A Day in Colonia

 

 

 

 

To me, Colonia del Sacramento is proof that, however outlandish your bucket list, it gets ticked off eventually. I’ve been wanting to visit the city for twenty years, ever since I found out about this patch of Brazil inside Uruguay and, yes, this year I did it.

 

Colonia’s big attraction is that, unlike anything else in the vicinity, it was originally a Portuguese colony, built opposite Buenos Aires to spite the Spanish and steal some of the Plate River trade. As a result, it’s been fought over more doggedly than a half-price TV on Black Friday.

 

If it was easy to invade, it’s simple enough to visit. The ferry crossing is the most popular daytrip from the Argentinian capital. Not only is Colonia only one hour fifteen minutes across the river, not only is it Uruguay’s sole Unesco site, but you also get to add a whole new country to your tally.

 

Colonia is a medium-sized city, but you’re only really interested in the Old Town which is very compact, comprising only 12 hectares. As it’s only about 15-20 minutes walk from the terminal, don’t bother hiring a cab. Instead make a beeline for the Tourist Office to sign immediately for the English guided tours. At around 10 US$ per person, they’re a bargain. Plus you get to meet other travellers.

 

After roving around in the heat of the afternoon, my group were well up for a beer together later.

 

You’ll definitely want to climb the lighthouse, worth it just to contemplate the vastness of the Plate river. Although you won’t be able to see the other bank even from the top, remember this: there are about fifty-odd wrecks submerged in front of you and it was human greed that sank them. Colonia’s quarry provided the stone for the houses in Buenos Aires and those ships were too heavily loaded when they went down.

 

Before you descend, have a quick look at the tiled cupolas of the two bell towers of the Basilica del Santissimo Sacramento. They are its best features. The basilica claims the title of the oldest church in Uruguay, but it was destroyed by lightning in 1823. Since it was used as a powder store at the time, only two Tuscan columns on either side of the entrance remain from its former incarnation. As for its 1970s restoration, the less said the better.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hungry? Tired? Choosing where to eat in Colonia is great fun, especially if you’re a fan of classic cars. It won’t be long before you notice: every restaurant has an old banger or two rusting slowly outside to attract customers. There are enough Studebakers, Chryslers and Chevrolets – even Opels and Austin Morrises – to declare the area a vintage car salon, so take your time before you decide where to sit.

 

The final question is: do you need an overnight stay? As far as sightseeing goes, five-six hours are enough, but as far as absorbing the city vibe is concerned, the answer is a definite yes. The Old Town beats on a different rhythm after dark, with live music that summons the spirits of Brazil. Plus the Uruguayans are much more laid back than their cousins across the River Plate, a trait that’s been enhanced with the legalisation of marijuana whose strong waft spills through the calles of Colonia after the sun sets.  Well, I stayed and didn’t regret it. But then again it had been so long on my bucket list..

 

You can get Brazil included as a stopover in the Discoverer round the world or the 4 Continent Explorer round the world or there are cheaper options via Latin America here

 

 

 

 

On the Old Patagonian Express

 

 

The locomotive slowly backs up to the slatted rail carriages. Gleaming like an unused stainless steel oven, it reflects the strong Andean morning sun back at our cameras. Suddenly, it whistles and releases a cloud of white steam that freezes instantly and forms tiny droplets that fog my sunglasses. Everyone cheers. The crowd assembled at Esquel train station is in a party mood. We have already fallen in love with La Trochita, as the locals call the Old Patagonian Express, and we haven’t even started our trip.

Not that we’re going far. Nowadays only one stop is on offer: from Esquel, a pleasant admin town in the Andes, to Nahuel Pan, a native Patagonian village, one hour away.

When Paul Theroux wrote about his ride to the Andes and turned his journey into legend, the times were different. The 1970s and 1980s were the Golden Age of Tourist Travel when affordable flights shrank the world to a manageable size. Every corner of the earth was ready to be probed and scrutinised by hordes of youngsters with their possessions on their backs and an unquenchable thirst for the exotic.

Those were the times when La Trochita was the only land approach to the remote outposts of Esquel and Trevelin and their lifeline with the large cities of the north. The train was built to carry freight and link up with the Bariloche–Buenos Aires line at Ingeniero Jacobacci.

When I first set eyes on La Trochita I nearly fell backwards laughing. I’d heard about a “narrow gauge train” but I didn’t expect a tram. And yet, this is what the Trochita is: a steam train run on simple tram lines 75cm apart. These are the tracks that had to be laid out quickly during the first world war to transfer troops and provisions to the Western front. After the armistice, they were dismantled and Argentina bought them lock stock and locomotive. The cheap and dirty temporary war transport found permanent use in Patagonia.

Passenger services started after the coal-fired engines turned to oil in the late 1940s and by the 1970s backpackers had started exploring the mysterious Patagonia of lore. But the mounting maintenance costs of the Patagonian Express caught up with it. The engine uses 100 litres of water per kilometre , so a pump station was built every 40 kms in the dry steppe. The increasing price of oil and the dangerous terrain – as late as 2011 the cars were derailed because of strong winds – also conspired to close the line, except for the short one-hour trip we’re about to embark on.

At last we’re all aboard and with a thud we start. It’s 10:05, and we’re five minutes late, but who cares? We all clap instead.

We chuff and chug at walking pace out of the town. A guy  runs in front of us with a red flag to stop the traffic before we cross a road. He then runs to his car and leaves us standing. We meet him at the next junction waving his flag in front of a lone van whose driver strops, stunned.

Although our engine can reach a speed of 65km/hr, we are running only at an average of 20km/hr. Probably because we drive parallel to Estrada 259 and we cross it a few times. A lorry zips by faster than us but, hey, we have priority. The guy with the red flag is waiting for us. The lorry stops and the driver takes a picture on his smartphone.

The complete journey north took something between 14 to 20 hours. The passengers used a cast iron wood-fired stove to cook their food: they fried eggs, seared steaks and even roasted whole racks of lamb on top. We have one in our compartment, too, and I would love to crack an egg on it, but it’s not turned on. These days there is a proper restaurant car for us tenderfoots. Still, the uncomfortable couches are 1922 originals.

The driver’s having a lot of fun with the whistle. We scare a horse tied to a tree, and it starts running in circles. A woman on the bridge of the Esquel canal is stunned and nearly drops her shopping. Soldiers from an Army base we pass, smile and wave. Better stop snapping – this is Latin America!

Once out of the city, we are into the scrub-and-thorn bush that defines the Patagonian landscape all the way to the coast. Bare mountains look down upon us as we look down on Esquel in turn. We pass through a thicket of pines planted for timber. You have to go to the snowy peaks far away, to the National Park los Alerces, to see proper forests, for the Andes hold the moisture from the Pacific and don’t let it reach the steppe.

The ticket inspector comes in, all Argentinian seriousness, followed by the official photographer, all smiles, who takes orders for professionally taken pictures next to La Trochita. I also find out that tomorrow, Saturday, there is a mock raid by armed bandits on horseback who will stop the train and rob the passengers. Tickets cost extra for the raid experience.

By now we’ve reached the main crossing point on Highway 40, where the guy with the red flag is waiting for us along with trainspotters gathered for the 10:50am sighting. A car starts off and runs suspiciously at the same speed parallel with us; maybe that’s a real hold-up? Actually no, he’s only filming us, one hand on the camcorder, the other on the driving wheel. I suppose he won’t see another car for 100 kilometres, but I still look away in disapproval.

 

 

We have now reached the first farmhouses of Nahuel Pan. The pueblo comprises twenty-two Mapuche and Tehuelche families dispersed over 1500 hectares for every homestead is built around a well. Argentina gave them the land for free, but it’s arid, dry and hard to farm. To the villagers the 45-minute stop of the Old Patagonian Express is the sole money-spinner and they’re waiting for us.

We disembark at Nahuel Pan amid makeshift artesanias where thick woollens and glazed pottery are vying for our attention; we visit the local museum that presents a blunt history of the treatment of native Patagonians by the Argentinian government; and we queue at the canteen to buy empanadas and tortas fritas (flat dough patties fried in oil).

And that’s it. The locomotive has done a turn and is now ready to return to Esquel. Our trip was short but sweet enough to turn anyone into a train enthusiast. Someone said once that every locomotive is a living spirit; but our lovely Trochita is more than that.

It’s a train with a soul.

You can get Argentina included as a stopover in the Discoverer round the world or the 4 Continent Explorer round the world or there are cheaper options via Latin America here

 

Photo credit 1 2

Latin America

A Day in Colonia


 

 

To me, Colonia del Sacramento is proof that, however outlandish your bucket list, it gets ticked off eventually. I’ve been wanting to visit the city for twenty years, ever since I found out about this patch of Brazil inside Uruguay and, yes, this year I did it.

On the Old Patagonian Express


 

 

The locomotive slowly backs up to the slatted rail carriages. Gleaming like an unused stainless steel oven, it reflects the strong Andean morning sun back at our cameras. Suddenly, it whistles and releases a cloud of white steam that freezes instantly and forms tiny droplets that fog my sunglasses. Everyone cheers. The crowd assembled at Esquel train station is in a party mood. We have already fallen in love with La Trochita, as the locals call the Old Patagonian Express, and we haven’t even started our trip.

In Evita’s Footsteps


 

 

 

Not many of us know the name of the wife of a foreign head of state, unless he happens to be the President of the United States. But even then, Andrew Lloyd Webber never wrote a musical about Hilary Clinton or Michele Obama and Madonna never portrayed them on film. After such exposure, it’s inevitable that Evita Perón has become the pop face of Argentina.

A Cycling Tour Of Buenos Aires


 

 

I enter the offices of Urban Bikers in Buenos Aires rather apprehensively. It’s a stifling, humid summer afternoon and I’m about to go on a three-hour city tour by bike wending my way through the most chaotic traffic in Latin America. Eat your heart out cage shark divers! Who’s flirting with real danger now?

Crater Santiago


 

 

In Nicaragua, David Whitley heads up to the edge of a volcano crater and learns of the terror it has caused over the years

 

Antarctica


 

Antarctica is our early-warning system. The coldest, driest, windiest place on the planet is where we can most tangibly track and understand how global climate is changing. The Antarctic Peninsula, a curving chain of mountains that extend south of the Andes, is just about the fastest-warming place on Earth, seeing temperature rises of up to 3C over the last fifty-odd years.

But that’s all just words, until you’re there. Your first time travelling in a desert, standing on a mountain-top, experiencing the power of the sea – Antarctica is all of that, redoubled. There’s somewhere in the world that is, still, utterly pristine: Antarctica is wilderness, elemental and stunningly beautiful.

I’ll spare you any more purple prose. I was lucky enough to visit Antarctica in December 2013. It changes your life, like I guess being an astronaut would.

But visiting is much easier than outer space. Here are some things to think about.

THE BASICS

Almost all Antarctic tourism starts from port towns at the southernmost tip of South America – most commonly Ushuaia in Argentina, which has regular flights to/from Buenos Aires.

Antarctica has no roads, no towns, no villages, no airports, no infrastructure, no indigenous people – nothing. It has a lot of penguins and a lot of ice.

That means it’s impossible to visit independently: you can’t get there by yourself, and even if you could, there’s nowhere to stay and no means of moving around.

And anyway, for nine months of the year, temperatures are too low and conditions too harsh to even get there. Antarctica is only accessible during the southern hemisphere summer – roughly December to early March.

At that time, this far south, there is almost 24 hours of daylight: sunsets last for hours, until midnight or later, with sunrise following soon afterwards.

HOW TO GET THERE

The easiest way is by ship: small expedition vessels take about two days to cross the Drake Passage, a notoriously choppy stretch of ocean south of Ushuaia. Then the usual method is to cruise the South Shetland Islands and the Antarctic Peninsula for about a week, stopping in at glaciated bays and icy islands along the way, perhaps visiting one of the scientific research stations on the coast, generally buzzing around in rigid inflatables known as Zodiacs while going back to the ship to eat and sleep on board. Then there’s the two-day voyage back north across the Drake Passage to end the trip back in Ushuaia.

Some companies offer the alternative of flying in a light aircraft from the southern Chilean town of Punta Arenas to a Chilean base in the South Shetlands, to join a cruise there. This saves time (and potential seasickness) by overflying the Drake Passage, but it’s more expensive – and why hurry? Stick to the ocean voyage.

Tourism to Antarctica is strictly regulated, with all ships required to use a special light marine diesel that will evaporate in case of spills, plus laws about dumping of waste, recycling, respect for wildlife, and more.

Huge ocean-going liners (carrying more than 500 passengers) cruise Antarctic waters, but they are prohibited from landing anyone ashore: you can only watch from the rail. Not much fun.

Midsize ships (200-500 passengers) can take people ashore – but a key Antarctic regulation decrees that a maximum of 100 people are allowed to be onshore at a specific landing site at any one time, so on these vessels you might either miss out on some landings or be forced to hang around for hours waiting your turn.

Your best bet is to choose a smaller ship (under 200 passengers): by shuttling passengers onshore in groups, these allow everyone to experience every landing site – and they usually offer two landings a day, maximising your time on the ice.

HOW TO CHOOSE

IAATO, the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators – to which every reputable operator signs up – has a handy listing of members here. It names 19 cruise companies that operate smaller ships.

Shop around: some offer luxury onboard, others have simpler facilities but better activities – perhaps the option to go kayaking or snorkelling beside icebergs, for instance, or to spend a night under canvas onshore.

Check, too, about perks: many operators loan (or give) every passenger a parka, and some also offer loans of insulated snow-boots – both pretty essential items.

HOW MUCH

For a typical 12-day itinerary out of Ushuaia, reckon on a minimum of around US$5,500-6,000 per person. That buys you a berth in a shared cabin on a lower deck, with bathroom down the hall, including all meals and shore excursions.

However, if you’re prepared to hole up in Ushuaia for a while in the season, and ask around at the numerous travel agencies, you could get lucky and pick up a last-minute fare knocking US$1,000-1,500 off that.

Almost all itineraries stick to the South Shetlands and the western coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. For a slightly longer voyage, that might include a glimpse of the ice-bound Weddell Sea on the east side of the Peninsula, prices start nearer US$8,000-10,000pp.

Some cruises stop in at the Falkland Islands and/or South Georgia, both amazingly rich in wildlife. Add another US$2,000-3,000 for these.

Either way, don’t forget to add in the cost of getting to Ushuaia – and also the expense of ski pants, mitts, neck garters, merino base layers and other cold-weather gear, if you don’t already have it.

There’s no mobile phone reception in Antarctica itself (though a couple of research stations have their own mast), but most ships generate their own 3G signal via satellite, even in open ocean. Obviously, beware high rates for roaming. Many ships also create hotspots for onboard wifi, which is chargeable (I paid US$85 for a 250-minute package) but usually pretty reliable, if slower than you might be used to.

 

 

Chris Stanley, a Canadian filmmaker, who was on the same trip as me in December 2013, made and edited a short video (7min) – definitely worth a look (click on the image above)

THE LAST WORD

It’s worth it.

Whatever you spend, however long you have to save to make it work, visiting Antarctica is worth it.

 



 

You can get Ushuaia as a stopover on the Discoverer round the world which is almost £1000 cheaper than airline round the world tickets

Two Thai towns: No banana pancakes

Two Thai towns: No banana pancakes

 

 

 

David Whitley veers off Thailand’s tourist trail to find two unheralded cities with very different charms

It suddenly strikes me what the road is. It’s curiously elevated, unlike any other in Phrae. On one side, there are a few shack-like houses with temple rooftops rising above them in the background. On the other, it’s wild. Overgrown trees and giant leaves obscure the river, although the bells attached to the cows lumbering down towards the water’s edge indicate where it is.

The road was once the city wall. It still goes round the old town; it has just been put to a new use now the era of siege warfare is over.

You’d be hard-pushed to find a more agreeable Thai city to wander around than Phrae. The walls may remind of a mini-Chiang Mai, but its hints of an understudy Luang Prabang that start coming through when you start taking in the gorgeous old buildings on every corner.

Phrae isn’t going to pretend to be as spectacular as either, but it has got one massive factor in its favour: far fewer people to share it with.

I’d been after somewhere without the banana pancakes, expat bars and twenty-something Westerners enquiring whether there was free WiFi. And as a respite from Thailand’s mercilessly-pummelled tourist trail, Phrae turns out to be the perfect tonic.

Wandering through the many wat complexes squeezed into the old city, it strikes me that the usual temple fatigue isn’t kicking in. There’s no time frame, no photographs to try and avoid getting in the way of and no pressure to be wowed by anything in particular. It’s just me, the temples and the occasional passing monk to flash a smile at. The huge seated Buddha at Wat Phra Baht Ming Meuang should be the star of the show, but I find myself absorbed by the delicately-patterned golden decoration on the window shutters. At Wat Luang, the oldest temple in town and dating back to the 12th or 13th century, it’s the stone stupa that’s slowly sprouting vegetation. At Wat Phra Non, it’s the slightly absurd Buddha reclining along the wall.

But it’s the houses that really enchant. Phrae’s major industry was once teak-logging, and whilst the teak trees in the surrounding forests are now protected, the buildings made from their ancestors still remain.

The streets are full of these delightful dark wood homes, with most beautifully preserved through good old-fashioned care rather than tour bus-hunting restoration budgets. The showiest of them – Vongburi House – is also the most atypical. It has an antebellum Deep South plantation house feel – fussy doily-like carvings decorate the roof and unshuttered windows from all angles let the breeze gallop through.

Inside, it feels like a step back to a colonial era that Thailand never had. Inside are gramophones, guns, antique teapots and black and white photos of elephants rolling fallen tree trunks. The house is bathed in much the same sepia-tinged tranquillity that the city is.

Phrae is a wonderful spot for blissfully mooching away from the herd. But, a couple of hours to the north, Phayao is most definitely a tourist town.
 
The tourists whooping it up there, however, are almost without exception Thai. This makes the experience of visiting tremendously odd. When I arrive, everyone in the city seems to be wearing a pink shirt – “the colour of the queen�?, apparently. Some are flooding into a park for a concert, others are bungling their way through an ill-coordinated group dance marathon around a large plastic dragon. It makes no sense at all, particularly when one couple points at me and laughs. Perhaps I should have worn pink too.

There are a few half-decent temples to see, but Phayao’s siren call is the lake it’s sat by. Fishermen stand around the edge like incompetent sentries, whilst wooden boats clank by the jetty. Enterprising oarsmen are always willing to embark on impromptu excursions in exchange for a few notes, but the real action is surrounding the lake rather than on it.

The lakefront is ringed with bar/restaurant/ café hybrids. Some are plastic chair affairs, others make the effort to doll up, but there are scores to choose from. And at night, the holidaying Thais are joined by the thirsty student hordes from the local university. It’s never quite raucous, but there’s a hugely likeable buzz.

The best time to arrive is shortly before sunset. The giant, fiercely red sun drops down through the hazy sky, while the reflections on the lake and the horizon’s palette make waterside Phayao seem like the perfect find. English language menus may be nigh on impossible to find and conversation with the enthusiastic group on the next table who are wondering why you’re here might be stilted, but who cares? The beer is cheap and you can get a giant fish, caught fresh from the lake that morning for the equivalent of £3. Providing you make the right fish mimes, obviously.


You can get Thailand included in the Globehopper RTW or the Navigator RTW