Sunday, April 29, 2012

Feel the earth move in Christchurch

It was another early morning (after one late evening…) and I was getting on a bus from Queenstown to Christchurch. I had planned to go to Christchurch that day simply because I knew there was going to be some zouk that night and I certainly wasn’t going to miss that! But I had no idea what an interesting town I had added to my travel plan...

On the way from Queenstown and Christchurch: Mount Cook - the tallest mountain in NZ
Christchurch – the largest city on the South Island - is located right on the border of the Pacific and Indo-Australian tectonic plates and an unfortunate target of a couple big earthquakes and aftershocks. Now in the April of 2012 the town was still in bit of a distress after the latest shakes that tore the city into pieces. The biggest quake happened in February 2011 and it also killed 185 people. A lot of the beautiful city center, including the Cathedral, was demolished beyond repair and there's still a lot of work to be done all over the region. Many families are in desperate need of new homes and many have been forced to leave the city or have fled in fear of future earthquakes.

For travelers this means that a lot of the places are closed and fenced off – and it was hard to find accommodation. Lucky for me I was offered a place to stay by one very hospitable fellow zouk dancer. Safe to say I was really excited about arriving to Christchurch! I got to my destination in the afternoon and Becky & I went to have a little rest before we would go out dancing. I was barely awake since I hadn’t slept enough in the past couple nights but no one could keep me away from a zouk party! 

The party was the local latin dance school, Salsa Latina. There was plenty of dancers and a good athmosphere. In the larger main room there were mainly salsa and in the small room zouk. I had lots of good dances and certainly didn't have to sit down - actually my host & I had done good work in promoting the zouk room for that night, lots of people turned up and when I was introducing myself it seemed that most of the zoukers knew me already :)

The next day Becky took me out for some sightseeing. We walked around the city and I got to see first hand some of the building that had been damaged. A large area was cleared out and filled by cool shops and cafés - made up of containers! One tall building was actually being taken down right then behind the wire fences - there's a few blocks that are completely off limits. I just saw a small glimpse of the destroyed Cathedral through the fence. The fences were opened to allow the town citizens to go see it for the last time a couple weeks ago. Sadly it cannot be repaired.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Autumn days in Queenstown

So my plan was to - in stead doing the traditional camper van tour of NZ since I was by myself and had only 2,5 weeks - fly from Auckland to Queenstown, which is in the middle of the South Island and bus up and around the South Island, cross the Cook Strait to Wellington and fly back to Auckland. It wasn't a very detailed or well thought out plan but I wanted to see a bit of the cool NZ nature and go dancing in some of the cities and that seemed to cover those.

I had a morning flight from Auckland to Queenstown, right after the Easter holidays. I was really tired that morning after an early wake up but it was one of those ‘wow’ moments (Ushuaia déjà vu) when the plane descended through the clouds: the place looked stunning!

Monday, April 16, 2012

New horizons: the start of my New Zealand adventures in Auckland

It was one of those long nights. But one I had been waiting for a while: my flight from Santiago to Auckland. I had come to the end of my four months in Latin America... Four months... it had passed so fast. As I packed my bags once again I was feeling quite happy since I had grown a bit tired of the cold, damp & dirty gringo trail through Bolivia, Peru and Chile. In any case it was a big milestone for me, leaving South America in one piece after all the adventures that I braved all by myself. I had so many fond memories and made so many fantastic friends, and I knew that I'd be coming back for sure... But now, it was time to move on!

My flight would be leaving around midnight so I had plenty of time to get all my things together – and to get thoroughly bored. I had come up with lots of things to do to kill time but having already spent an  hour or two at the airport and then finding out that our flight was 1h 40min delayed didn't make me particularly happy! Thankfully had some movies on my notebook for just these kinds of occasions :)

The 13-hour ride over the Pacific was quite uneventful: I watched some movies and tv-shows, had dinner and breakfast and in between tried to get some sleep. I have to say that after the very comfortable sleeper buses all over South America I was struggling in the tiny plane seats to find any kind of position that would put me to sleep. But the hours flew by and the service was good - and suddenly it was already time to land. I lost one day in the process though: that’s the bad part about traveling across the globe westwards. Though those are the hours that I am gaining throughout the trip, crossing all the time zones – I just have to give them away all at once.

So jumping from Chile to New Zealand (and straight from Wednesday to Friday) I arrived to Auckland before 6am. I’d booked a hostel for the night before so I could crash straight to bed once I got there. I was feeling very disoriented – getting some sleep was about all I could think about doing. I got up at around noon to go look for some breakfast. It was Good Friday so almost everything was closed but luckily there were a couple nice cafés close to my place on Parnell Street. I was so happy to finally have some “normal” food!! I had trouble deciding what to eat, everything sounded delicious.

Zouking up Auckland!

My weekend in Auckland was packed with dancing. Even though it was Easter and the city itself was practically deserted I had managed to come at a perfect time: there was a dance festival in town! The Jambalaya festival was not exactly just a dance festival but they offered a whole range of open level dance classes and there was a great couple from Belo Horizonte, Rodgrido Delano & Adriana Coutinho, teaching zouk. And there were zouk parties on three nights! 

I'd been in touch with some of the local dancers on Facebook and right on the first day I had planned to go to the first zouk party at the festival. One helpful girl, Dunya, had even offered me a ride so all I had to do was to get myself out of bed and dressed! Despite all my efforts I was pretty tired that night. Well, it was my first night on this side of the world, and after crossing 9 time zones I was "a little bit" off. I didn't dance too much, just a couple songs here or there but it was nice to be out and see people. We left the party fairly early - after all there were workshop we planned to attend the next morning!

On Saturday I joined the festival for the entire day, there were all kinds of dance workshops (tango, belly dancing, salsa, samba, swing dancing, reggaeton and zouk for example). All workshops were open level so they were mainly teaching beginner level stuff. On the Rodrigo & Adriana's zouk workshop I had the chance to take part as a leader for the first time - that was surprisingly fun! And I got some good feedback on my leading so maybe I'll dare to try it again some time :) I enjoyed being on classes and dancing even though it was all very basic but it never hurts to go over some fundamentals every now and then.

Salsa class by Jamie Jesus
Roda at the end of the zouk immersion workshop by Rodrigo (centre) and Adriana)

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

End of my South American road - Santiago

I am writing this post about Santiago in SANTIAGO! Wow, for the first time on my trip I'm up to date with the blog. Better open a bottle of wine (wait, it's already open..)! It has helped a lot that I haven't done anything really exiting in the past week so easy to catch up on some writing + not much new stuff to write about. Also I know that I will be veeery busy and the internet is expensive in my next destination (New Zealand) so it's now or never...

I got to Santiago from Valparaíso, just an hour and a half's bus ride away. I got off the bus on a metro station Pajaritos, hoping I could find my way to my hostel from there - and I did! Small victories in life :) It was Sunday and the town was full of people (all the hostels were booked, barely got a bed for me) with the Lollapalooza music festival and the Santiago marathon packing the city with rock & running tourists. Although by the looks of it in downtown Santiago you could imagine that about 200 people live in the city: it was basically empty. Strangely empty. But I guess everybody was having fun somewhere else than the commercial district, almost all the shops were closed anyway. Don't know if it was normal for Sunday or was it just this one.

Found one group of people in the entire Santiago downtown - at Plaza de Armas

Monday, April 2, 2012

The bohemian "paradise valley" is no paradise - the rough Valparaíso

So after one night and two relaxing (boring) days in La Serena I was already ready to move on. I anyway needed to get a bit more south, towards Santiago. 7 hours south of La Serena was the Unesco Heritage site Valparaíso, just an hour and a half from Santiago, on the coast. I thought I might find more things to do there. I left La Serena on the last evening bus that was supposed to leave at 0.30am - but lucky us, our bus didn’t get to the bus terminal until 1.10am. I got settled in my seat and passed out within an instance. At around 7am I was already awake, worried that I’d miss my stop – though this time it was actually the final stop of the bus. At about 8am we were in Valparaíso.

I had booked two nights in a really lovely hostel quite close to the Valpo (=Valparaíso) bus terminal – at this point I had one week to go before my flight was leaving on the following Wednesday from Santiago to Auckland. I was quite happy to have made it this close well on time for the big flight. No need to hurry anymore! No more nightbuses! I was thinking if I should move to Santiago for the weekend but it turned out the whole city was booked: there was the Lollapalooza music festival on Saturday and a marathon on Sunday. The earliest I could find a nice hostel in Santiago was for Sunday so I figured I might as well stay the two extra days in Valpo and just get some rest, and maybe do some arrangements for the coming New Zealand leg of the trip. I definitely was desperate for some rest and quality sleep after spending three nights in the bus during the past week and god-know-how-many way too early wake ups in Perú before that.

Now I had four days to spend in Valpo... Doing, what? How about sleeping.. Eating… Sampling some Chilean wines. That sounded like a plan! I was happy to notice there were two big supermarkets quite close to the hostel so I went and stocked the fridge with groceries and cooked some nice Mexican food. I also took my clothes to the laundry and hand-washed all my wool clothes. I looked up what to do in New Zealand and got in touch with the Kiwi zoukers. And for the rest, yes, I slept a lot!

I realised this was also as good time as any to join a walking tour of the city since it looked like I wasn’t motivated enough to do any sightseeing on my own. There was a highly recommended “tours for tips” walking tour that leaves every day at 10am and 3pm from Plaza Sotomayor. When I went to the tour meeting point I was expecting there to be a couple people, if even that, considering they do 14 tours every week... I was a bit skeptical how they manage to fill them up even in low season. But no worries about that, we were about 25 people on the tour. Our guide Al was a really funny American-Chilean guy who guided us around for a bit over three hours – one of the best guides I’ve come across on this trip! (And I can tell you he made a pretty handsome three hours salary just from the tips!!)
Harbour with lanchas (around 1500 pesos for a 25min tour on the boat)
The different styles of architecture mark the various momentous rises and falls in the town's history
The elevators to the hills, Cerros

La Serena: well, there was a beach & the mall...

It had been pretty hectic for the past weeks when I was leaving San Pedro de Atacama and definitely hadn’t got enough sleep. I even didn’t have time to have dinner before I got on my bus to La Serena from San Pedro – but I did manage to take a hot pizza with me :D The bus left San Pedro at 7pm and was to arrive to La Serena at around 10.30am so at least I could have some sleep there. What I hate most about night buses (well, in addition to people making noise or the too strong air con or heating....) was waking up at the crack of dawn when the bus is arriving to a city you have no idea about. At least now I could chill until 10am. And the bus was pretty comfortable (Tur Bus) and I had made sure I got a cama seat which stands for a bed, i.e. an almost fully reclining seat. They also offered a snack in the evening and breakfast in the morning. The movies they played on that trip were hilarious though - I gotta love the South American twisted sense of humour / lack of tact: first it was the Unstoppable, a film of a runaway train, and next the Speed, the bus terrorist classic. I would have liked to know what they played after that, perhaps a movie about a  bus crashing into a Chilean ravine? :D

I had a decent amount of sleep before I arrived to La Serena. Again I hadn’t made any hostel reservations but I had figured from the map that there were a number of decent hostels within walking distance from the bus terminal and it wasn’t hard to find good accommodation now during low season. Only needed to walk about two blocks to find one. I settled in the small private room I was given and rested for a a moment.

La Serena is a small city on the Pacific coast and I’d heard it was quite pretty there. And it was nice but really nothing special. Am I getting a bit jaded? Like most towns it had nice parks and tree-lined avenues, and the center of the city was full of all kinds of shops & restaurants. There was a beach too and I walked there on my second day but it’s a bit too cold already – there was only a couple of people fishing and a few people walking around here and there. Like I’ve heard about the coast town the sky was cloudy mornings and sunny in the afternoons.

A dry spell in San Pedro de Atacama

When I was looking at the map of Northern Chile the Atacama desert clearly sticks out - that's where I wanted to go! But getting there was no small task...

So how to cross the border between Peru and Chile? They’re not making it easy for the travelers; this was perhaps the first border crossing where there wasn’t a direct a bus that would take you from one country to the other. Nope. First you have to get a bus to the southernmost town in Peru (Tacna). I got a ticket to the 7am bus from Arequipa to Tacna, arriving at around 1.30pm to Tacna, with a nice Cruz del Sur bus. Ah, they have one of the best buses in South America that I’ve come across (and the price isn’t bad, 30 soles i.e. around 10€ for a 6-7 hour bus ride). I met Lauren, who I had already met the day before on the Colca Canyon trek, at the bus station and she was taking the same bus. We joined forces with an Argentinian and a Chilean guy to cross the border. To get to Chile you have to take a collectivo from Tacna to Arica. We didn’t have to wait as our group filled a car so after a bit over an hour, including the stop in the Peruvian and Chilean border offices we were in Arica, we were in Chile! I even managed to smuggle a banana through the strict Chilean customs, haha (by mistake)!

Once we drove across the border I got to see the Pacific for the first time from this side of the ocean! And it was nice to be back in the warm climate! So it was about 5pm when we were in the Arica bus terminal (having lost 2 hours on the time change, crossing to Chile) and the first bus that would go to San Pedro de Atacama left at 9.30pm. By the time I was holding my bus ticket I realised I forgot my shoes in the collectivo… whopsee! That was the first thing I have left behind on my trip… and maybe it was meant to happen, I was sick and tired of those shoes.

We had around four hours to wait for the bus so it was a good time to have lunch, check emails and get a glass of wine. Anyway waiting for the bus wasn’t all that bad since I had Lauren and Cristobal, the Argentinian guy, to accompany me. Cristobal also joined me on the night bus to San Pedro which we boarded at 9.30pm. We had to give our passports to the driver’s assistant and after 11pm there was a passport check – strangly already two hours after we had left the border (and had our passports checked & stamped). But that wasn’t enough, at 3.30am somewhere in the middle of nowhere there was another customs point. Everybody had to get out of the bus with all their luggage and wait outside while the officers checked everybody’s bags… So much for getting sleep on the bus. Then, of course, a bit after 7am we arrived to Calama, already close to San Pedro, for an unscheduled bus change. At 8am we were back on the road to San Pedro where we arrived after 9am. I was thoroughly annoyed and tired – 24 hours of traveling from Arequipa to San Pedro (1050 km, by the way).

Luckily I met a girl on the bus ride to San Pedro, Valerie, who was also staying in town. We joined a French couple and walked to a local hostel. San Pedro is very rustic and our hostel fit that bill – but I couldn’t have cared less as long as I had a somewhere to dump my bags and get some rest.