A week in Bhutan

A week in Bhutan

A memorable week in Bhutan

Paul Cook

Wendy and Anne Britt travelled with us to Bhutan in October, and told us “We fell in love with Bhutan, the nature, the people, the ethos, everything.” Bhutan is a unique place unlike anywhere else on the planet. Where else in the world is a country’s prosperity measured by its Gross National Happiness?

“We fell in love with Bhutan, the nature, the people, the ethos, everything.”

WENDY SCOTT

October is the ideal time to visit Bhutan. The monsoon rains have ended and the mountains are clear. Paro is the only international airport in Bhutan and the gateway to the country, with flight from Delhi, Nepal and Thailand. The trip Wendy and Anne Brit visited the highlights of Western Bhutan, starting with the capital, Thimpu, not far from Paro and then continuing over the mountain to Punakaha where they rafted along the Po Chhu and Mo Chhu river and then returned to Paro for what is the highlight of many visits to Bhutan, the hike to Tigers Nest. This ancient Buddhist monastery is perched on the side of a cliff only reached by a five hour hike. They gave us some great feedback from their trip and sent us some amazing photos.

“We loved the mountains, the space, the high tree line, the birds, the flowers, the tranquility, the attitude, the temples and monasteries, the people, feeling safe, never being quite sure what tomorrow would bring. The trek up to the Tiger’s Nest was tough, but with spectacular rewards. The white water rafting was a first, and loved it. Sharing temple moments with our guide and driver was very special, as was having the nuns in the nunnery way up in the mountains chant just for us with wishes for a long life. The visit to the farm with dancing, archery, cooking and lunch was a tiny insight into ordinary life in Bhutan. (We realise the dancing etc was not part of ordinary life, but everyone was so friendly and it was fun) Sitting in the early morning at Dhumra Farm Resort overlooking the river and the Dzong shrouded in mist way below us, with a scarlet minivet preening itself right in front of us – a memorable moment.”

WENDY SCOTT

“Given the way the system works in Bhutan, we know that money was being ploughed back into the system in many ways. It was good to realise that monasteries and nunneries, as well as children’s education, would all benefit in some way from our trip.”

WENDY SCOTT

Chiloe, Where Moving House Means Something Different

Chiloe, Where Moving House Means Something Different

Chiloe, Where Moving House Means Something Different

PAUL COOK

I didn’t really know a great deal about Chiloe before I went to Chile. I knew it was the second largest island in South America and that there was a great hotel there, but what I didn’t know is just what a unique place it is, and how different if feels from the rest of Chile.

“There were even daffodils breaking though the grass, which seemed wrong in September”

I was staying at Tierra Chiloe, which is one of the most impressive looking hotels I’ve ever stayed in. Many years ago I trained to be an architect, and was immediately struck by the harmonious blend of local materials and modern design principles. With its sharp angles and exposed concrete, the design is unrelentingly modern, yet it is clad in the wooden shingles which are commonplace on Chiloe and raised up on stilts like many traditional Chilote houses. Perched on a hill top, floor to ceiling sheets of glass take advantage of the impressive view out to sea. The attention to detail is carried through inside, with furnishings from traditional materials and artwork made by local craftsmen.

As I arrived at my hotel, the sun was shining, but a few minutes later the rain came down, bringing with it a dramatic rainbow, the first of many I saw on Chiloe. The west side of the island is exposed to the Pacific and swept by impressive storms, but a range of hills protects the eastern coast where almost all the population live and where Chiloe breaks up into an archipelago of small islands dotting a sheltered bay. The green rolling hills and unpredictable weather reminded me of Wales where I lived for several years. There were even daffodils breaking though the grass, which seemed wrong in September.

“It seems Chiloe is due to change, and it is worth experiencing it while it retains its isolation”

PAUL COOK

There was something of the Welsh atmosphere that carried on in the culture of Chiloe as well, with its people asserting their difference form the rest of the country and nurturing a unique culture. Chile is not really known for its indigenous communities. Much of the rugged country was largely uninhabited before the arrival of the Spanish, and the interaction between the Spanish settlers and the dominant Mapuche community in central Chile was not a harmonious one. However, on Chiloe the first arrivals were the Jesuit priests, who built the first churches and paved the way for a more peaceful settlement of the islands which mixed the Spanish and indigenous cultures. Today, the traditional wooden churches remain, many of them preserved as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and the myths and traditions of the community remain strong.

Everywhere I went on Chiloe my guides told me the local legends, which mix traditional indigenous and Spanish beliefs. Phantom ships are said to sail the Pacific, while mermaids patrol the beaches and demons inhabit the forests. On this isolated island, the sense of community is strong, with villagers helping each other and sharing resources and work. They even have their own word for it – minga. This can cover a variety of communal events, but which is most famously associated with the tradition of moving house, which can mean something completely different in Chiloe. When it is time to move house, the entire village works together to literally move the entire building to a new location, mounting it on wooden rollers and pulling it behind a team of oxen, or even floating it across the water to its new location. The tradition is not as common in the current generation, although I was told of a recent case where a house was moved to prevent it from being seized by the banks!

At the moment, the ferry from Puerto Montt is the only way to reach Chiloe, but a bridge from the mainland is due to be completed in the next few years. Like many such projects, the bridge is being greeted by the people of the island with a mixture of hopefulness for the prosperity it may bring and trepidation for the threats it could bring to the unique environment and community. It seems Chiloe is due to change, and it is worth experiencing it while it retains its isolation.

You can read Paul’s various blogs from this journey if you’d like to know more, he’s always happy to chat about Chile if you’re considering a trip here.

Other Chile blogs by Paul include:

Santiago, Parks and Politics

Santiago, Parks and Politics

Santiago, Parks and Politics

PAUL COOK

Everything in Chile revolves around its capital, Santiago de Chile. With over seven million people, nearly half of country’s population live in the city, with many more in nearby towns and cities. As a visitor, there is no getting away from Santiago. It is the only international airport, and with its central location you are bound to have to pass through a few times. During my time in Chile, I had a short time to discover what there is to see and do in the city.

“so had arranged a tour of Santiago
by bike”

It is often said that Santiago is a good place to live, but not a great place to visit. An efficient metro means Santiago avoids the gridlock common elsewhere in South America, and with its strong and stable economy crime and corruption is uncommon. With its mix of 19th century architecture and modern high rises and its temperate climate, only the occasional glimpse of the distant snow-capped Andes reminds you are no longer in Europe. I wanted to get a little beneath the skin of the city to see what makes it different, so had arranged a tour of Santiago by bike. I’m a keen cyclist, but rarely get to ride in South America. However, Santiago is largely flat and with its good network of cycle lanes, there are plenty of other bikes on the road. With my young and enthusiastic guide Stefano, I set off on what was called the “Parks and Politics” tour to learn what makes Santiago tick.

We started with an easy ride through Parque Florestal, which is a notable and much-loved feature of Santiago, running the length of the city along the course of an old river bed. My guide pointed out the many fine pavilions, museum and fountains, but what really stood out on a warm spring day was how busy the park was. As Stefano explained, most Chileans live with their family until they are in their late 20s, so the parks are one of the few places they can find privacy and young couples occupied the park benches and picnicked on the grass.

“My tour happened to coincide with the 45th anniversary of the day Pinochet took power, and so everyone in Santiago was talking politics.”

PAUL COOK

Locking up the bikes, we joined the students in the nearby GAM Cultural Centre. This massive modern building is a landmark of Santiago, but Stefano explained how its history reflected the chequered political history of Chile. Built by volunteer labour to act as a showcase of the country’s culture, it had been taken over by Pinochet’s secret police and later largely abandoned before before it was rebuilt and reclaimed by a new generation. My tour happened to coincide with the 45th anniversary of the day Pinochet took power, and so everyone in Santiago was talking politics. My tour concluded with a cycle into the centre of the city and the political heart of Chile, the Presidential Palace. 45 years early President Salvador Allende had made his farewell speech from inside as bombs fell and Pinochet’s soldiers advanced. Today, at the end of a peaceful sunny day I watched the crowds gathering outside the restored palace to lay flowers at the base of the former president’s statue and felt I understood the city a lot better.

You can read Paul’s various blogs from this journey if you’d like to know more, he’s always happy to chat about Chile if you’re considering a trip here.

Other Chile blogs by Paul include:

The Colours of Chile

The Colours of Chile

The Colours of Chile

PAUL COOK

One of the things you quickly realise about travelling in Chile is just how different each part of the country looks. Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise. In a country that spans over 2,500 miles from north to south, there’s bound to be a lot of variation, but it is still quite startling. One thing that stood out is how each part of the country seemed to take on a different colour.

“each part of the country seemed to take on a different colour”

Atacama was red. Actually there are lots of colours in Atacama. After all, this is a region which contains an area called Rainbow Valley which has rocks of vivid shades of green and purple, and there are vast areas of white salt plains, but it is the red that stands out. Great swathes of Atacama are covered with reddish rocks that would not be put of place on Mars. Indeed, Hollywood comes to Atacama to make movies set on the Red Planet and NASA tests their Mars-bound rovers here. At sunset, the desert is stained an even deeper hue of red as alpenglow lights up the mountains of the Andes. The sky is mostly a deep shade of blue that shades to a dark indigo when in one of the many canyons, but rare clouds can turn the sunset into a psychedelic display of reds, oranges and purples. The final red from Atacama is of course the excellent local vinto tinto served in the lodges – there is no better way to end a day exploring the desert than with a good meal and a glass of red wine.

The colour that stands out from Patagonia is blue. When covered by snow, the mountains of Patagonia take on shades of black and white, but Torres del Paine National Park is more than mountains. It is a land of blue lakes, blue rivers and blue ice. Indeed,“paine” actually means blue in the native Tehuelche language. I knew that glaciers and icebergs were blue, but I wasn’t prepared for just how intense the colour is. Under the bright sunshine, the icebergs that dotted Largo Grey took on an azure hue rarely seen in the natural world. While Largo Grey was indeed grey, other lakes in the park took on other tones from the minerals released into them by the glaciers which feed them. Against the monochrome mountains, Lake Pehoe stands out with a deep blue that feeds into the aquamarine of the wide River Paine.

“brightly coloured murals turn the streets of this bustling port into an open-air museum”

PAUL COOK

After ten days in Atacama and Patagonia, I did not realise how much I missed green until I flew into Puerto Montt, the gateway to the Lake District and Chileo Island. In the extreme environments of the far north and south of Chile, vegetation is fairly scarce, but the middle parts of Chile have a climate similar to Britain, with lots of rain and lots of greenery. As I headed off to Chileo, my eyes feasted on field of green pasture and trees coming into leaf at the start of spring, with the sunshine and rain bringing a succession of rainbows.
Of course, it is impossible to write about the colours of Chile without mentioning the many colours of Santiago and nearby Valparaiso. Street art developed in Chile as a protest against Pinochet’s dictatorship and reached its peak in the university town of Valapariso. Brightly coloured murals turn the streets of this bustling port into an open-air museum that is a great introduction to the many different colours of Chile.

You can read Paul’s various blogs from this journey if you’d like to know more, he’s always happy to chat about Chile if you’re considering a trip here.

Other Chile blogs by Paul include:

The Stars of Atacama

The Stars of Atacama

The Stars of Atacama

PAUL COOK

When my alarm went off at 3am, I found myself questioned my sanity as I forced myself out of the warmth of my cosy bed at Explora Atacama and stumbled around in the dark, gathering my camera and tripod before heading out. The Atacama Desert in the middle of the night is cold, dark and quiet. However, it only took a short walk away from the lights of the lodge and a few minutes for my eyes to adjust to the light to find what I was looking for.

“Atacama desert is one of the best places in the world to see the stars.”

The Atacama Desert is known for many things. It is the driest place on the planet with a landscape like something from Mars, spectacular sunsets and a unique geology. It is a great place for taking a tour of the amazing scenery or getting out on a hike or horse ride. However, what I really wanted to see was not in the desert, but far, far away. At almost 2,500 metres (8,000 feet) above sea level, with few clouds and little light pollution, the Atacama desert is one of the best place in the world to see the stars.

There are several major observatories dotting the desert, and all the lodges offer star watching sessions. The night before I had been wowed by the sight of the rings of Saturn and tightly packed cluster of stars through the telescope at Explora Atacama. I really wanted to get my own photographs of the stars, but I had to wait for the moon to set to get the best views. Which is why I had set my alarm for 3am.

I had been lucky enough to have some photography lessons before heading off to Chile, and had done some research to work out the best way to photograph the stars. I had spoken to the guides at Explora, and during the day had found a nice quiet, dark spot on their extensive grounds. Now, I went back, set up my tripod and begin to take my photos.

The one thing I knew was that photographing the stars takes patience. To capture the dim light, a single shot can take a minute or more. What I really wanted to photograph was the movement of the stars which would need a lot longer. In the days of film, this would be a very tricky job requiring a single long exposure, but nowadays it is much easier to take hundreds of digital photographs and merge them into a single shot. After setting up the camera to point in what I hoped was the right direction, I left my camera snapping away automatically and headed back to bed.

“In the days of film, this would be a very tricky job requiring a single long exposure, but nowadays it is much easier to take hundreds of digital photographs and merge them into a single shot.”

PAUL COOK

It felt strange abandoning my camera to the elements like that, and I thought I would have trouble getting back to sleep, but the beds at Explora are just too comfortable. An hour later, my alarm once more roused me from a deep sleep and I headed back out into the cold to recover my camera. It was still snapping away happily, unconcerned about the cold, but I wanted to get it back inside before the batteries ran out.

I had to wait until the following evening to check if I had been successful. Downloaded onto my laptop screen, each individual photograph did not really look like much. However, I had brought the software I needed with me and my laptop chugged away as it merged over a hundred photographs into a single image. As I watched, the image began to appear on my screen of a swirl of stars revolving around the desert sky.

You can read Paul’s various blogs from this journey if you’d like to know more, he’s always happy to chat about Chile if you’re considering a trip here.

Other Chile blogs by Paul include: