Friday, 7 January 2011
Sailing Through the Andes
And we’re off.
A not-too-early breakfast, bags left inside the bedroom which somehow mysteriously reappear again inside the hotel room at our next destination – this seamlessness is one of the reasons the tour costs what it does, and boy do we appreciate it as boarding passes are brought to us in our seats on the bus and we’re whisked through security to departure lounge without ever seeing a check-in queue. And if the collective baggage is overweight, the tour company pays the excess.
I wanted to put an exclamation mark there, but am editiing this in the transit lounge at Zurich airport where the keyboard doesn't seem to have one. What does that say about the Swiss character?
We’re on Chile’s Sky Airlines, whose fleet appears to be where 737s go to die. At over 30, ours is one of the oldest still flying but with comfortable seats and a tray meal – which has the Americans squeaking with excitement, used as they are to being thrown a bag of peanuts on even the longest US domestic flight – to arrive at Puerto Montt where again the formalities are minimal and we’re quickly on another coach moving towards our lunch destination in Puerto Varas.
The view on the ride down has been sensational – about thirty snow-capped volcanoes studding the cordillera of the Andean range, and now the scenery’s totally different as I’m reminded of the west of Scotland and islands like Arran or Skye where fingers of sea lochs push deep into the low hills of the landscape. There’s as much fishing here too, and apparently the locals will no longer eat salmon because they’re sick of fishing, farming and handling it for the export trade.
On the bus Carla passes round some ‘local’ scarves she’s bought which are allegedly made from Alpaca. When I see the 70/30 label (not to mention the one which says Made in Peru) I ask if we’ll spot any of the Acrylics with whom the Alpacas obviously mated to produce the fibre, but either she doesn’t understand or isn’t amused and her brightness suddenly seems a bit artificial.
Lunch is communal but convivial and there’s some good seafood to start as well as hot dishes we’d selected earlier to save time. It’s also quite Alpine both in the decor of the rustic chalet and the food: I hadn’t expected Wiener Schnitzel to be a Chilean favourites, but it is. Although I wish I’d had the grilled fish because it turns out to be lovely chunky blocks of hake. Wine’s pretty free-flowing so we’re all in a good mood for the afternoon spent around the shops and sights of Pto Varas where my 60 hours of beginner’s Spanish are sufficient for me to help several of the ladies acquire lapis lazuli jewellery in one of the shops.
Siesta, a walk along the seafront with two brilliant volcanoes outlined against the bluest of skies, cocktails, a reasonable dinner and a pleasant sleep in a climate I think of as my ‘own’ since we’re 52 degrees South and I live 52 degrees North.
Next day, the ‘Andean Crossing’ begins in earnest as for the next two full days we’re decanted from bus to dock to boat to bus to hydrofoil to catamaran to whatever in a sort of relay race which brings us across the mountain range and over the Argentine border to Bariloche.
I love it. Even when we’re in the midst of a swarm of ugly horseflies on disembarking at our overnight stop in Peulla, it feels like proper travelling – but with sherpas, since at every change our bags are carted or containerised behind the scenes. The views of the deep green or turquoise lakes and the conical mountains are glorious and we’re extremely lucky with the weather – this stretch can often be cold or rainy – but there are so many photo opportunities and chances to sit and admire the landscape, I never even open the book I brought.
Two long faced Long Island miseries – who fortunately leave us in Buenos Aires – almost spoil it with their moans that this is ‘boring’ but since their favourite holiday was Switzerland I can’t see what part of sparkling lakes, mountains, snow and sunshine is different from the alps: we even have a fondue in Bariloche, and get delicious hot chocolate on the Argentine boat ... perhaps they just liked the cuckoo clocks and watches.
Every tour needs a pair like this, it helps the rest to bond.