Welcome to our travel blog. We are Tabitha and Nic. In 2011 we 'retired' in our early 40s and set off to travel the world. We spent our first year in South America and have been lucky enough to make two trips to Antarctica.

Our blog is a record of our travels, thoughts and experiences. It is not a guide book, but we do include some tips and information, so we hope that you may find it useful if you are planning to visit somewhere we have been. Or you may just find it interesting as a bit of armchair travel.

Saturday, December 31, 2011

What is it with us and fire?

So those of you who have been reading the blog for a while will already know about our fire experience at Shangri-la when the lodge that we were in burnt to the ground. You may not know that we just missed a fire in Argentina too. Apparently the estancia we were staying at back at the end of August suffered quite a serious fire just after we left too. And no, we didn't start that one either.

So we had one that happened after we left and then one while we were there. Now we have heard that the fire has overtaken us and is getting to places even before we do.

We were planning to be in Torres del Paine, which is a national park in Chile famed for its mountains and trekking routes, for about six days towards the end of January but we have just discovered that there is a major fire in the park. The people that we booked our accommodation through contacted us yesterday to tell us that the park has been closed and everyone evacuated; obviously we were hopeful that by the time we were going to be there the fire would be out and as long as it hadn't hit the accommodation, we would still be able to go. But having done a bit of internet searching we have just found some news articles that say that the Chilean President Sebastian Pinera has now announced that the park will remain closed for the whole of January. So much for that then!

Will now need to rethink our plans slightly. And we have another reason to come back here at some point in our travels.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Santiago stopover

After Christmas in Mendoza, we took another overnight bus back to Santiago to stopover there for a couple of days before moving on to our next destination.  It left Mendoza at 10:45pm and was due to arrive at 5:45am, and as there was a border crossing en route that had taken us two hours on the way to Mendoza, we knew that sleep would be limited and disturbed. But we had booked good seats on the bus with the hope of giving ourselves some chance of sleep, and they were comfortable so that was fine.  However we had a couple of girls in front of us who didn't stop talking and giggling all the way to the border, so no sleep up to then.
Santiago viewed from Cerro Santa Lucia

Three hours later, at just after 4:30am, we finally left the border.  Separate grumpy posting to follow on this point, but we guessed that the 5:45 arrival was now unlikely.  Thankfully, the girls in front had obviously decided it might be a good idea to get some rest themselves, and they finally shut up, so we could get some sleep.  And we actually arrived in Santiago at about 7:30am.

Luckily though, having been in the city before, we knew where we were headed and how to get there, so by 8:30 we were at the hostel -sadly no more fancy apartments or hotels now!  Having checked in, the guy took us back outside t use some other stairs which he said were better for us with our rucksacks.  The stairs were fine, but nothing special so we wondered what the issue was.  When we saw the stairs inside, we saw the problem.  They have a very steep and narrow spiral staircase for normal use.  I am not the only one who found this a bit of a bugger just carrying a small bag, and I reckon that getting up it with a large rucksack, plus a daypack would have been highly challenging.
I seriously hope that we can leave by the other stairs too because  I think getting down will be even worse.  The steps are almost vertical behind you when you go down, so with a pack on you would be leaning forward at a very precarious angle!

Cerro Santa Lucia Santiago

Having got over the shock of the stairs, we also found that there was an Intrepid group booked into the hostel too.  Intrepid is a sister company to Dragoman.  They do similar trips but don't have the trucks.  They have a tour leader who sorts out all of their accommodation and transport, but they use public transport all the way.  That said, their intrepid rating dropped a few notches for us when we discovered that whilst they get the buses etc between cities, they use taxis to get to and from the bus stations.  We figured that particularly in a city like Santiago, if we can get the metro and walk, they should be too!   And yes I  know we have used some taxis too but that's not the point - they are supposed to be intrepid, we don't have to be!

But taxis transfers aside, it was good to have a chance to chat with some of the group about their trips.  Most of us signed up for the hostel barbecue in the evening, which was excellent by the way, so there was plenty of time to get to know what everyone was doing.  Some of their group were just starting on the trip here, some were but already had done a bit of travel first, and a few had been on the trip since Quito in Ecuador.  They had followed broadly the same route as us in reverse, so we compared experiences and our views of the different places we had been.  Between us I think we managed (unintentionally of course,) to create a bit of anxiety amongst some of the newbie travellers about the standards of toilets and food they could expect along the way.  Oh well!

Cerro Santa Lucia, Santiago
We also discovered that one of the girls is going to be joining a Dragoman truck up to Rio for the Carnival after this trip, and we reckoned it was quite likely that she would be on with the same crew we had.  We told her to say hello for us, but decided against warning her about their peccadilloes - it seems more fun that she should find out for herself.
Whilst in Santiago we had one practical task and one sightseeing activity planned to do.  The practical was to send a package back to the UK.  We figured that as we were heading back to the cold weather, I should send my panama sun hat back rather than keep carrying I around, and we had a few other bits and pieces that were no longer needed.  Thankfully the queue at the post office here was rather less than it was in BsAs (if you can remember that far back) and once we had acquired a couple of boxes from a local shop, we were well on our way to ticking that off.

Darwin plaque, Santiago

The sightseeing bit was only a small one, but we had missed doing it first time around and thought we should out that right.  There is a rocky hill in the old centre of Santiago called Cerro Santa Lucia, which is referred to as the lungs of Santiago.  On the way up there are some little plazas, a fountain, a church, a little castle and then at the top a lookout point over Santiago.  It was fairly simple, but quite pretty and the view was good.  This seems rather ironic as Santa Lucia, or Saint Lucy, is apparently the patron saint of the blind.

Charles Darwin apparently visited Cerro Santa Lucia when he was in Santiago in 1831 and was quite taken with the view from the hill.  The locals must have been quite proud of this as they named one of the plazas on the hill after him and have embedded a plaque in the rock that quotes him on the fact.
So having accomplished our two tasks, it is goodbye to Santiago for the third and final time.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Back in Mendoza for Christmas

Whilst clearly I don't expect much sympathy from those of you having to go to work every day, all this travelling is tiring stuff, so we decided that we would take a break over Christmas and stay in one place for a while.  We had already booked ourselves into a nice hotel in Mendoza for three nights over Christmas itself, and we had like the place when we were here before, so we decided to book ourselves into the hostel here for six nights too.

Part of the logic was that the hostel has a fantastic wifi connection, so we were able to use the time to upload all of our photos onto the internet so that we know they are safe should we be robbed or end up in another fire or anything.  I also used the time to try to catch up with a few blogs and getting some of the missing photos onto the blogs.  I have caught up as far as Raqchi now, so the photos of Machu Picchu are on, but I still have a few more to go, and for some reason that seems to be beyond my technical abilities, I can't get some of them to load onto the embedded slideshow, so I may need to find a workaround for that.

As it turned out it was as well that we stayed put for a while, because on our arrival at the hostel, Nic managed to cut his foot. It wasn't terrible, and I had my little first aid kit ready and able to deal with it, but it was best that he wasn't having to walk on it too much or be carrying a rucksack.  He heals fast anyway, so it was fine by the time we left on 27th.

So while the rest of you were running around making all of your last minute Christmas preparations and doing the food shop etc, we were relaxing in Mendoza drinking wine and beer.  Not that I'm gloating you understand (as if I would), it's just that it is a very different way of living.  We actually found it really strange not to be doing any of the Christmas shopping, writing cards, wrapping presents etc, and in particular to be in a place that was averaging 30 degrees centigrade.  It also is the kind of time that you most notice that you don't have your family and friends around you, which is of course the thing that you do miss when away from ´home´ for a long time.

Christmas is celebrated a bit differently here as they focus their effort on Christmas Eve.  We booked into the hotels traditional argentinian grill for its Christmas Eve dinner. It was an impressive buffet of starters, an unlimited grill of steaks, pork, chicken etc, and another impressive buffet of desserts, all washed down with as much champagne and wine as you could manage.  We had been chilling out in the spa and having a massage during the day, so we arrived fairly early for an Argentinian meal at 9pm and we wew some of the first there.  However we were also some of the last to leave a little after midnight, so we managed to empty a few bottles for them in that time!

Santa arrived at midnight, and had a little bottle of sparkling wine for everyone, so we had our photo with him, and then went back to our room to let the food go down before getting to bed late.  Happily breakfast was served until 11am, so an early morning was not required.

Christmas Day itself was very laid back, with a late breakfast, champagne cocktails on the sunny terrace, a few phone calls to family and, in keeping with normal Christmas traditions, more food and wine.  It was a nice day, and having treated ourselves to the good hotel it did feel good, but it didn't really feel like Christmas.  We will have to consider in future whether that matters or not, and if it does, we will perhaps need to find some ways to create our own Christmas wherever we may be.

But all in all, it was nice to stay put for a while, catch up with some of our tasks, and generally just relax before we hit the road again on 27th.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas

With Santa on Christmas Eve
For someone who has always wanted Christmasses to be white, it feels very strange to be celebrating it this year in the 33 degree heat of Mendoza, Argentina.
Nic with Xmas lights in Mendoza

The main event here is on Christmas Eve, and we booked ourselves into the event at our hotel, so we spent the evening eating parilla (barbequed steak) and drinking the local wines with tourists and Mendocians.  We were some of the last people there as ever, and at midnight, we got a visit from Santa with a little gift each of a little bottle of champagne.

Champagne cocktails on Christmas morning

Today is a leisurely day, and we are taking advantage of the sun by drinking the local bubbly on the hotel terrace.  Not exactly a traditional Christmas, but that is what our travelling is about - seeing new things and living in different ways.  We have been away for just over six months now and we are loving our new life; the only downside is that we don't get to see our family and friends.

So we would like to wish those of you reading our blog a very Merry Christmas and hope that 2012 brings you what you most want.  And don't forget to send us a message or comment occasionally so that we know you're there.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011


Vineyards at Neuquen

We to the overnight bus from Mendoza to Neuquen on Tuesday, arriving early in the morning.  We had been told that the long distance buses in Argentina are good and we had booked a good reclining seat.  There was certainly plenty of rooms in the seat, although Nic found that if he used the leg rest then it was just a bit short for his legs to be properly comfortable. But still not bad overall and you certainly got plenty for dinner and a glass of wine.  Breakfast was a bit sparse, but it was six am so a bit early for us anyway.

We knew the hostel wasn't far from the bus terminal but had no idea which way to go, but we soon found someone with a map and directions, and were there in no time.  Too early to check in, we settled in to the communal area whilst asking about trips to vineyards etc.  The hostel contacted one of the local guides for us and we soon had a trip lined up to go to a couple of Bodegas.  After a quick wash and brush we set off with Nicholas the guide in his slightly worse for wear truck.

Bodega Del fin del Mundo
 Our first stop was Del Fin Del Mundo, the biggest winery in this area.  It was only set up in the 1990s, so is still pretty new as vineyards go, but not unusual for round here. It is a very modern set up with a big spacious building and viewing walkways over the top.  They are adding a hotel on to the edge of the building which will have views across the vines and will no doubt be a great, if expensive, place to stay.  After a quick tour around, it was on to trying the wines. We tried seven and liked the last one so much that he gave us an extra glass of it too.   The wines were all good and despite not being a red wine drinker at all, there was even one red that I could have happily drunk a glass of, which is very unusual.  We came away with two bottles, a sparkling Pinot noir and Chardonnay blend and a late harvest Semillon.

Bodega Famila Schroeder

Our second winery was Bodega Familia Schroeder.  This was the original reason for coming to Neuquen, so we were looking forward to this visit.  We knew of the vineyard from our frequent visits to the Gaucho Restaurants in London, where we often drank a glass (or sometimes a bottle) of their Deseado, a sweet sparkling Torrontes wine.  Gaucho introduced us to many great Argentinian wines, but this was a particular favorite, so a visit to the Bodega was a must.

Wine barrels at Familia Schroeder

Our first call here was the restaurant, as we had decided to treat ourselves to lunch at the Bodega.  We were greeted with a free glass of a dry sparkling wine, which was also very good, and then had an excellent meal, two courses for me, three for Nic.  We did obviously try some of their wine to go with the meal too.  By the end we were pleasantly full and ready for the tour.
With the vat of Deseado

Another new and modern vineyard, this was established in 2002 and is built on five levels to make use of gravity rather than pumps in the winemaking process.  On the tour we passed the huge vat of Deseado in the making and couldn't resist a photograph of ourselves with it.

Dinosaur at Familia Schroeder

The final stop on the tour was  to see the dinosaur. Yes, I did say dinosaur.  It is an unusual aspect of a winery tour, but an important one here.  The large herbivore was uncovered when they were digging the foundations for the winery.  The original has been transferred to a museum, but they have created a mini museum with a replica of the find and one of the original bones, in the exact place where it was found.  They also use the name Saurus for their main wine range.

For the tasting here we tried only four wines.  For me, the reds were a bit too robust, but Nic liked them, and we both liked the rest.  We came away with two bottles, the obligatory Deseado and a late harvest Pinot noir.

Dam at Neuquen
 On the way back, we stopped off at the very large dam that enables Neuquen to irrigate its orchards, and very importantly, it's vines.  It was built using manual labour and celebrated its one hundredth anniversary last year.  The little museum sets out the construction process and has numerous artifacts from the building and working life, including all of the old records and blueprints.  It is a basic place, but an interesting side visit none the less.  After a quick stop to see the dam in reality, we headed back to the hostel.

Overall this was a good tourism day, and a very enjoyable one for us.  We would have liked to have bought more wines, but realistically we can't carry it around with us, so we have to drink it while we are here and four seemed about the most we should commit to.

Neuquen, Argentina

Our other plans for Neuquen had included a visit to Lake Pellegrini, where they are busy excavating more dinosaurs.  The plan had been to take part in one of their project days, where you have a tour of the site but then get down to a little bit of excavation work yourself.  Sadly, despite what it says on their website, and despite the email exchange that Nic had already had with them, they weren't running these project days at the moment as their archaeologists are all off site or something.  After some thought we concluded that it wasn't the same without the dig, so we would leave the dinosaurs for now and instead do the whole thing on one of our anticipated return trips to South America. 

Petrosaurus in Neuquen
 We took a look around Neuquen itself while we were here.  It is a small town and  whilst not unpleasant at all, it is not the prettiest.  It is very much an industrial town, with a focus on petroleum and agriculture, the latter mostly apples, pears and of course wines.  The petroleum and dinosaur combination does give rise to some interesting metal sculptures, which they call Petrosaurus. There was very little else to see though, so we found some places to sit and enjoy some wines and beers, and whiled away the spare time quite contentedly until we got the night bus back to Mendoza.


Sounds like a bargain!

From Santiago we took the bus to Mendoza, Argentina. The journey was scheduled to take about seven hours, but in fact took over eight as we spent getting on for two hours at the border.  It appears that the main problem was some band that were on the bus (not famous I don't think). I'm not sure why they had a problem, but they seemed to spend a lot of time at customs.  The route took us through the Andes once again, so there was good scenery on offer for much of the time, and the coach was comfortable, so the journey wasn't too bad.
Crazy lino at Mendoza Lodgings

Mendoza is wine country, which will no doubt explain to most of you why we have come here and why we have decided to spend quite a while here.  We like the Argentinian wines and it would just be rude not to give them enough of our time.  Not that we have chosen to visit the bodegas (winerys) themselves.  The trips out are fairly pricey for those of us on a budget, and we have concluded that the money is better spent in town drinking the wines.  There was an option to hire bikes and cycle round them, but after doing that once in Franschoek, South Africa, we figured that we may be OK on the way there, but after a couple of tastings we probably should not be allowed on the roads, especially with the way some people drive around here.  So we decided against that too, and stuck with drinking in Mendoza itself.

We did find an excellent place called Vines of Mendoza, which does wine flights and has many wines that you can buy by the glass.  It is a great place to try a number of different wines, especially when they have their half price times.  We went there a few times.
Jacuzzi in the ladies loo at Ocho Cepas

However in the main, we have found places to eat where the wine list is good and have worked our way through the winerys that way.  Most enjoyable.  We did rather like finding a bath in the gents loo at one restaurant called Ocho Cepas, only to then surpass that by finding a jacuzzi bath and ensuite dressing room in the ladies.

Cakes in Mendoza

We have wandered around the city, but there really isn't much sightseeing to be done here.  We have been tempted by the huge cream meringues and other cakes, but so far have resisted; not sure how long that will last though.

Eating & drinking under vines in Mendoza

The city was hit by earthquakes in the past and so when they rebuilt it, they created wide streets to contain the rubble from falling buildings, and big squares to act as evacuation points.  The result is that the central part of the city is very green and leafy, and it feels quite genteel.  We figure we could feel quite at home here.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Santiago de Chile

Park in Santiago de Chile
 From Bogota we flew down to Santiago de Chile, which took about five hours.  Because we were staying here over our anniversary, and again over Nic's birthday when we were back from Easter Island, we had booked ourselves into a nice Aparthotel instead of a hostel. Whilst neither fancy nor overly expensive, it was a nice treat to have our own space, a bath and a hair dryer. And having our own kitchen meant we could get up late and do ourselves a late breakfast.

Plaza de Armes, Santiago de Chile

Mind you, even we weren't expecting to be quite as late as we were the first morning.  Having arrived at the hotel at about nine thirty pm, we only got back from dinner at around one am and got to bed sometime later, so we set our alarms for a leisurely ten am, and then stayed in bed while Nic watched football and I did some blogging and reading.  It was around midday when we realised that in fact it was really two pm.  We had put our watches forward the two hour time diference between Colombia and Chile, but not our phones, which we use for alarms.  Oops!  Never mind though, it was a nice relaxing start to our time in Santiago.  
Plaza de Armes, Santiago de Chile

 We spent our time in Santiago catching up with some more of our practical tasks, wandering around the city and finding nice places to east and drink.  The practical stuff may be tedious at times, but it can make you see parts of the city that you wouldn't normally go as a tourist, and that can help you learn something about the place you're in.  In Santiago we visited the industrial area of the city to get the ipad fixed, and were surprised to see how pretty it is.  Generally the industrial area of a town is exactly as it sounds, concrete, grey, dull and ugly.  But here the industrial area was nicely laid out, with smart buildings, and had little garden areas.  Not sure that it makes much difference in the long run, but does it perhaps suggest a greater sense of pride when you want to make the places in the background of city life look good rather than just focussing on the highlights?  I don't know the answer to why, but I like the result.

The area we are staying in, Providencia is just away from the old town and tourist areas.  It is new and modern, and is clearly where the locals go out in Santiago.  We found all kinds of places to eat and drink.  There were upscale places like Astrid and Gaston.  There was a great tapas place and a little place where we had tea (proper tea mind) and scones. There was the quiet little pedestrianised street with a few cafes and bars including the comic themed one and the one called the Phone Box, where the door to the place was actually a red phone box with the back cut out.  Then there was the 'trying to be North American' place which was open very late and was very popular with the local 20-30 year olds, and the pedestrianised area crowded with bar/restaurants that was the party area.  And all sorts of places in between.  We tried out a number of those mentioned and some were very good.  Just don't sit under the windows in party street as people have a tendency to throw things out of the upstairs windows as we discovered; we moved table quickly and were given free drinks by the staff as an apology though, so all was well.

Plaza de Armes, Santiago de Chile

Aside from visiting the bars, we did manage to fit in a visit to the tourist area around Plaza de Armas.   On the plus side, there were some decent old buildings around the square, and it was nice that it was a 'working' square.  What I mean by that is that the square really is used by the locals.  We saw the usual toy horses waiting to be ridden by children, an art sale, a man preaching to those nearby who were doing their best to ignore him, people sat out chatting with friends, a Christmassy Santa's Grotto type thing sponsored by Coca Cola, a band stand full of people playing chess, and lots more of life going on. We also saw a rather silly looking poodle dressed in a santa suit.  But aside from that, the area was just a bit dull.  The shops had moved in to the areas around and with the tourist slanted hotels and restaurants, it just felt lacking in soul.  It didn't inspire us to spend long there.

Plaza de Armes, Santiago de Chile

There was a nice little area nearby in Lastaria, which had a pleasant group of bars and restaurants with outdoor seating, and we made use of that a few times.  We were joined a few evenings by some friends of Nic who are also travelling and their time in Santiago coincided with the end of ours. The four of us paid a visit to the Bellavista area one evening, which is the pub and club part of town.  We didn't do the clubs, but  still when we left a bit before 4am we found we had again outlasted most of the locals.

Plaza de Armes, Santiago de Chile

It may sound like all that we did in Santiago was eat and drink.  To a degree that would be right; we didn't really do tourist sights, but we did get to see quite a lot of the city, including places that often only the locals would use. It wasn't the most exciting or most attractive city we've visited, but I can imagine that it is a good place to live. And when the clouds eventually lift enough to see them, the sight of the Andes mountain range surrounding the city is pretty good.

Plaza de Armes, Santiago de Chile

Friday, December 16, 2011

Is it worth it?

While we were on Easter Island, we had a discussion about whether it is right to travel so far and spend so much to see a little island with a few lumps of rock on it, when you can see those rocks in pictures and TV documentaries.

But if you take that approach all of the time, you would never both to leave your house.  Why see a live sporting or music event when you can watch it on TV or listen to a CD? Why go on holiday anywhere?

Easter Island is thousands of miles off the coast of South America and it takes five and a half hours to fly from Santiago.  It is not the cheapest place to visit either for the airfare, the accommodation or for the food and drink when you're there.  For any decision you have to balance the cost and effort against the reward, and clearly at these prices the reward for this particular trip has to be considerable.

If you look at the decision purely rationally, using cost per day type considerations, and thinking about what else you could be spending the money on, then the chances are you would never do it.  And I can quite understand that.  If this is your only holiday of the year and the choice is between spending five days on Easter Island or having two weeks somewhere more accessible, then I would probably take the two weeks.

Of course our situation is somewhat different.  We aren't limited to one holiday a year.  With our plans to travel indefinitely, we expect to be able to see most of the world over the coming years, so we don't have to prioritise our trips in quite the same way as other people do.  And we were already in South America, so the airfare was far less from Santiago than it would have been from the UK.  Even so, this is certainly one of the more expensive parts of our travels this year and had we not come here then we could have saved quite a bit of money to use on better hotels rather than hostels, or on going somewhere else.

But Nic in particular has always been fascinated by Easter Island and its Maoi.  And whilst you can watch documentaries and look at pictures, it is never the same as experiencing something first hand.  We discovered that in South Africa when we went on safari.  I hadn't really been sure if seeing an animal close up, but doing nothing in particular would really be so much better than watching some of the fabulous documentaries that show every aspect of their life in the wild.  I was of course quite wrong.  I loved seeing all of the animals, especially the big cats, and I was completely thrilled when that huge male lion looked straight at me as it passed within a metre of me.  Obviously old rocks aren't quite the same as wild lions, but the principle still applies.

Clearly we had decided to take the trip, but once there, did we think it was the right decision?  Our conclusion was yes.  We are traveling because we want to see amazing things first hand, and have amazing experiences.  For us, including some of these hard to reach places that most people never get the chance to see is exactly the point of what we're doing.  And you will see from the blog that we loved the place.

Rapa Nui

Ahu Tahai
Rapa Nui is that remote little Polynesian island that we know as Easter Island.  It is a few thousand miles out into the Pacific Ocean, and is only about sixty four square miles in size.  The population is about two thousand people and most of them live in the one settlement of Hanga Roa. It is famous simply because it has a lot of big stone statues on it.  So why go there?  Well, because it has a lot of big stone statues on it of course!

Rapa Nui cemetery

Easter Island is a five and a half hour flight from Santiago.  It was evident even before we left that there are limited options on the island, as we saw all the young islanders taking back big boxes of Dunkin Donuts.  Just before we landed, one of the islanders dressed up as a clown, painted face and all, and started acting the fool.  I was surprised at how relaxed the stewards were, especially when he kept popping up out of his seat during the landing, but I still have no idea why he was doing it.  The landing strip goes from one side of the island to the other and has a backdrop of hills and flowers.  But it is apparently one of the longest runways, as it was built by the Americans in case they needed somewhere to land a plane, or even a space shuttle, if it was coming down in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
Nic at our lodge on Rapa Nui

On arriving, having passed by some of the replica stone statues at the airport, we were met by the woman from our lodge with the traditional flower garlands that she had made that morning.  We drove through the main street to the other side of town, and past the very pretty cemetery, all of which took about eight minutes.  Our cabin was basic but fine and had a little terrace that overlooks the garden with a view through the flowers and out to the ocean.  A very blue ocean. 

That first afternoon, we walked the short distance over to the first of our Moai sites and visited the island's museum.  Moai means statue, but generally here, Moai refers to the big stone statues that the island is famed for.

sunset on Rapa Nui

There are numerous sites around Rapa Nui where the islanders constructed Ahus, or stone plinths, on which they placed these huge carved figures to watch over their group.  The Moai aren't Gods, they are representations of the past chiefs of that clan.  There are many theories as to when they were built, over what period and how they were moved from the quarry where they were all made to their respective positions around the island.
Moai at sunset

Equally, while most agree that the rather piercing coral and obsidian eyes were added once the Moai were in place, three is disagreement about whether they were left there all of the time or only kept in for spiritual occasions. Personally I think the pure effort that must have been involved in adding and removing them suggests the former, but perhaps they were more dedicated than me.
toppled Moai on Rapa Nui
What everyone does agree on is that by the mid 1800s there had been a series of clan wars which had resulted in all of the Moai being toppled from their plinths. Some remain as they fell, albeit somewhat deteriorated by the rain and wind.  Those sites are interesting because they show the truth of what happened then, but obviously the Moai look so much more impressive standing up.  
Ahu Tongariki

Over the years, private individuals have paid to restore a number of the main sites.  They have had the plinths restored and the Moai stood back on them.  The statues themselves have not been restored, so those that had no heads remain headless, and many were obviously quite damaged, but those that once again stand look proud and impressive.
Does it matter that we know that they haven't been upright the whole time?  To me, yes it does a little.  Like a painting that has been cleaned to restore its colours, or even a person who has had a facelift, they probably look better, but they lose something of their truth, and so to me they are less compelling.
Ahu Tongariki

But you could not imagine the impressive sight that these statues would have been without some of them being upright, and because the restoration is honest, it does not detract as it might have done.  I think they are right to have restored some of the most impressive sights, and whilst it does make a difference that I know they have been put back, I was still sufficiently impressed that it didn't matter too much.

Ahu Nau Nau
The main restored sites that we saw were the one close to where we stayed and those on the tour that we took.  The Ahu Tahai, close to where we stayed, had one plinth with five full and partial Moai and two Moai on individual plinths. Ahu Tongariki is the big one with fifteen Moai standing on the one plinth, the tallest being around ten metres high; it is amazing to think what a feat this was to complete and how intimidating it must have been to people who live on a small island in half sunken dwellings.  And we saw Ahu Nau Nau with its six and a bit Moai on a plinth, four of which have their topknots; this sight stands out because the Moai fell into sand when they were toppled and having been covered over by the sand they are the best preserved of the Moai on the island, so you can see how sharp they features originally were.
Te Pito o The Henua, Navel of the World

We also saw the Ahu Te Pito Kura site with Te Pito o The Henua, or the Navel of the World, a round stone that is supposedly magnetic though we didn't have anything to check that with, and the Orogo site where the Tangata Manu, or birdman, rituals took place to decide a leader, and where you can still just about see the petroglyphs that they carved into the rocks.

Rapa Nui quarry

However my favourite site was Rano Ranaku at Akahanga, which is the quarry where the Moai were carved out of the rock.  Here there are hundreds of Moai littered around the place.  Some where discarded, probably because they were damaged in transport or just proved too heavy to move.  Some may have been left intentionally, but noone really knows.  Many are partially buried, with just their heads and perhaps a bit or torso sticking up out of the ground.  And some of them are absolutely enormous; the largest was abandoned where it was carved because they believe that at around twenty-one metres, or over seven storeys high, it was impossible to move.

Rapa Nui quarry
Why do I like this the best?  It comes back to the restoration issue. These haven't been restored or moved at all.  They haven't even uncovered the buried lower halves of them. They are exactly as they were left, with only natures burial and weathering of them changing how they were when the people abandoned them.  And there are so many of them haphazardly strewn around, that they truly captivate you.  Whilst perhaps not the most technically impressive site, for me this was the one that left me with that feeling of wonderment that you expect when you visit Easter Island.
at the Rapa Nui quarry

As ever, the pictures that we take cannot do justice to the reality, but I hope that they will at least give you an idea of the place and why we liked it so much.

Rapa Nui quarry

But Easter Island wasn't just amazing because of the stone statues. It was a truly lovely place to spend a few days just relaxing in the tiny town and on the beach front.  It was so relaxed and laid back that you couldn't help but chill out yourself.


Monday, December 12, 2011

Villa de Leyva

monastery in Villa de Leyva
From Tunja we took another bus to Villa de Leyva, which definitely is a tourist town.  It is regarded to have the best colonial town square in Colombia.  We arrived just as it was starting to drizzle with rain and having got a little lost on the way, arrived at our hostel moments before the drizzle turned to a torrential downpour.  When we arrived at our hostel there was a nice, slightly sunken courtyard garden; after the rain there was a courtyard pond.

Villa de Leyva

The hostel itself was excellent, in a good location and great value.  It was run by a guy who is Colombian but spent much of his life in the UK, and only returned here with his English wife and two kids a few years back.   Whilst the rain was pouring we spent some time talking with him about Colombia and its people.
But when the rain finally stopped it was time to go get some food and explore the town. We found a tiny little place, run by a young woman recently arrived from Bogota where we had some delicious and beautifully presented pancakes, and then set off to see the town.

Villa de Leyva

Villa de Leyva is a lovely place.  They have not allowed any new building in the old part for some time and so have preserved the look and feel of the place as an old colonial town.  The main square is huge and all old cobble stones with colonial buildings on all sides.  Whilst many of the buildings are now restaurants and bars, you still a get a good feel for old time Villa de Leyva.  And the surrounding streets are very much the same.
Villa de Leyva

We ambled around the streets, checking out the shops and places to eat.  For a place that is very much a tourist location, we were very pleasantly surprised at how tasteful the souvenir places were.  We had expected that there may be lots of shops selling a lot of tourist tat, but in fact, whilst there were a lot of shops, the stuff that they sold was generally rather nice.

shops Villa de Leyva style

I had to resist buying a number of very nice shawls etc and only gave in to one bracelet of all the fabulous jewellery.  I did find some great little pictures though and managed to persuade Nic that we should have a set of three to take home with us.  Somehow having pictures of the three of the different drinks that we have been consuming in Colombia seems rather apt.  And they are easy to carry which is always an essential consideration.

Villa de Leyva
Our amblings over the couple of days we were here took us past a very pretty monastery and some churches, but again many were closed when we were there.  Keeping a careful watch on the color of the sky, we decided not to climb up the hillside, as there was a very good chance we would get caught in another rainstorm.  As we sat in the square for lunch, we spotted a group of about ten people who looked like they had got caught in the rain In a very muddy place.  They were covered in mud as if they had been scrambling up a hillside or just simply falling flat on their faces in a mud bath. After they had passed through the square we spotted another group that were even muddier.  As we watched, we realised they all had a coloured ribbon on and were searching for something and asking the locals questions.  So we concluded that both groups had been competing teams in some kind of treasure hunt or similar. This team finally found what they were looking for and then persuaded a guy with a pick up truck to let them all all climb in the back for a lift to their next destination.  Not sure if that was allowed in the rules, but seemed like a good idea to me.

fossils on building in Villa de Leyva

We met a fellow british traveller in a german bar that we decided to try out as it was a popular place to watch life in the square.  He was traveling for six months of the year and working for the rest, so we swapped a few stories and recommendations before going our separate ways.

There are a number of things that you can do in the area around Villa de Leyva, but it is a beautiful place to sit and relax too, and that is what we did for the couple of days we were there. Had we not had onward flights booked we might have decided to stay here longer too.