Wednesday, July 1, 2015
Villa la Angostura, Argentina - Castro, Chile
There is a thick, wintry frost as the sun breaks through and causes the top of the mountains to glow pink. Some peaks reflect in the still lakes below. Not a creature stirs. It is world-class scenery all the way from Villa la Angostura to the Argentina border post. This is unquestionably one of the world's most scenically stunning border crossings.
After getting our passports stamped, we soon pass a petrified forest, behind it a sheer granite peak soaring to the heavens. In places there is what must be very old virgin forest; wild in a way that other forests somehow are not. I guess as this national park is technically 'no man's land', this wilderness is practically devoid of human settlement. Yes, I missed that 6-1 in Concepcion last night, but this is pretty damn special.
As we climb higher we reach thick snow and deciduous trees. At Chilean customs, the drug dog has made a bee line for my rucksack and tapped it with his small and annoying, manicured paw. Little bastard. I know I am innocent of any crime but it isn't impossible for someone to stick stuff in your bag and remove it later, rather than risk it themself. And while i queue to get my entry visa to Chile, I cannot believe it but said dog has also given my hand luggage the paws down. I must admit my heart is pounding as I unpack everything. 'My doggy smells something in your bag'. I cannot believe he just said 'doggy'. And i am impressed that i managed not to burst out laughing.
The stress builds, and builds...turns out shep sniffed a small bag of salted nuts i forgot i had. James Bond i'm not.
I am going loopy with these long bus rides now. I feel absolutely done in, all in the name of exploring stuff; wanting to see what is around that next brow in the hill.
The next highlight is witnessing not one, not two, but three volcanic peaks above Puerto Varas. Suddenly the lakeside town looks amazing rather than slightly dull. Further on and Puerto Montt is a mess of a town with few redeeming qualities aside from the weird collection of wooden houses near the ferry terminal which look like fairy tale witches' houses.
After a change of buses and a ferry ride we reach Chiloe Island, the second largest island in South America, and home to fiercely independent islanders. Right on cue the weather has turned shockingly wet and windy. It is like being out in the middle of the North Atlantic in November.
Ancud is a big town with a decent amount of development, including a free municipal gym on the seafront very much in the style of a kids' playground. But the weather is truly shocking. I feel like I am in the Faroe Islands during an Atlantic storm.
Crosscountry from Ancud we pass through a fair amount of wilderness and witness the bizarre spectacle of very-thick-and-strange, perfectly white clouds edging slowly across forests, wooden churches and small settlements as if consuming them in some Warlock's fog. I can't quite put it into words but this is a rolling land fog quite unlike any I've seen anywhere else before.
I am bussed out. I am totally sick of the things. Thanks be that the place I wanted to stay at - a palafito (waterfront house on stilts) - has beds and it is unbelievably cosy and homely . Log fire, sea view, warm inside, interior made from wood. Thanks very much. Malbec, dinner, classical music, relax by the fireplace watching the rain lash down outside, (very comfy) bed. Good night.
Wednesday, June 30, 2015
Puerto Varas, Chile - Bariloche - Villa la Angostura, Argentina
Four years ago at the last Copa, which was held in Argentina, I travelled around Argentina for a couple of weeks (just as I was dumped by my girlfriend of six years). That dumping meant that trip to one of the loneliest places on Earth was...well, lonely. Miserable at times admittedly, but then there were incredible high points like witnessing the almost unmatched splendour of Torres Del Paine, the bottom-of-the-world vibe of Tierra del Fuego, and the truly awe inspiring sight of ancient ice collapsing into the glacial lake at Perito Moreno. Four years on, with my soul well and truly cleansed from what went before some 1,500 days ago, I return to Argentina to visit the bit of northern Patagonia I couldn't visit before due to the blizzards that cut off that part of the world in July 2011.
I suppose I am also exorcising a demon or two as the moment I am back on Argentine soil, it feels a little like I am back in 2011. The route between Chilean customs and Argentine customs, separated by a national park, is truly epic.
I booked my ticket to Villa la Angostura on the advice of Huayupe who told me the area around the town is the most beautiful place he has ever been. I decide though to venture further to visit Bariloche, located in an incredible setting surrounded by sheer snow-capped mountains, some with bizarre pinnacles that resemble Buddhist statues.
But Bariloche itself is a massive disappointment. Firstly, it feels damn unfriendly compared to Chile. Secondly, the town is an urban commercial sprawl. Yes, the buildings are fine, but where is the lakeside promenade or the pedestrianized streets? I just don't like the vibe of the place at all. From street level you cannot even see the mountains.
And so I change dollars in town getting 12.85 to the peso because I have cash instead of the official market rate of 9 I would get if I took cash out of an ATM. I know inflation is bad in Argentina, but I am impressed that a sandwich I buy goes up in cost from 30 to 35 in the time it takes to make it and eat it. It feels downtrodden around the edges here, even in this affluent town.
Back in gorgeous Villa la Angostura, the youth hostel costs 200 instead of the 95 it was two years ago, according to the Lonely Planet. This place is like Twin Peaks, surrounded by mountains, thick forests; its spotless streets full of boutiques and chocolate shops.
I could have been in Concepcion tonight for Argentina v Paraguay but instead it is pizza, Argentine red and a bar full of passionate Argentine football fans as Argentina tear a tired Paraguay to pieces. Even at 1-0 you could see Argentina would end up scoring five or six.
Population 5,000 but the main street is rammed with cars and motorbikes all beeping their horns, teenagers doing hand-brake turns, fireworks going off.
Of course, I am gutted I missed the game in the stadium but, hey, I have been to eight games and by skipping the semis, it has given me four days in beautiful southern Argentina and Chile. Oh, and the demons of 2011 - they are well and truly buried.
Puerto Varas - Parque Nacional Vicente Perez Rosales
Tuesday, June 29, 2015
I have travelled this far south to be faced with an English November style day and almost no visibility. The Orono volcano, which famously towers above the lake, is nowhere to be seen and I am questioning my own sanity for not being in Santiago instead for tonight's Copa semi final. I had a choice: watch all of the Copa games and spend almost all of my time in and around Santiago or instead sacrifice some matches and see the south of Chile.
There are no tourist trips this time of year so I just jump on a bus out to Petrohue. It is absolutely miserable out here, rain lashing against the windows of the bus, almost everything outside covered in ash from the volcano that erupted earlier this year.
But suddenly the gloom lifts as we hit amazing forests and wonderful mountain scenery. Parque Nacional Vicente Perez Rosales is a quarter of a million hectare park full of snow capped volcanoes, lakes, forests and waterfalls. The 60-kilometre bus here has cost just two pounds and as this is the low season they are allowing tourists into the wild and dramatic Saltos del Petrohue waterfalls for free!
I decide to walk from here to the lake, which is 6 kilometres of stunning forest scenery. It is reminiscent of the scenery in the 2015 film Ex-machina, set in Alaska but actually filmed in Norway. Aside from the occasional passing 4WD, I have the whole walk entirely to myself. When I reach attractive Petrohue at the very end of the road, there are beaches and a small dock with boatsmen offering trips out on the lake. This is the starting point of the epic Cruce de Lagos but at $200, I've been priced out of that one. Instead, I bite the hand of a local man who takes me out on the lake for half an hour for three quid. It is wild and simply stunning; the inclement weather adding to the vistas. The volcano even pops out from behind the clouds as I head back to Puerto Varas. My whole make-it-up-as-I-go-along day trip has cost less than £10 but has been absolutely brilliant.
I feel so exhausted that I can't even venture as far as the pub for tonight's semi between Chile and Peru. Instead, I cook dinner in the cosy warm hostel and watch it on the plasma. Tonight's hero is Varas, who scores both goals including the stunning winner. I am chuffed for Chile that they are in Saturday's final. They were my pre-tournament favourites and are clearly the best team in the tournament. I just hope I can get in.
Monday, June 28, 2015
Concepcion - Puerto Varas, Chile
There is a shocking, shocking smog hanging over Concepcion. I only have about thirty minutes for a wander around before I need to get back to the central bus station, but frankly the air is so acrid that half an hour would be all I could manage anyhow. The smog is so intense up near the stadium that the sunlight diffuses objects and strange reflections such as telegraph poles hang like ghosts in the sky. This pollution is like China at its very worst, most of it caused by chimney smoke from the tens of thousands of households trying to stay warm on this bitterly cold Monday morning, frost covering the ground all around.
Concepcion is typical of many host cities at major football tournaments: they've built a super expensive new stadium and built roads and all kinds of infrastructure around it. I say typical, because as was the case in Ukraine, for example, the roads remain unfinished and tens of millions of dollars of infrastructure cash has magically gone missing. I am told that only three weeks ago they were still building this stadium!
It is another stupidly long coach journey and I've got Giant Haystacks sat next to me for several hours. When he alights at Valdivia, I'm praying for an empty seat for the remainder of my marathon journey south to Puerto Varas. So, I am cursing my luck when a young Chilean lad comes and sits next to me...funny how life works...just a few minutes later and I have made a new friend. Huayupe is a really decent lad and makes brilliant company until he departs in Osorno. He is returning home from Uni as all the students are striking and there is little point him hanging around. And you know with Huayupe he is one of those people you will stay in contact with and meet again some day in another far flung corner of the world.
In Puerto Varas I manage to find a super warm hostel, which is a fantastic home-from-home. Completely by accident I find myself being a shoulder to cry on for someone who is at a very low point in their life. His story is tragic and hard to take in. I won't go into the details, but I hope the person in question has a happy ending because he clearly doesn't deserve the absolute shite that has befallen him.
You could write today off as being a totally meaningless, knackering and generally crap day, and yet, from it I have made a new friend who I am sure I will stay in contact with, and I have also been a shoulder to cry on for someone who needed a stranger to listen to his story. Today I have found meaning in the meaningless.
Sunday, June 27, 2015
Pucon - Concepcion, Chile
The sweet Michigan girl wakes me as promised at 7.30 (my phone and alarm clock are both done for) for the best breakfast I've been given on the whole tour. Volcan Villarrica towers above Pucon in all its magnificent glory, its peak turning red in the early morning light, not a cloud in sight.
It is a two-hour bus back to Temuco where I nip into a local working man's cafe for breakfast before my next bus leaves. This could be Rotherham. The food is pure British cafe and the downtrodden streets outside look every bit run down British working class town. The caf is called La Churisco VIP and the ladies doing the early morning rounds of tea and Nescafe are super friendly. Like I said before, Temuco seems like an unusually friendly town and there are a lot of pretty girls here too, some Mapuche.
An eternity later, the bus reaches Concepcion, a city that sits on one of the most dangerous earthquake fault lines in the world. The 1960 earthquake that centred near here measured a world record 9.5 magnitude. Most of us will remember the 8.8 that hit near here in 2010. You might argue that when it comes to earthquakes, this is one of the most dangerous cities on Earth. There is some damn beautiful forest scenery on the road in, as well as a couple of snow-capped volcanoes. And, once again, by the time I've reached my destination there is barely time to do anything except go straight to the stadium. Tonight it is the last of the four quarter finals with Brasil playing Paraguay. There is not enough time to travel into the centre and check into my hotel so I end up having to go to the stadium with my backpack.
In the terminal, right on the edge of the city, next to the motorway, I just have time to book my long-distance bus tickets for the following day.
'Where are you from?' a rather bimboish Brasilian girl in a tight top that shows of some rather obvious assets asks me.
'Oh my God, England, I love England. I am not really Brasilian, I'm German.'
Before i know it, she is showing me mobile phone photos of her pouting with David Luiz and hugging Neymar and is asking me to meet her after the game.
The stadium is a beauty: steep tiered, close to the pitch and surrounded by lush forests. The local fans are in good voice. There aren't many travelling fans from either Brasil or Paraguay but there is no doubt who the good people of Concepcion want to win.
I have no sooner settled into my seat when I look up at the stadium giant screen and there is the German-Brasilian girl smiling and waving at the cameras. You've got to laugh.
Brasil take the lead through their best player - Robinho - and look comfortable for the win until they begin to run out of ideas. Paraguay start to boss it and equalize from the spot after a blatant handball. At 1-1 there is only one team likely to win this and Brasil are fortunate to survive until penalties. Where is the Brasilian hunger?
'FIFA is such a mafia that players miss penalties on purpose' someone suggested to me the other day. I don't quite buy into that but some of the penalties are so bad that you start to wonder.
Paraguay win the shootout and their players as well as the Chilean 'neutrals' are going mad. I have been to two Copa Americas and each time Brasil have failed to get past the quarters.
The press bus doesn't leave Alcaldesa Ester Rosa for almost two hours after the final whistle as we have to wait for the Paraguay and Brasil team coaches to leave first. Robinho and co drive past us, most of the players with their heads down looking at their mobiles, seemingly oblivious to the Brasilian fans waiting to boo them as they depart the scene of their latest humiliation.
As for me, I must confess to feeling slightly scared as I wander through the only slightly lit streets of downtown Concepcion on my tod. I'm carrying my rucksack and day bag and don't really know where exactly my hotel is. The streets are almost deserted and it's way past midnight.
Safely inside the Concepcion Plaza which is more like a travel tavern than the flash name suggests, the only place nearby I can venture to for food is a Chinese.
Jeez, I feel like Alan Partridge as I lie in bed in my business style hotel eating a Chinese takeaway at 2 in the morning. As brilliant as it is to be at the Chile Copa America, there are times when the 10-hour bus journeys, crap food, bitterly cold nights and six hours' sleep all become a bit testing.
June 26, 2015
Temuco - Pucon, Chile
Pucon is a popular holiday resort a couple of hours away from Temuco. There is a huge coned volcano - Volcan Villarrica - towering above this attractive town, which is also blessed by a lake on one side, a black side beach on another, and high Norwegian fjord style cliffs on the fourth angle. Villarrica erupted in March of this year, gaining worldwide attention.
Pucon has a great feel to it. An excellent place to chill, party or partake of endless adventure tourism opportunities. It is also, i feel, one of those places where an individual can reinvent themselves. You can move here, start with a bed in a hostel, and then find a job as a kayak instructor, or waiter or guide. I am staying at easily the best-value hostel of the trip - Insolente Princesa - where a cool French girl and a smart girl from Michigan run the show. Both no longer wish to return to their respective homelands, having discovered that life outside of the US and France is often better and more real. I enjoy half the day chilling and chatting to them, and the latter half sat on the beach admiring the stunning views of the Volcano and the sunset.
In the evening, Argentina just manage to make it to the semis, needing a 5-4 penalty win to beat James, Falcao and Carlos Sanchez of Colombia.
June 25, 2015
Santiago - Temuco, Chile
'I will treat us to a decent coffee before we go', Hannes kindly tells me as I try to get my shite together after a chilly night on the airport seats near the taxi offices of Santiago Airport.
'It's bloody Nescafe!' Even after cashing out on the deluxe coffee option, somehow, for the umpteenth time during our time in Chile, we have ended up with a cup of bloody awful Nescafe. It is like Chile is stuck in the 1970's with some stuff, especially coffee. You've got Brasil, Colombia and Central American coffee being produced on Chile's doorstep and yet they love this awful crap.
Anyway, it is a fittingly silly note to go out on as Hannes and I part company. He's flying to Calama in the north of Chile, where he'll meet up with Olie before heading for Bolivia after a couple of days. It's been a great laugh and Hannes has, as always, been excellent company, but now it is time for me to get on the double-decker to Universidad de Santiago for my 7am, 800-kilometre coach down to Temuco, the venue for tonight's Copa America quarter final match.
After those couple of crap hours of sleep on the benches of Santiago International, I doze in and out of sleep so many times that it doesn't seem long before I've reached Temuco. Temuco is a city of 260,000, surrounded by forests, but stretches far and wide more than many cities of three times that size, with low-rise earthquake-proof buildings pushing the city limits. I am so knackered and my Spanish is so limited that I end up on a minibus for an hour, first leaving the city, before finally being dropped off about five blocks from Hospedaje Tribu Piren where I have a room booked. I wouldn't mind relaxing for a while but I have no sooner put my bags down than it is time to set off for the German Becker Stadium on the edge of Temuco.
The minibus ride to the stadium is taking forever and it isn't exactly clear where i should go when I jump off it. Fortuitously a sweet local girl called Marion offers to show me the way to the stadium and to the press entrance which is a good distance away on the other side of a park.
The German Becker Stadium is modelled, i am told, on Hamburg's stadium. It is a nice, compact arena but is not much more than half full until there is a late surge just before kick off. I am sat next to former pro footballer Juan Palacios Casas. Peru are the clear favourites in this one and, not long into the match, it is clear Bolivia just aren't good enough to cope with Peru's bright forward line. It is schoolboy defending from the Bolivians at times and Jose Paolo Guerrero - the golden boot at Copa 2011 - is tearing them apart.
Marion invited me into the VIP zone at half time so sIightly bizarrely I have joined the prawn sandwich brigade for half time eats and desserts. Marion's friend is the boss of the waiters and waitresses and many of her friends are waitressing to the rich and connected.
Guerrero 1-0, Guerrero 2-0, Guerrero 3-0. Bolivia are failing to pick up the talented front man and their offside line is way too high. Forgetting how poor Bolivia are for a moment, this Peru side must rank as the third or fourth best team at the tournament and deserve their place in the semi finals for the second consecutive Copa.
After the game, which ends 3-1 after a late penalty from Moreno, I stay in the VIP zone with Marion and her friends and surreally find myself helping a little to clean up after the VIPs have gone. Any plans for an early night catching up with my sleep are quickly dropped as Marion invites me back to one of her friends' houses for an after party.
What a great crew of Chileans this lot are. I drink local carmenere, they drink pisco and coke, and we chat and laugh and listen to some great South American music into the early hours. I might have got some of these artists' names wrong but I am introduced to the delights of La Ley, Soda, Los Jaivas, as well as Los Prisoneros.
I love this bunch - they are so genuine and full of positive energy - and I am sad to bail out with a taxi home at 3am. I have to say that ever since I arrived in Temuco, everyone has been super friendly. Surely a contender for the friendliest town in Chile.
Wednesday, June 24, 2015
Rapa Nui - Santiago, Chile
'Hey!! It's dance man!!' a random tourist shouts as he walks into a cliff top restaurant, a couple of hours before our flight is due to depart these crazy shores. His wife waves and gives me the thumbs up. Hannes is roaring with laughter, as he should be.
We are both agreed that we feel we have eased into the pace of Polynesian life and don't want to return to the frenetic. This weird barren rock in the middle of nowhere is a chilled spot where you can stare at incredible moai, drink alcohol in the street, climb volcanoes and dance topless in front of hundreds of friends and strangers. I often think we leave a piece of ourselves wherever we visit: energy, memories, friendships; all of these combined, changing the history of that place by some impossible-to-measure degree. As our LAN jumbo somehow lifts its giant bulk off the short runway and the bizarre Rano Kau crater lake disappears below underneath a bank of clouds, there is a sense of sadness leaving behind Te Pito o Te Henua - 'the navel of the world', out here in the middle of absolutely nowhere.
The pilot gives us regular updates during our flight on Chile's progress in tonight's quarter final against Uruguay and promises to get us back in time for the second half. The male steward has donned a Chilean national football top in place of his uniform, and passengers stream the game live from their mobiles as soon as we touch down on the mainland.
Inside the terminal at Santiago International, Hannes and myself dive into the closest place with a TV we can find, just as Valdivia goes close for the reds. With 15 minutes to go we grab our rucksacks and run for the arrivals area in search of a restaurant TV just as an almighty roar goes up across the airport. Gooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaalllllllllllllllllllllllllllll !!
In arrivals we dive behind a ground services desk with our backpacks, where a portable TV has been set up so half a dozen airport staff can watch the climax of the match. Chile have totally bossed Uruguay but it has taken them until very late on to win it. At the final whistle, there are hugs and cheers and then it's as if the airport ground services staff just woke up from a weird dream and found themselves behind their monitors needing to go straight back to work.
It is a great shame we couldn't get back in time to make it to the National Stadium to witness Chile reach the semi-final, but experiencing it behind a ground handling desk at Santiago International has its own unique quality that is bound to stick in the memory.
Hannes is flying north from here at 6am and i have a 7am bus from the city centre headed down south, so we are both crashing on the airport benches in the name of budget cutting.
Tuesday, June 23, 2015
Day 14 (part 1)
Having torn ourselves away from the football, which we reckon was 11-4 when we left, it is time for an evening of traditional Rapa Nui song and dance. Hari Kari are the most famous traditional act on the island and the compact theatre, tucked away down a long side passageway, is almost full by the time the ensemble begins its performance. After ending up drinking on a street corner last night, we were both so keen to see this that we booked advanced seats and find ourselves on the front row, mere centimetres away from the stage. You just know this is going to end badly. Especially as we are celebrating the birth of one of our best mate's son. Today we have christened Lucas Williams Day.
Starting with something akin to a Pacific haka - the lads all painted up, the size of international rugby players and convincingly scary with their shouts and facial expressions - the performance moves on to melodic Pacific sing songs to ballet style 30-person intricate dance moves. The men are huge and tattooed, the women are very pretty (and tattooed). And when the inevitable moment comes when some of the ensemble leave the stage and drag 'unsuspecting' members of the public up to join them, I am hugely relieved that it is Hannes that is chosen, not me. Oh, how I giggle at him, take embarrassing photos of him to tease him with later, and smile at his misfortune.
So, it is only fair, when twenty minutes later, as they bring the brilliant show to its dramatic finale that Hannes should be the one roaring with laughter as I am 'unsuspectingly' dragged up onto the stage. I can deal with this. In fact, with the other four victims having done their dance in front of the paying spectators, it seems like fortuitously I have been forgotten...
...oh shite, I've been dragged into the middle of the stage and the head female dancer is unbuttoning my shirt. Uh, oh, she's stripped me down to my trousers and I am dancing a duo in front of 200 paying punters. And suddenly, as if in a trance (most likely drunken), I find myself drift off and forget myself as I try to focus on dancing with the head Hari Kari girl. I'm jumping around, doing twissles and even waving my arms in some weird style I think I must have picked up from Bruce Forsyth. Then I am surrounded by all the girls from the show; all dancing around me...and just like that I seem to pop out of my weird temporary dance trance and hear and see the crowd going wild. Haha. The whole audience seems to be clapping, laughing and cheering my performance. And as I zone back in to reality I feel terribly ridiculous and marooned up on that Easter Island dance stage. Jeez, how on earth did my life reach this point?
Later in the evening, wandering down the main street looking for a place to eat, people are pointing and waving at me in the street. In a restaurant a father and his daughter congratulate me on my dance performance and show me a video of a bloke dancing topless on the stage who cannot possibly be me. Two blocks up in a smart bar, yet more punters are saying hi and showing me videos of a bloke who cannot possibly be me. From that point on, the night descends into random silliness, ending with Hannes and myself drinking with a Rapa Nuian, two Chileano tourists, a Tunisian trawlerman and five wild dogs down by the Hanga Roa cliff tops at 4am, waves violently crashing a metre or two away.
Tuesday, June 23, 2015
Day 14 (part 1)
If you live on a tiny rock thousands of kilometres away from any other sign of life, and you believe in star gods and spirits in nature, then you are bound to end up going a little doolally. How else might you explain the incredible moai culture of Rapa Nui all those centuries ago? Or the bizarre birdman cult that followed? Or indeed the decline of all of it as Rapa Nui's thriving culture eventually collapsed and went the way of the dodo? There are so many theories about the how and why of this island that it only seems right to come up with your own as well, if you are lucky enough to visit this place and get a sense of the vibe here.
I say all this because the spooky and strange Orongo ceremonial village that hugs one side of a volcanic caldera, just outside of the capital, is such an odd, godforsaken place that you soon start to imagine and dream up all kinds of weird stuff yourself. It is howling such a gale up here that it is threatening to blow us off the top of the volcano rim and in to the tempestuous waters of the Pacific below. The wind is screaming. Why on earth would you build a load of stone houses in this desolate spot up on the edge of a windswept cliff top? Once upon a time, this was the site of a birdman cult. Make Make was their god. They used to come up here and perform bird-cult rituals, whatever they might be. Inside the strange caldera, tortora reeds float in equally weird patterns upon the caldera lake. Like I said: spooky and strange.
All over Rapa Nui, small stones, usually in a circular pattern, mark the point at which you should venture no further. Understandably, this simple and inoffensive 'please keep off' prevents most of the thousands of annual visitors from face stroking the moai or lying on the ahu performing sickly selfies. But up here on the edge of the caldera, the wind hissing, the waves below crashing into the rocky headland, one of these small piles of rocks is preventing visitors from reaching the ancient birdman petroglyphs that are just out of sight. Hannes gives in to temptation and strolls a further five yards where he is able to spy the said petroglyphs but soon gets apprehended by the most Polynesian looking bloke we've seen during our entire time here; a local we had assumed was a tourist. I must admit I am roaring with laughter (from a safe distance) as Hannes gets a talking to and seems to be on his way to a possible citizen's arrest for crossing the rock threshold. Of course, the Rapa Nuian bloke in question is absolutely correct to apprehend the young Swiss (comedy value aside). Apparently, due to coastal errosion that particular spot is in danger of collapsing and hurtling into the wild Pacific Ocean below. Hannes apologises like a meak schoolboy and, after a thorough good talking to, we are finally able to hike back across the fields and small forest to the capital where we briefly watch one of the three daily jumbo jets clear our heads by 100 metres and touch down with a thump.
After a few hours spent in the gorgeous Polynesian hotel garden full of ferns and red flowers, and now properly assimilated to the slower pace of life on Easter Island, we take our Pisco to Hanga Roa's sole football stadium, down by the waterfront. There are apparently around 20 teams that play in the Rapa Nui League and we have arrived just in time to watch what appears to be a pub team play against an under-15 superstars side. Most of the pub team - let's call them Rapa Nui United - have just finished work and quickly dress at the side of the pitch before running on and blasting balls at the net without as much as a 5-minute warm up. The kids team on the other hand, look super skillful and might pass as a Premier league youth development team to see them warm up before the match. Hannes is predicting a 10-0 thrashing for the kids team, while I reckon the pub team are going to boss this one...
...twelve seconds on the clock and it is 1-0 to the u-15 superstars. Hannes takes a big congratulating swig of his mango pisco. But never fear, Rapa Nui United are classic pub team: they look overweight, out of shape and a bit rough around the edges but clearly in a parallel universe a couple of these lads could have played in the Chilean second division. Goal, Goal, Goal. And by half time it is 7-2 to Rapa Nui United. Of course, during this time, Hannes and myself have been chatting to one of the two subs - the cocaine sniffing number 22 - hoping they might invite us to play for them in the second half. At one point there is a discussion about the possibility of us maybe putting our boots on but I think the sight of our now empty bottle of pisco has buggered that one up for us. Instead, we have to settle for an impromptu kick about at half time, a huge moai staring across at us from the harbour as the waves crash noisily nearby. It is Hannes' first kick about for almost a year to the day after getting badly injured in a cup tournament last June. I think I even manage to break the stand-in goalkeeper's finger as he only manages to parry a pisco-induced thunderbolt into the top corner of the net. Grassroots football. You have got to love it. In the case of this particular match: very often absurd but brilliant. It is amazing to be attending the 2015 Copa America but, ultimately, this is where all that comes from. Not only is the setting quite remarkable, but here you have possible future stars playing 40 year old has beens and 32 year old only ifs. On this Polynesian field of dreams you have all the same banter, commaraderie and love of the game as you get on football pitches right across the globe. And in some countries - England included - grassroots football is dying as the mega billions made at the top of the game stay there with the elite, greedy and connected, instead of being reinvested in the grassroots game for everyone to enjoy. And you know what? The two of us find it harder to tear ourselves away from this Rapa Nui league game than it was from perhaps Venezuela vs Peru a few days ago in Valparaiso. It is funny really, when you think of it, because football today is a bit like a cult. After all, aren't all the flags, banners and player worship even more strange than the cult of moai and birdmen?
Monday June 22, 2015
Day 13 (part 3)
You have to tear yourself away from the magic of Ahu Tongarki. It is the kind of special place you could happily spend a day, just sitting there, staring at those enigmatic statues, watching them as the light changes. We cannot continue east to Peninsula Poike, which is a barren looking place, not suitable for vehicles, so instead Hannes drives our jeep on to Anakena, up on the north coast. The beach here is picture postcard perfect and looks more Fiji than the Isle of Skye. There are plenty of palm trees, gorgeous white sand and turquiose clear water that looks as inviting as a Bounty advert, minus the Bounty girl. To top this off there are loads of moai on a well-placed ahu, at the edge of the beach. What a setting! Paradise beach and moai combined and more moai on the beach than people!! I should mention though that the water is about the same temperature as the English North Sea in September, but at least Hannes and I each manage five minutes in the Pacific, admiring the crazy surreal backdrop as schools of little blue fish inquisitively surround us. Sunbathing on Easter Island. Can you believe it? We are both extremely lucky boys.
Instead of doing a late afternoon hike we retire to the hotel for an afternoon of pisco in the beautiful polynesian garden. It is about 20 degrees and the air smells wonderfully fresh. The car cost us £35 between us and the fuel only ran in at £4 so we go for the pisco sour and the pisco mango to celebrate our epic day of adventure.
I probably shouldn't mention it, but I will, that we end the evening hanging out on a Hanga Roa street corner with the wild dogs watching the world go by, swigging from pisco bottles like a couple of delinquent teenagers. It sounds silly and it is silly but it is strangely enjoyable.
Monday, June 22, 2015
Rapa Nui, Polynesia
Day 13 (part 2)
To be fair, we were warned that we might get to a roadblock and not be allowed past. Hannes and I stroll over to the young Rapa Nui lady who is guarding the roadblock, exchange pleasantries, and just like that she lets us past; no questions asked. All we have to do is sign something that looks like a petition to tell the Chilean government to do one. We will get to see all of Rapa Nui after all.
The moai are becoming increasingly impressive as we drive east before reaching the quite remarkable Rano Raraku. This place is off the scale. Known as 'the nursery', there are moai here, there and everywhere. Wild horses roam the slopes of this other worldly extinct volcano. This was the island's workshop, where the moai were carved before being transported to the ahus all around the island. There are close to 400 moai on the slopes and within the caldera of Rano Raraku.
As we walk to the coastal side of the volcano, we start to pass half buried moai. What you often see is only the head of the moai with some of these weathered sculptures up to 13 metres tall and weighing close to 100 tonnes. Yes, none of this makes much sense and the theories about the island's strange unique culture are still just that - theories. What on earth was going on here a thousand years ago?!
Some of these eerie statues are standing, some are fallen; face down, face up. Each has a different expression, usually content or proud looking, rather than sinister.
As we climb higher we reach a stunning vantage point where a couple of kilometres away on the sea shore, we can see the world famous Ahu Tongarki, with the Pacific waves crashing a few metres away. Incredible stuff.
At the highest part of the path we find the largest moai ever made. Lain flat, this absurdly large moai is 20 metres in length and is said to weigh 200 tonnes. But it is the 360 degree view all around that leaves the most wonderment: volcano, wild horses, endless moai, Pacific Ocean. Off the scale.
Inside the 650-metre-caldera, there is a freshwater lagoon and dozens more moai dotting the slopes. We are not allowed to venture as far as many of these but the whole setting is beautiful and utterly surreal.
Driving south east we turn a corner and set eyes upon the stunning sight of Ahu Tongarki: 15 huge moai, framed by the Pacific Ocean. The stuff of dreams and fairytales. Its 200-metre long platform is topped by fifteen very different moai figures, one of which is 14-metres tall and is wearing a hat of sorts. Some are short, others are dumpy. It is quite a bizarre sight.
I've read that these moai were returned here in the 90's after a 1960 earthquake caused a massive tsunami that washed these huge stone structures more than 100 metres inland. Just trying to take it all in, I lie on the grass fifty metres away and stare out at this ridiculous view. It is one of those scenes you spend much of your life longing to see, so it is worth lingering and trying to take in.
Monday, June 22, 2015
Rapa Nui, Polynesia
Day 13 (part 1)
Driving a car around Easter Island on a Monday morning. Haha, that's something I never expected to be saying. This is one of the most mysterious and enigmatic places on Earth and we seem to have it almost to ourselves. The population of this 'country' (it is still part of Chile but not, I suggest, for many more years) is just 6,000 and with almost no tourists here because of three days of grounded international flights, this wild, 120 square kilometre desolate rock in the middle of the Pacific Ocean appears deserted.
The at-times-bleak and raw landscape, with barely a tree in sight, is reminiscent of the Scottish isles, especially with endless rocks dotting the landscape and the rolling grassy fields. In fact, if I am honest, the first hour of our Rapa Nui tour has proven to be a massive anti-climax. With one exception, the first moai we see are on their faces or are nothing more than platforms (ahu) missing the moai themselves.
Things hot up shall we say when we come to a sudden halt with a rudimentary road block stopping our progress. For many years, all visitors to Rapa Nui have been charged a visitor fee for accessing the moai, ahu and petroglpyhs. The fee was 30,000 pesos - around $60 - with the money collected by the Chilean state and, I guess, most of it going to Santiago, rather than the local economy. But in recent months the locals have been very restless and have been pushing for more autonomy and self governance. The Rapa Nui Parliament, I understand, voted to close the park in late March. One of the biggest concerns of the 2,500 indigenous islanders is that Chileans are moving to the islands to exploit its tourist potential (80,000 tourists per year). This, they argue, is drastically changing the culture of the island and, understandably, this has accelerated the indigenous islanders' claims for independence from a government in Chile almost 4,000 kilometres away. It is said that only 500 Rapa Nui still speak the local language fluently. You can see why they are panicking. If they don't push for independence now, it ain't never gonna happen.
And so, the national park has been closed and a road block is preventing us from continuing east to see what we came all this way to see. I am fully in support of the locals...but this could be an epic fail for myself and Hannes.
Sunday, June 21, 2015
The flight to Easter Island has been cancelled.
This is not good news. Apparently the weather has been so bad out in the Pacific that a LAN 767 jumbo flew two hours west on Friday then had to turn around and come back due to severe turbulence. Since then the three-flights-a-day that connect the island with the outside world have been cancelled and we are told more than a thousand passengers are on waiting lists, many of them residing in the airport hotels playing endless games of I-Spy.
This doesn't sound at all optimistic. The word at 8am is: next update at 2pm, so we have got 6 hours of sitting around Santiago airport, expecting to be told our three-night trip to the mysterious Easter Island ain't gonna happen. Added to this a grey smog has descended upon Santiago as the city reels from a massive pollution scare which is deemed so bad that many people are being told not to go to work or school or play sport outdoors today.
Hannes and I both have that sinking feeling that Rapa Nui and its Moai isn't on the cards and, let's face it, Easter Island is so far from Europe; so damn remote with only two airports in the whole world servicing it, out there three thousand kilometres away in the middle of nowhere, that this opportunity might never present itself again. We are looking at plans B, C and D. Rumour has it LAN will refund all cancelled Rapa Nui tickets with a re-route to anywhere in South America. We are toying with the idea of four days in Colombia.
Infrared satellite images show a massive storm consuming a huge area of the southern Pacific Ocean. Some passengers have heard rumours that the flight disruptions are down to LAN not having enough flights for the Copa America and the weather is a convenient excuse to relieve capacity. I doubt that though. You don't fly a jumbo out into the Pacific and turn it around after 1000 kilometres unless it's genuine. You also don't want to compensate the hundreds of pax who have mostly paid $800-1000 for the trip-of-a-lifetime to Rapa Nui from Santiago (we paid $300 - long story)
"The weather has improved sufficiently for the flight to go at 4pm", the announcer tells everyone is Spanish, prompting applause and cheers. I must admit to a wee whoop myself.
And indeed not long after 4pm we leave Santiago with a polluted mist trapped like a grey blanket just above the city and set off into the vastness of the Pacific.
After hitting some nasty early turbulence, thankfully things settle down and we can enjoy the six-hour flight out into the middle of nowhere, with some fine service, food, drink and entertainment care of LAN.
Isla de Pascua is on the monitor - the most remote airport on planet Earth. It is exhilarating to realise we are so far from...everywhere. Off the map in many senses. It is also a little scary knowing that if we hit extreme weather there is absolutely nowhere to land for thousands of miles.
To the theme from Bladerunner a rocky outcrop comes into view and we hit land with a loud thud. The runway here is so short that the pilot needs to bring the plane down as early as possible.
I cannot believe it - we are in Rapa Bloody Nui!!!!