you go along.

The shores of Lake Titicaca in the late afternoon

The shores of Lake Titicaca in the late afternoon

From a brief conversation with a guide, I believe we’ll find out much more about this when we go out on the lake tomorrow. You’ll have to stay tuned to find out, won’t you?