¡Chi-Chi-Chi Le-Le-Le!

In an attempt to get the best fare, we had booked a flight from New Zealand to South America months ago.   As our trip to South America was approaching, we began doing research into details in Chile and Argentina.   As it turns out, we got super lucky – Valparaiso, Chile, just two hours from Santiago, apparently has the biggest New Year’s celebration in South America – perfect!   Unfortunately, we did not get off to a good start with our flight from Auckland, NZ to Santiago, Chile, as it was delayed 17 hours.   After finally arriving in Santiago in the middle of the night, we spent a day or so recovering and applying for our Brazilian Visa at the Brazilian Embassy in Chile.

We quickly headed for New Years in Valparaiso, a town with tons of character on the coast of Chile.  We spent some time wandering the cobblestone streets and enjoying the amazing street art on brightly painted homes and shops in the hills.  We scoped out some spots to watch the several fireworks displays that light up the bay along the coast of Valparaiso and its neighboring towns.  Finally, we decided to head to the beach, for views of as many of the fireworks displays as possible.  We collected some supplies in the form of a wig, a mask, silly string, and yellow underwear (a Chilean New Years tradition for good luck).  We hung out with the families on the beach, and watched all of the fireworks explode above the water, on all sides of us, while the crowd chanted “Chi-chi-chi-le-le-le!  Viva Chi-le!”  Afterwards, we headed downtown to see the band play in the square.  The streets were packed, young Chileans were out in full force, and we did our best to keep up – staying out until 4am (the parties go until 10am in some parts, we were told).

After New Years, we headed for Valpo’s cleaner and quieter suburb, Vina del Mar, to hang out for a few days.  We loved biking along the ocean on the bike paths to little beach towns.  We stayed at a wonderful hostel with incredibly kind hosts, and enjoyed practicing our Spanish with the Latin-American guests we met.

Next, we took an overnight bus to Pucon, in the Lakes District.  Pucon is nestled against a lake with a beach, with a gorgeous snow-capped volcano in the background.  We wasted no time booking a tour to climb the volcano the next day.  It took about 4 hours to climb the  volcano with crampons, and less than an hour to slide down it on sleds!  It was certainly a highlight of the trip.   The other days there we spent biking to water falls, hiking to three lakes in a beautiful National Park with a lovely French-speaking couple from Corsica who had been living in Tahiti.   It was great getting to know them and adding another destination to our desired travel list (Corsica sounds amazing!).  It was also fun, yet confusing at times, to speak French and Spanish interchangeably during the day.

We were sad to leave Pucon, but excited for a few days in Santiago before having to head to Argentina and Mendoza to meet up with Jon’s high school friend, Owen, and his wife, Sara.   The highlight of Santiago for us was our hostel, one of the best we’ve stayed at during our entire trip, and the well done museum about Chile’s Pinochet military dictatorship from 1973 to 1989.

We loved our time in Chile and happy to know that we’d be back with our adventures into Patagonia in the beginning of February.

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Goodbye for now, New Zealand

After our big walk, we headed for Milford Sound on a bus & boat tour.   It was truly incredible; the photos don’t do it justice.  I’ll let them speak for the beauty themselves.

We stopped in Dunedin for  a night to check out some Blue Penguins.  They are the smallest penguins on earth (approximately 1 kg), so they’re extra adorable.  They rushed to shore in packs and ran up the hill to their nests at dusk, around 11 pm – midnight!

We spent Christmas in Kaikoura, a cute town on the coast, known for it’s wildlife.  We spent a gorgeous and sunny Christmas Eve kayaking to a seal hangout, and made lamb for Christmas dinner.  We also visited some baby seals on the coast.   During the winter they apparently hang out in a waterfall pool, in a kind of baby-seal daycare, while the female seals are out hunting.  We saw them while they were still on the rocky coast with their Mamas.  They were ridiculously cute!

We stopped in a pretty French-style town on a peninsula off of Christchurch on our way out of town.   We even got to catch up with some friends that we met in Thailand during a stop in Auckland in between flights!  We loved NZ and can’t wait to visit the  South Island again!

Middle Earth

The next part of the trip really knocked our socks off.  It was probably the best scenery of the trip.

We drove from the rainy glaciers on the coast into the lakes and mountain views of Wanaka.  On the great advice of our friend, Kate, who lived in Wanaka, we stayed at our favorite backpackers of the trip, Wanaka Backpacka, with gorgeous views of the lake, and a friendly vibe.  We loved biking around the lake, and hiking to another glacier with some friends from the hostel.  We even saw a movie at a great theatre in town, which serves homemade ice cream and cookies at intermission.  Yes, intermission!

We wished we could have spent more time in Wanaka, but off we went to Glenorchy, to camp and do a day hike of the Routeburn Track, a Great Walk in New Zealand.  Some of the Lord of the Rings movies were shot in Glenorchy, and it did not disappoint, aside from some small battles with sandflies, our constant foe.  We wished we could have done the entire Routeburn hike, but unfortunately the logistics did not work out.   We will be back to do the rest of this hike!

Driving into Queenstown, we couldn’t help feeling giddy at the sight of the gorgeous peaks of the Remarkable range above the clear blue water of Lake Wakatipu.  We did another bike ride around the lake together, and Jon did some mountain biking.  While Jon was mountain biking, Jen headed to bask in the sun with some ice cream and a Bostonian friend, Jenny.  Just when we decided that the day couldn’t get any better, Jen and Jenny were invited to join a spinning speedboat on the lake and canyons for FREE!  Granted, the boat’s captain was only practicing and we were his second ride, but it only added to the excitement.  Did he actually mean to almost swerve into that rock or pole?  We’ll never know, but we survived the ride, delighted and declaring that the day really was the best ever.   We topped off our perfect day with the perfect gigantic burger from Fergburger, more great advice from our friends Nick and Sarah.  We can’t wait to get back to Queenstown!

From Queenstown, we headed to Te Anau to tramp the Kepler Track, another Great Walk.  We were worrried that our sunny weather luck had changed, as the forecast showed three days of rain.    However, we only had mysterious clouds that would come and go, revealing the tops of mountains or bottoms of lake.   We lucked out with only occasional sprinkles of rain or misting throughout the entire 3 day 53 km (33 miles) walk, aside from the last hour, when we were stuck in a big downpour.

Glaciers, Glowworms, Glamping & Grapes!

We hopped on the ferry from Wellington to Picton with our car, for the start of our adventures on the South Island.  On the way we had a nice view of the Marlborough Sounds, later the site of our first tramp (hiking trip).   Before our tramp, we stayed a couple nights in the Marlborough Sounds wine area,  the largest wine producing region in NZ.   We had a great time visiting vineyards on bikes, tasting wines, and even buying a few bottles.   We biked around with two other couples from our backpackers, one from Vancouver, the other a young couple from Boston, or “Team America.”

From the vineyards, we drove to start our first tramp, the Queen Charlotte Track.  Instead of hiking the entire 4-5 day track, we opted for an overnight hike covering 30km.  Our weather wasn’t great, but we had nice views of the Sounds, and the track ended at a historic sound favorited by Captain James Cook ( the 1700’s navigator who kick-started the European settlement of NZ).  At the end, we took a shuttle boat back to our parked car.

This brings us to the concept of “glamping” – glamorous camping.   NZ has it down:  along many of the tracks, especially those along waterways, you can hire a boat to take your packs to the next stop each night.  You can even stay at posh lodges, or have a boat take you from one spot to another, if you don’t want to tramp yourself.  New Zealand trails have consistently impressed us with the quality of the trails, accommodations, and backcountry amenities.  The trails are full of gorgeous suspension bridges and fun wooden walkways.  Some backcountry campsites even have potable water, sinks for washing hands, and  flush toilets.  Flush toilets!!!

Further evidence of glamping can be found in Abel Tasman National Park, the site of our second tramp.  We did another overnight hike here, ending with a boat ferry back to our start.  We were incredibly impressed with the scenery, waterfalls, and flush toilets at the campsites.   Jon even hiked to the Cleopatra Pools, where he slid down a natural slide in the rocks.   Abel Tasman was amazing, but the sandflies were not.  Sandflies can drive hikers crazy.  Tiny little flies, their bites last for weeks and cause their victims to awake at 3 am to itchy spots.  Plus,  there are always tons of them around.   Despite the sandflies, Abel Tasman is all about the glamping.

In between glamping, we hung out in the town of Nelson, where Jon got to mountain bike, and relaxed a bit.  We also spent a night outside of Nelson Lakes National Park to get a glimpse of the beautiful lake.  We didn’t have time for a hike in Nelson Lakes, so we’ll have to come back.

In Franz Joseph, we get to the Glaciers and Glowworms portion of our post.  We visited both the Franz Joseph and Fox glaciers, and even did a night time walk to see some glowworms.   We saw tons of little green guys suspended on an upturned tree!  Unfortunately, the glow worm photos didn’t come out.   It was difficult to see too much of the glaciers from the walking trail, and we weren’t willing to shell out for a helicopter ride (we have seen lots of much bigger glaciers in Alaska!) so we headed on for the main South Island event in Fiordland.

North Island, New Zealand

Auckland & Waiheke Island

Flying into New Zealand on New Zealand Air, we were treated to the most hilarious flight safety video ever, courtesy of Peter Jackson.  A great welcome, but we’ll save the details for you, in case you end up on an Air New Zealand flight yourself.   (Or just look it up on Youtube.)  In any case, we arrived in New Zealand happy but desperately travel planning, because our first attempts at planning ended poorly when we realized there were absolutely NO double rooms available in Auckland during the few days we planned to spend there.  We thought that New Zealand would be booked all over during December high season, but, upon check-in, we found out it was because the Rolling Stones were in town.   And yes, they were sold out already.

Somehow we managed a few scraggly rooms, and enjoyed a short hike to a volcanic crater that overlooks the city, and some wine at a lovely vineyard on Waiheke Island, near Auckland.

Bay of Islands

We moved north to the Bay of Islands, for a chance to swim with dolphins.  We spent a fun day on the boat, and saw lots of dolphins doing backflips and swimming right under us next to the boat.  Sadly, we weren’t allowed to swim with the dolphins, due to New Zealand law prohibiting swimming with dolphins when there is a baby dolphin in the pod, but it was amazing to see them up close nonetheless.

Rotorua

In Rotarua, we enjoyed learning about Maori culture through a performance by locals, including the famous Waka dance performed at the start of the All Blacks rugby games.   We were impressed at the obvious respect for Maori culture and inclusion in all types of culture – the U.S. could learn a lesson from this.   Thermal features abound in Rotarua, from the city parks to the large geysers.   Jon also got to mountain bike, and Jen took a hike in a redwood forest.

Lake Taupo & Tongariro National Park

We planned to do some big hikes in Tongariro National Park and the iconic Mt Taranaki volcano, but unfortunately, the weather would not cooperate.  In both places, we were rained out of the big hikes that we had planned, but still managed a few short hikes and saw some partial views.  We were told over and over that we had the bad luck of travel during an unusually rainy and cold end of spring.

Taranaki National Park & New Plymouth

Wellington

Although our time was short, we had a great impression of the city.   It has a spectacular setting, with bays and hills and houses and city all around, with a vibe similar to the Pacific Northwest in the US.  There is a great hike which rises from downtown with great views of the bay. The highlight for us was Te Papau, five floors of museum giving a great history of all things New Zealand.

Overall, we enjoyed the North Island, but we’re looking forward to the South Island.  Because we had heard that the South Island packs a bit more punch, we dedicated only 10 days of our five New Zealand weeks to the North Island, compared to 3.5 weeks in the South Island.   Onto the ferry!

The Great Barrier Reef

After our Whitsundays trip on the southern end of The Reef, we were excited for the main event:  the Great Barrier Reef in Cairns.  We drove the uneventful 7.5 hours, anxious for our much anticipated trip out on the Reef – and we both can safely say we were not disappointed.  We both agree the Reef was one of the top experiences of our trip.   The water and reefs from above were spectacular; the fish were huge and the colors didn’t always come out in the photos.   We went to the outer reef and it was incredible.   Jon even tried an intro SCUBA at the reef.   It was a blast – we’ll let the photos speak for themselves.

We rounded out our time in Australia with one last day in Brisbane – a cool city with lots of bike paths surrounding the river going through town.   Onto NEW ZEALAND!

East Coast

After an afternoon wine tasting in the Hunter Valley, we drove to a national park for a night of camping near a waterfall.  We were on our way to visit yet another gracious host, Jon’s father’s cousin, or “Sledge.”  Sledge is an American who moved to Australia in the 70s, landing near Nimbin, a quirky town known for being very liberal.  Sledge and his beautiful partner, Danielle, live in a home completely off the grid and independent of local electricity, plumbing, water, etc.  Pretty amazing!  They live in a gorgeous jungle with beautiful trees and animals (and sometimes bugs!) all around them.  We also got to visit Sledge’s son, Sebastian, his partner Ruby, and their children who live on the property.

Sledge and Danielle took us all around the area, to Byron Bay, beautiful beaches, forests, and a hike to the “pinnacle,” overlooking a crater’s valley in a national park.  When we visited Nimbin, the nearby town, we were amused to be welcomed with open arms, as we’re from Colorado, the first U.S. state to completely legalize marijuana.   Sledge and Danielle were wonderful hosts, and we loved staying on their farm and enjoying their beautiful area!

When we left the Sledge farm, we drove to an animal sanctuary where Jen got to HOLD A KOALA (THIS IS NOT A JOKE) and we both got to pet Koalas.  It was touristy but cool nonetheless.  At a nearby beach, Jon took advantage of the beginner waves and had fun surfing for a couple hours.   We then drove through Surfer’s Paradise and skipped Brisbane and the G20 (sadly we weren’t invited), and stopped in Noosa.

Noosa was the most beautiful beach we saw on the coast.  We even saw a wild koala on a tree in a walk in the Noosa Headlands National Park.

Next, we joined a two night sailing tour out of the Whitsunday Islands.   We got to participate in the sailing, snorkel on the end of the Great Barrier Reef (including seeing another huge turtle!), and visit the gorgeous Whitehaven Beach, with the most pure sand in the world.  However, due to lack of internet and time limitations, we did not fully vet the tours or find out the details of our boat.  It turned out that there were about 28 people (by people I mean young backpackers) all sleeping bunk style in a large dorm in the bottom of the sailboat.   Overall, the sailing trip was amazing, but the sleep was lacking.

The Whitsundays were a great first taste of the Great Barrier Reef.   We were excited to head north and get to the heart of the reef, in Cairns (post on this soon to come).

Jon & Jen's Excellent Adventures