A Travellerspoint blog

El Calafate and Puerto Natales

In which we see and hear the mighty Perito Moreno Glacier, don't see any flamingoes and prepare to take on the 'W'

sunny 15 °C

Our flight from Bariloche to El Calafate was totally painless. The nice man at Aerolineas Argentina not only gave us seats on the right of the plane so we could see the Andes during the flight, but he also let Marcus off the extra weight in his bag - which was a whole 33% over the official weight limit. Oops. So after a lovely flight (with indeed, lovely views of the Andes) we landed in El Calafate. We'd been told by a few people that El Calafate wasn't worth visiting in itself, and it's true that almost everyone seems to be there to see the Perito Moreno Glacier, but we actually found El Calafate itself to be quite sweet. There's really just one main street, filled with tour agencies, shops and cafes, including a couple of little wooden arcades full of craft stalls. But the location is lovely, set along the shore of Lago Argentina with hills rising up behind.

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That afternoon we had a wander around the town and visited a bird sanctuary which has been set up along the edge of the lake. As soon as you get away from the main strip the town is a lot more rural, with unpaved roads and seemingly random building sites and house plots. It's obviously a town expanding fast to accommodate all the people like us who pass through. The bird park was, to be honest, a bit boring. We went because they were supposed to have flamingos - but we counted exactly 'cero' flamingoes when we were there. Very disappointing! But it was pretty and an opportunity to stretch our legs for the afternoon.

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Just like everyone else, we were really there to see the Perito Moreno Glacier. So, the next morning we got a bus to the national park. The glacier is absolutely spellbinding, much bigger than the glaciers we saw in New Zealand and really active.

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Just to give you an idea of scale, the glacier is 5km long, 1km wide and 60m high. The best thing though is how much it moves. All day we could hear it cracking, groaning and shifting as it moves two metres a day (loads and loads in glacier terms). Every fifteen minutes or so, a chunk is carved off the end and crashes into the lake with a huge bang. It sounds like rolling thunder with a big crack that then echoes across the glacier. Really hard to take a photo of, you can just about make it out in this one...

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There are a series of walkways with routes to different viewpoints so we spent a good few hours walking around and willing bigger chunks to come off!

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Probably the best thing about our stay in El Calafate though was our hostel - Hospedaje Lautaro. Run by a young Argentine couple, Belen and Dario (who also have the cutest baby!) it has been the friendliest place we've stayed in. Belen was very excited that we were newly married, and when we got home after our glacier expedition we found a sweet handwritten note, strawberries and sweets laid out on the bed. Finding a place where you feel so welcome makes such a massive difference, especially now we've been away from home for almost four months.

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The next day we said goodbye to Belen and Dario and got the bus to Puerto Natales, crossing the border back into Chile. The drive showed us just how stark and empty Patagonia is, we drove for hours with just flat plains of scrubland for a view. As we neared Puerto Natales, the landscape got a bit more mountainous, and from Puerto Natales itself we can just about make out some snow-capped mountains in the distance. The town itself has a totally different character to El Calafate, and is full of corrugated-iron roofed houses. You definitely get the sense you are in a remote place, although the town centre is quite big (in Patagonian terms) with lots of trekking shops.

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Just like El Calafate, Puerto Natales is another town full of people on the move, but this time everyone is going to Torres del Paine. While it's possible to do day treks (and there are lots of tour groups doing just that) there are also some serious treks, and therefore lots of people in walking boots and Gortex around town. We're going to be joining them though and trekking the 'W', a five day trek through the highlights of the national park.So we've basically spent the last couple of days preparing for the trek - booking transport to the park, renting equipment (tent, stove, etc.) and buying up all the cereal bars and chocolate in town. We also went to a really useful information session at another hostel, Erratic Rock, where an experienced guide talks you through the different trails and advice on how to approach the trek. This included his opening statement - "your feet will be wet the entire time" and other gems such as "you can't beat the weather, give in to it, dance in the rain" and "wear your stink uniform [one set of clothes you wear to trek everyday come rain or shine]". Excellent.

And yes, you did read that right. We'll be camping. And Torres del Paine is famous for it's changeable weather and serious wind (they recently recorded 180 km winds). Wish us luck... and if I haven't updated the blog in a week or so, maybe send out a search party...

Posted by teamgb 15:11 Archived in Argentina Comments (1)

Bariloche

In which we hike the national park, wake up to lake views and partake of some famous Bariloche chocolate (and no one gets lost)

sunny 28 °C

Hola from beautiful Bariloche! We arrived here after our 18 hour bus ride, not exactly refreshed, but the journey wasn't too bad. We paid a bit extra for cama seats, which meant we got a big, comfy, leather reclining chair and three meals served on trays during the journey. If plane journeys were that comfy you'd be pleased.

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Having said that, the film choices leave a bit to be desired... on our first overnight bus we were treated to a delightful All Pacino film called 'You Don't Know Jack' which is all about euthanasia, and on our latest we had a whole series of Spanish dubbed Michael Douglas films. Perfect, especially for the kids on board. But the best thing about Argentinian bus travel is definitely the game of bingo (bottle of wine for the winner). Fun and a chance to practise Spanish numbers.

Enough about buses though. The journey into Bariloche had already given us a taste of the stunning lake district, and Bariloche hasn't been a disappointment. Situated along Lago Nahuel Huapi and surrounded by beautiful peaks, the setting couldn't be better. We chose to stay in the Green House Hostel which is a couple of miles out of town but on the road towards the national park, which is really where all the good stuff is, and with lake views.

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The hostel could possibly take our award for best hostel yet. Brian, one of the owners, picked us up from the bus station, and on arrival we were shown to the best room in the house, right in the peak of the A frame with our own little balcony and view of the lake. Perfect!

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We headed straight into Bariloche to check out the small town centre. Its more like a Swiss ski resort than an Argentine town, filled with wooden A frame houses and chalets, bars advertising German beer and hundreds of chocolate shops.

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After teasing ourselves with some window shopping and checking out the cathedral, we got the bus back to the hostel to enjoy a bottle of 'Marcus' wine we found in the supermarket.

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On advice from Brian and Santiago at the hostel, the next day we did a one day walk to Refugio Frey on the side of mountain Cerro Catedral. This was a brilliant tip, 24km through grassland, forest and ending in a rocky climb to the refugio at the top. It's been interesting seeing the different ways that trails are rated. In New Zealand we felt the walks were sometimes overrated as more difficult than they were. In Patagonia they seem to take the opposite approach - a 24km walk through sometimes steep and rocky terrain is firmly graded as an 'easy' trail.

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For almost the whole trek we were treated to buena vistas, and when we got to the top found we were close to some great peaks, not surprising when you learn that the refugio is mainly used by climbers and is one of Argentina's best climbing destinations. We managed the ascent in three hours which was faster than we expected, so we even had time to sun ourselves while watching the climbers at the top and enjoying the view.

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The next day, with slightly sore legs, we decided to do a much shorter climb up Cerro Campanario. Both Brian and Santiago recommended it, and you can even get a ski lift to the top if you don't want to walk. Of course, we weren't going to pay money to get to the top when we could walk for free, so we hiked up the very steep but thankfully very short trail (about 25 minutes) to the top. It was well worth the climb... because this is the view we found at the top.

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And just to prove we were there...

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Marcus is now claiming for the second time this trip that he's seen the best view ever. Looks like New Zealand has some competition from Patagonia!

After all that excitement, we got the bus back into town to enjoy Bariloche's other famous thing - sweet stuff. The Argentines LOVE sweet food. Even the bread here is sweet, and they have dulche de leche with everything (seriously, its served with toast for breakfast, on ice cream, on its own... and has at least four shelves dedicated to it in every supermarket) And as Bariloche is famous for chocolate, we blew the budget on a bag of goodies from one of the town's oldest chocolate shops, Mamuschka.

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That night the hostel did an asado for everyone, which included some really amazing steak and, what a relief, some real salad too. We met a really nice couple from Bristol, Dan and Rhian, and spent the night chatting to them over steak and wine. There were a few weird coincidences, including that we'd both stayed in the same hostel in Mendoza in exactly the same room (which we determined because it was the only room crammed with four beds and a crazy industrial sized fan).

Yesterday was our last full day in Bariloche. Unfortunately the weather took a turn for the worse and we woke up to drizzle, and both of us with sore throats. So our planned ten hour hike was abandoned and instead we got a bus to Llao Llao in the national park and did a short forest walk along the side of Lago Moreno Oeste. The walk was nice, but it also gave us the opportunity to drive the Circuito Chico which is a famous driving route through the national park with some beautiful views. We then rushed back to the hostel to watch England beat France in the rugby. We had to stream it over the net, which meant we missed most of it in freeze frame, but we could hear most of the commentary!

Today we're saying goodbye to Bariloche and taking a flight to El Calafate, which is in southern Patagonia (and would take at least two days on the bus... we just couldn't face that). Down jackets and rain coats at the ready, El Calafate is glacier country...

Posted by teamgb 02:45 Archived in Argentina Comments (2)

Mendoza

In which we have our first Argentine asado, wrap our tastebuds around some tasty red wine and Marcus gets lost in the desert

sunny 32 °C

We arrived in Mendoza in the early hours of Saturday morning, only planning to stay for a day on Sunday to do some wine tasting before continuing south towards Patagonia. But our plan for a swift exit was foiled because nothing is open on a Sunday, especially wineries. So we extended our stay and booked a bus for Tuesday instead. With quite a bit of extra time, we spent our first day catching up on some sleep! We've been seriously jetlagged since we arrived in South America, and by the time we arrived in Mendoza hadn't had more than a few hours sleep in about five days - and hadn't slept at all for about 24 hours due to our fun night bus from Santiago. So we chilled out in our hostel, popped out for some lunch and generally didn't achieve much!

Mendoza itself is a pretty, sleepy town, full of wide, tree-lined boulevards and pretty plazas (five in total as our taxi driver proudly told us on arrival). It's also right in the middle of the desert, which makes its leafy appearance even more of a surprise. Apparently they have a 500 year old irrigation system that channels glacial melt water from the Andes through the desert and into the city. All along the pavements there are channels bringing the water to different streets. Pretty cool (for an irrigation system I mean).

On our second day, we spent a few hours wandering the streets, although most things were pretty closed. We had a walk around the Parque San Martin which seemed to be what a lot of Mendocinas (people from Mendoza) do on a Sunday too. That evening we booked to do a sunset horse ride, getting out into the desert with some gauchos, followed by a traditional asado (Argentine BBQ). We were picked up (an hour and a half late) by Pedro and Santiago our guides, and driven out to one of their estancias to meet our horses. The first hour and a half was really lovely - riding through the desert in the fading light through the haze of dust kicked up by the horses and with the Andes rising up in the distance. Marcus had a particularly stubborn horse (he was the only person given a stick to hit the horse with!) but other than that we really enjoyed it. They took us up to the top of a lookout to see the lights of Mendoza in the distance.

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Unfortunately, because they were so late picking us up we then had to do a lot of riding in the dark which was a pretty surreal experience, especially for us complete novice riders. At one point the guides decided it was too dark to do the full route, so we had to take a shortcut to a different estancia for our asado. And this is where it all started to go wrong. My horse got really spooked by the change and started trying to throw me off - literally my own real life bucking bronco. I'm proud to say I hung on and didn't fall off. Slightly less proud of the girlie screaming I did at the same time. After that we were off. They let us run the horses as we were so late, pretty exhilirating in the dark and trusting the horses knew the way!

I arrived at the estancia and the guys started setting up the asado. Marcus hadn't come back yet, and after a few minutes when they started serving the food and I realised both of the guides were back I started to worry. For the whole ride we were supposed to have one guide at the front and one at the back. So where was Marcus? I told the guides that I had lost my husband and they all laughed. They didn't believe me. In my sternest Spanish, I repeated "Mi marido no esta aqui". After convincing them that he wasn't in the bathroom and I wasn't crazy, they started to look worried. Shouting "Marcus" into the dark to no response, I started to be really worried. One of the estancia owners jumped on a horse and set off back out into the desert and they told me not to worry. Because what was there to worry about? Only that my husband was lost, in the desert, on his own. In the dark.

The guides carried on serving up the asado, everyone sat down to eat, and I sat down to wait. I was really lucky to meet a couple of really lovely girls from Norway, Inga and Astrid, who kept me talking and tried to keep me from worrying. After possibly the longest half an hour I've ever had, the dogs started barking and I went out to find Marcus back with the estancia owner. What a relief (there were tears - even worse than the earlier girlie screaming!)

So what happened? When they changed the route, all the horses turned and followed the guides, but Marcus' horse just refused to move! So he spent half an hour shouting and trying to make the horse move (by hitting, coaxing, getting off and pulling) with no success. Like the good backpacker he is, he had a head torch in his backpack, so he put that on so he'd be visible and waited for someone to come. Apparently he also formed a plan that he would wait until it was light and then head towards Mendoza - as we'd seen the lights earlier he knew the direction - and he'd have to leave the horse where it was. Luckily it didn't come to that, and about an hour after he'd stopped, out of the darkness, he heard someone calling his name. Apparently the guy said he hadn't been stern enough with the horse, but then when he tried to get it moving it wouldn't move either. They finally made it back to the estancia, no harm done, and to much celebration. In ten years, they have never lost anyone before. Let's hope they start counting heads next time.

After all that drama, we hit the red wine a little bit, enjoyed the asado and had a really fun evening singing around the campfire.

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A bit more of a desert adventure than we were hoping for!

Having only made it to bed around 2:30am after our campfire fun the night before, we got up early (and sore-headed) for our wine tour. I see the night before as just a bit of early practice. We had planned to do a bike tour, but opted instead for an organised tour which turned out to be a really good decision. For about forty pounds we toured and tasted wine at three bodegas in Maipu and had an incredible lunch. We  also had a nice surprise when we got on the bus to find the two Norwegian girls we met last night on the same tour (and also looking as rough as we were!)

Stop numero uno was Navarro Correas, a big industrial winery just outside of Mendoza. They produce millions of litres of wine a year and export a huge amount, so it was interesting to see a large scale wine production process.

Next, in total contrast, we visited a small boutique bodega where they produce all the wine by hand - no machinery allowed. Again, we tried a couple of different wines - a 2004 Malbec (apparently the golden year for wine from Mendoza if you're interested) and a bubbly. Argentina is obviously famous for red wine, but Malbec in particular. But here it was really nice to try a Torrontes, which is a white grape only grown in Argentina.

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Our final winery was Cavas de Don Arturo, a medium-sized, organic winery in a really pretty setting. But the highlight of the day was probably the lunch - an incredible spread of tapas style food. Just what we needed to soak up all that wine.

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Today was our last day in Mendoza. Again, we've been quite chilled out, had a walk around town and visited the cathedral and the market, before spending the afternoon in a hammock back at the hostel - underneath a grapevine of course. Tonight we're getting the bus to Bariloche which is in the lake district. While Mendoza and Santiago have been great, we're both really keen to get back to some lakes and mountains. And it's only an 18 hour bus ride to get there...

Posted by teamgb 11:54 Archived in Argentina Comments (3)

Santiago

In which we embrace Chilean culture (the food and drink at least), pound the streets of the city and cross the border at the top of a mountain pass (disappointingly in the dark!)

sunny 33 °C

Buenos dias desde America del Sur! Having an amazing South American experience so far, despite being gutted to leave New Zealand. We landed in Santiago on Tuesday afternoon (after a 24 hour journey and crossing the international date line - serious jet lag alert) and took a shuttle straight to our hostel Don Santiago. Exhausted and tired we were met by the friendliest people and shown straight to our very funky room, complete with kids bike mounted on the wall!

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The hostel is lovely, although slightly out of town in Barrio Brasil, it means its a more local area with few tourists. After a shower we decided just to get out before the need for sleep was too great, so we had a walk around Barrio Brasil and stopped off in a bar for local beer and a traditional Chilean pisco sour.

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We also saw some traditional Chilean dancing which started just in the square we were sat in. A few guys turned up with guitars, someone started singing and the next thing loads of people, from teenagers to couples in their sixties, started dancing. Marcus even got an offer to dance (but declined)! All just on a Tuesday afternoon.

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A few hours and a few more drinks later, we went to a traditional parillada restaurant, which is basically all about the meat. Looking slightly confused by the menu (how can there be three pages just for different kinds of steak?) a Chilean couple invited us over to their table to join them for dinner. And this is how we met our next amazingly friendly Chilean people, and also how we ended up ridiculously drunk on our first night in Santiago. Guillaume and his girlfriend were lovely, born and bred locals from Santiago, but Guillaume had lived in the US for a while and spoke great English. So we had a mixture of my terrible Spanish (although I swear it got better the more pisco sours I drank) and his much better English. It turned into a really fun night.

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The next day, tired, hungover and jet lagged we spent the afternoon at the Museo de la Memoria y Derechos Humanos (the museum of human rights) which charts the events leading up to, during and the end of the Pinochet era of military rule in Chile.

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Although much of the exhibits are in Spanish, its an incredibly powerful museum. One huge wall is covered with photos of 'disappeared' people, and there's the opportunity to listen to Presidente Allende's final radio address to the nation (he died later that day during the coup) which is incredibly poignant. Because its relatively recent history, much of the exhibits are video which really brings home what happened - it included video of the presidential palace being bombed by the air force, and attacks and murders of protesters against the regime which were somehow filmed. Like so many of these places, harrowing to visit but really important in understanding Chile today.

The walk there was also a good opportunity to see some more of the local area, which is covered in slightly run down colonial architecture and loads of graffiti.

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That night Pablo, one of the guys who runs the hostel, lightened our mood by making traditional terremoto cocktails for everyone in the house. Terremoto translates to earthquake because apparently you end up with shaky legs after a couple! Pablo was really secretive about the ingredients but we later learned it contains a special kind of wine, rum and pineapple ice cream. Somehow, it tastes really good! Pablo then treated us to an impromptu musical performance in the hostel living room.

On Thursday we were still really jet lagged so spent the morning being lazy before going to the centre to join a free walking tour run by a company called Spicy Chilli. These guys just work for tips, so you pay what you think its worth at the end of the tour. Our tour took us from Palacio de la Moneda (the palace bombed during the coup in 1973)...

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... to the Plaza de Armas which is the main square and has some beautiful architecture including the cathedral.

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After taking us through a few more neighbourhoods the tour ended in Barrio Bellavista which is quite trendy, full of students, more cool graffiti and lots of bars and restaurants.

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We met some really fun people on the tour so decided to go for dinner and drinks at a local Chilean restaurant our guide recommended, where I tried the traditional dish of pastel de choclas.

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Its basically a corn casserole with meat, eggs and olives in it, quite sweet because of the corn.

We then finished the night with another recommendation at Emporio de Rosa, apparently the best ice cream in Santiago (you can imagine how much our ears pricked up at that one). We can confirm it was pretty damn good.

The next day was our last in Santiago as we'd booked a night bus to Mendoza. So we hit the streets to do a bit more exploring, including visits to the Bellas Artes gallery, a brilliant Guggenheim exhibition and climbing to the top of Cerro Santa Lucia, one of two hills in Santiago centre from which you can get views if the Andes. Unfortunately it was really hazy, but you can just about make out some snow caps.

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We had been hoping to get a closer look at those mountains as the bus to Mendoza takes a pass directly over the Andes with a border crossing into Argentina at the top. But when we went to book tickets we were told that we could only do the journey at night. It turns out there were massive landslides which closed the road last week, and its only been cleared for one lane. So by day you can travel from Mendoza to Santiago and by night the opposite. We were unlucky enough to get the short straw and had to do the trip overnight, which also meant a pretty chilly three hour stop at the border in the middle of the night. Not much fun.

I think the great thing about Santiago has been that it was a total surprise. Everyone (including the girl who booked our flights) told us there was nothing there worth seeing and that we'd want to move on as quickly as possible. Maybe we've just been lucky to meet good people, but the Chileans we've met have been some of the warmest, friendliest and funniest people we've met on our trip. Santiago. Definitely underrated.

Posted by teamgb 12:11 Archived in Chile Comments (1)

Tongariro Alpine Crossing and Rotorua

In which we luge overlooking Lake Rotorua, get even more geothermal thrills and get seriously muddy in Hell's Gate

sunny 28 °C

After all our walking so far on the trip, it seemed wrong not to attempt the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, touted as New Zealand's greatest one day walk. There's a reasonable amount of scaremongering that goes on about the walk, with lots of warnings about its difficulty. I think it could be pretty treacherous in bad weather but we were lucky and had a great day on the walk. When we reached Taupo we found out that half of the track is closed because one of the volcanoes erupted in December so it isn't safe. Eek! So instead of doing the full walk one-way, the track is now a loop which turns around at the highest point. We asked around and everyone we spoke to who had done it before the eruption assured us we were getting to see all the good stuff, so we went ahead and booked a shuttle to Mangetapopo which is the start of the track.

The trail is really split into four sections. The first hour to Soda Springs is a gentle uphill through scrub land, with views of the volcanoes starting to loom in the distance. You walk alongside rocks from lava flows and bright orange streams.

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At the end of this you reach the ominously named Devil's Staircase, a steep uphill for about 45 mins. The map said to allow an hour for this section but our Himalayan trained legs got us up there no problem! You also start to get a view of the surrounding valley.

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After this it gets really cool. A flat section leads you through what feels like a lunar landscape with ash dust strewn with rocks and the volcano Mount Ngauruhoe looming next to you. What makes that even cooler is that Mount Ngauruhoe was used as Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings. We could even see a small stream of smoke escaping from the top of the crater.

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From here its a short but steep and scrambly uphill to the top of Red Crater.

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The route ends up here with a view of the beautiful Emerald Lakes. You can just see the active volcano behind the bigger lake, still steaming. Apparently they're expecting another eruption, we were both relieved and slightly disappointed it didn't happen while we were there (we said see signs on the route telling you what to do if an eruption occurs... it basically said RUN!)

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We chose this view as our lunch spot and tucked into our picnic before heading back, arriving back 6 hours after we set off. On the way back we were able to get a better view of the active volcano too.

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That night we had to move out of our backpackers to a local motel because Taupo was really busy. But the motel (Bradshaws Motor Lodge) was actually really nice, and we met lots of nice people, and shared a few drinks sat out on their sunny porch (we're still trying to get through all that wine we bought in Marlborough).

On Sunday we spent the morning running errands in Taupo before driving to Rotorua. We made a beeline for the Skyline gondola which takes you to the top of a hill overlooking Lake Rotorua.

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But we weren't there for the view. Oh no. We were there to luge. For anyone who doesn't know what luge is (this included me until a few days ago) you sit in a plastic kart which is like a sledge with wheels and handlebars and ride it on tracks down the mountain, pulling the handlebars to lift your wheels off the floor to brake. Then you get a ski-lift back up and do it all again! The tracks vary from the nice, gentle 'scenic' route to the frankly terrifying 'advanced' which is full of steep, banking corners and hills you can almost lift off. You'll have to imagine how big the smile was on Marcus' face (mainly because its hidden underneath all that beard), but suffice to say he was a very happy boy.

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Marcus thinks I look like Mario Kart in this one...

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After all that excitement we checked into our backpackers, Crank, in central Rotorua and had a few beers (and I won at foosball!)

That brings me to yesterday, our last full day in New Zealand (boo). In the morning we treated ourselves to breakfast out and walked back along Lake Rotorua for about an hour. This turned out to be really interesting, Rotorua is geothermal central and the edges of the lake bubble and steam. It draws loads of wildlife in too so there were lots of birds around. The only downside being the whole place absolutely stinks of sulphur!

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In the afternoon we went to a geothermal site called Hell's Gate (so-named by George Bernard Shaw who thought he'd come to the end of the world when he visited). We wandered around the site (sticking strictly to the path... some of the sulphur and mud pools are bubbling at over 120 degrees!) The place is absolutely unbelievable, it feels like nowhere else we've been to, full of bubbling mud pools, steaming sulphur pools, a 40 degree sulphur waterfall (that Maori warriors used to bathe in after battle to help heal their wounds) and bubbling and rumblings underground.

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To top it off, you can have a mud bath in mud straight from one of the pools. Fun, but we did come out smelling like rotten eggs!

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Today we're driving back to Auckland and then flying to Santiago Chile. Feeling very disappointed that our NZ adventure has come to an end, I think you can tell from all these (very long!) posts what an amazing time we've had. Having said that, we've almost become a bit immune to all the beauty, so before we start taking it for granted its time to move on. As a Kiwi guy told me, you want it to be the cake not the bread and butter. So, vamos a Chile... hasta luego!

Posted by teamgb 11:17 Archived in New Zealand Comments (2)

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