Sunday, March 14, 2010

Adios South America!

But first, the Beach!

Mar del Plata is a sunny beach city five hours south of Buenos Aires. We stopped here for a few days to lay around on the beach – something I'd been dreaming about since Bariloche. I could have stayed in Mar del Plata forever. We spent our days wandering the streets or the miles of beaches, going to movies, eating ice cream, people watching (oh, the people watching! the bathing suits! the plastic surgery!), eating seafood: pure indolence. At night, we cooked dinners in the hostel kitchen. Our roommates, four British guys who were partying hard, kept inviting us to the bars with them and each time we'd agree at first and then wind up staying in and having a quiet night. The Argentine children were more lively at night than we were. One night, we were wandering around after dinner, at around 1 am, and the carousel at the park was crammed with children. During the day, it had been empty; a ghost park. The night brought it to life, apparently. On the street corner there was a garishly decorated party bus for kids, with Disney mascots running around, bright lights, blaring music and kids with manic expressions hanging out the windows.

We moved on to Buenos Aires for our last week together. And spent it pretty much in the same fashion as our lazy beach days: cooking, eating, wandering. Our hostel was in an old apartment with a sketchy elevator that made my heart stop every single time it started to move. We did a few of the requisite touristy things. We visited the creepily cat-filled cemetery where Evita is buried. In spite of the impressive marble statues and intricate mausoleums, Yuval much preferred the nearby butterfly sanctuary. We also visited a museum that used to be a very rich family's house, the japanese gardens, and the Buenos Aires Zoo.

On Valentine's Day, I didn't realize that it was V-day until the day was almost over. No one seems to care about Valentine's Day in Argentina, which is awesome. Even still, our inadvertent Valentine's Day date rivaled anyone's; we couldn't have planned it better. We spent the morning wandering the artist's fair in San Telmo, watched tango dancers in the street, had a nice steak lunch in a beautiful courtyard restaurant, and then went to another pretty little cafe and shared a chocolate volcano cake. Eat your heart out, Hallmark.

It was a perfect week, and a perfectly nice way to end five months of traveling together, if more than a little melancholic.

On the 20th of February, I said goodbye -again, and with lots of tears - to my travel partner and boarded the last bus I would take in South America: three days from Buenos Aires to Lima, Peru. I headed back to where I had started, traversing what had taken me five months to travel in three days, in a bus full of friendly Peruvians. My seat companion was a rather large man who kept giving me food, insisting that I wasn't eating enough. It was strange to not have Yuval in the seat next to me. And it was a long, long bus ride.

I reconnected with Sergio and Cathy in Lima, and we spent my last day together taking a boat cruise around some islands off the coast and picking up last minute souvenirs. And then, just like that, I was at the airport again: Canada bound.

I met an old man at the airport who lived in Lima and was traveling to Miami for work. We made idle small talk while we waited to board the plane. When we said goodbye, he squeezed my shoulder and told me that he was happy I had had such a good experience in his country, and that when I go home I should find work that I really enjoy, and he wished me a very happy life.

Gracias por todo, Sudamerica

More Patagonia, More Trekking

Puerto Natales and the Torres del Paine

The Torres del Paine National Park is, just like the Fitz Roy, renowned around the world for its spectacular trekking. The park lies at the very end of the Andes mountain range in Chile, a bus ride away from the town of Puerto Natales. The typical hikes are either four days or ten days, depending on the route. The Torres - or Towers - are the main attraction. There are three of them; tall granite towers that stretch into the clouds and have a dark, sinister look about them. On the tourist map they hand you at the gate, the writer implores you to admire the "eye catching granite" of the peaks.

The bus rattled by the street of our Puerto Natales hostel at a brisk 7 a.m. In an effort to avoid the harsh reality of Four Days of Trekking, I slept the entire bus ride into the park. I awoke at the last possible moment, as we were being shepherded off of the bus and into the park's front gates. The mountains, with their eye catching granite, commanded the landscape. At the foot of the last trickle of the Andes was a large icy blue lake, rolling foothills, herds of guanacos (small cameloid related to the llama), and the occasional nandu (ostrich like creature, also called Darwin's Rhea... or as Yuval called them, Darwin's Pigeon). We paid our entrance, a whopping 15000 pesos or 28 US dollars, and went to go take the ferry over to the other side of the lake to begin our trek. While waiting we walked over to see a waterfall. The park felt alive with the forces of nature; you could practically chew on gravity. And, predictably, the tempestuous wind continued to howl and shriek. The waterfall roared and pounded the surroundings rocks and the wind chiseling away at the stoic faces of the mountains.

The ferry came and carried us across the lake, with the rest of the trekkers. We arrived at the base camp for our first trek, the Grey Glacier, and found it to be covered in tents, like fields of nylon mushrooms. There was also a hotel there, but we were roughing it and right away went about pitching Yuval's little orange tent. The park people had constructed a kitchen and eating area, a large circular building that sheltered from the wind and provided stoves and sinks and
tables. It was packed with people. You could hardly move inside, let alone find a flat surface on which to cook/eat. The popularity of the Torres park was quite evident. Hordes of people had shirked warm beds and proper showers; many more than I had expected. I'd thought we would have felt more.... in nature, not in a tourist attraction. Ah, fun times on the Gringo Trail.

Highlights of the four-day trek:eating dinner each night (we became connoisseurs of camp-cooking), going to sleep snuggled in my sleeping bag, drinking out of the fresh water streams, staying behind at base camp and reading while Yuval did the uphill parts, making tea and eating cookies beside a small lake two hours before arriving at the end point, and the shower upon arriving back at the hostel. And of course, the scenery was quite nice. Also, we had been lucky, weather wise – it was nippy but the sun was out most of the time. I heard stories of people having to climb the inclines on all fours because of the wind, or having to ford swollen, icy rivers that washed out the path, or being caught in crazy snow/hail/ice storms. All in all, it wasn't the slog I expected (opting out of the uphill parts had a lot to do with that) and I enjoyed it in spite of myself.


The original plan was to travel all the way to “the end of the world” - or, to the old penal colony/town of Ushuaia, Argentina. There, you can get your passport stamped with: The End of the World. After some discussing, however, we decided that checking something off The List just to say you did it, rather than for any enjoyment purposes, is not a good enough motivation. Frankly, it was cold – I'm Canadian, I get enough cold – and from what we had heard, Ushuaia was not significantly different from the other Patagonian towns we had already visited. I only had about three weeks until my flight home, so I decided that these last three weeks would be better spent somewhere I'd be happier. Like a beach.

It was tricky getting out of Puerto Natales; the buses weren't cooperative. We wound up taking a bus back to El Calafate, and taking a bus from there to Rio Gallegos. We killed time in between buses at a “Libro-bar”: a bar with books and Oscar Wilde quotes lining the walls.

We spent a day in Rio Gallegos, a town on the Eastern side of Patagonia, again killing time between buses (upside to this serial bus taking: saving on paying for hostels). Hanging around, agenda-less, in Rio Gallegos was reminiscent of the delightfully frivolous Bolvia days – before looming flights home required actual trip planning. The town itself is completely flat, just a few low, unassuming buildings on an otherwise flat plain. Even the ocean was still and docile. And touristy it was most definitely not. It didn't have the shiny, cultivated feel of the other Patagonian towns, which seem to have been designed entirely around tourism. A tourist map indicated the location of the town's museum, dedicated to Flora and Fauna, and we went to go and check it out. We came across an asymetrical building that seemed to grow like quartz crystal out of the ground. The museum was closed, it being a week day and all, but looking through the window revealed a small office. At one end was a desk with a potted plant, at the other was a poster with types of flora and fauna, and in the middle was a bookshelf with piles of paper, binders and books on flora and fauna.

Just outside the “museum” was a movie set. A group of people – us included – stood around watching the director make the actors get out of a car over and over and over again. In true Argentinean fashion, those not directly involved were chatting and drinking mate. Mate (pronounce ma-tay) is a strong tea that Argentineans carry around with them everywhere. Drinking mate is a social ritual and being invited to mate is a really sweet gesture. The movie set people invited us to mate and to watch the action with them. After a while we meandered on, continuing to waste time until our bus to Puerto Madryn arrived.

Puerto Madryn

My main “must-see” for Patagonia was the penguins. I was dying to see penguins. And on our last Patagonian stop, I got my wish. Puerto Madryn – the last Patagonian city on the northeastern side of Argentina - is the roughly the halfway point between Rio Gallagos and Buenos Airies: it's about 17 hours in either direction. The city is still hounded by wind, but its significantly warmer. We rented a car for the day, to drive around the pennisula – where all the wildlife is. The beaches on the pennisula are home to sea lions, sea elephants, my beloved penguins, four types of armadillos (which may be my new favorite animal; so ugly its adorable), snakes and screaming lizards, nandus and a whole host of birds. At the right time of year, there is whale and orca spotting, but unfortunately it was not whale or orca season. Apparently, on rare occasions, an orca will leap up onto the beach and snatch a sea lion. We watched a large group of lounging and scrapping sea lions for a while -very entertaining- and tried to decide how best to describe the noises they make. The best we could do: they sound like a child imitating a sheep while being kicked in the stomach.

On that note, we left Patagonia.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Towards the End of the World


The bus from Los Antiguas to El Chalten only came on even numbered days. We happened to be there on an even numbered day and snagged two of the last four available seats. The bus, unusually, was filled only with gringos. In hindsight, that must have been because Argentines know better than to go to El Chalten.

I was excited to be going into Patagonia proper. I had been reading a travelogue of three British guys who cycled all the way from Ushuaia (Argentine city at the End of the World) to Lake Titicaca in Bolivia, in a bid to raise money for leukemia in the mid-nineties (entitled The Trail to Titicaca). Their stories from Patagonia made me want to see what they saw.

Patagonia sounded like the land that time forgot. Rumors had circulated of the continued existence of the prehistoric Mylodon - a giant sloth with menacing claws (a statue of which graces the entrance to Puerto Natales in Chile)- who had outlived the rest of the dinosaurs, rumors notwithstanding. I read stories of how the native tribes of Patagonia scared the bejeezus out of the Spanish. The Spanish were literally half the size of the Tehuelches; they thought they had found a race of giants. Patagonia gets its name from Spanish explorer, Ferdinand Magellan and his obsession with the size of the Tehuelches' feet: Patagonia means "Bigfoot".
Everything is larger in Patagonia. Things need to be large in order to establish themselves against the sheer vastness of space, like the moon carving a spot for itself in the night sky.

The bus ride was reminiscent of the Bolivia days. The road was unpaved and bumpy, and the bus broke down periodically throughout the night. The bus driver asked if we wanted to watch a movie and upon responding in the affirmative, he then asked if anyone had a movie. Someone had left a window open in the bus' bathroom and it was coated with a thick layer of dust. The scenery was constant: we drove for hours and hours and hours through flat, desolate desert.

Everything was windswept and cowed by the cruel Patagonia wind, only low shrubs dared to eek out an existence in the sand. The few trees that had been planted in an effort to block the wind were bent over at uncomfortable angles. Even the sky looked as though it had been wiped away, revealing an underlayer of stars that no one else sees.

We got off the bus for a dinner break, and my first instinct was to find something to hold onto in case the wind carried me away. It hurtled across the steppe and stole your breath right out of your mouth and then tried to push you over, like a schoolyard bully.

Woke with the sun, early, as the bus approached a rocky outcropping. Granite rose out of the desert, looking somewhat out of place. The small, battered town of El Chalten set up camp in the shelter of the foothills of the Andes. In the distance, obscured by fog and rain, was the infamous Fitz Roy mountain. The weather was dreadful. The wind fired the rain drops into your face like icy pellets.

We went about our usual way of traveling: get off the bus, show up on the doorstep of a hostel. However, this strategy was not going to work in Patagonia. The major towns, which are few and far between, have become major tourist hubs and the hostels in high season (wretched weather and all, this was summer) were all booked up. You needed to make reservations well ahead of time. Which, sounds like the normal thing to do when you travel... but we had gotten used to navigating Bolivia where they didn't typically have websites (or computers) with which to make reservations. I suppose you could have called ahead, but then you'd need to speak much better Spanish; no illustrative hand gestures are possible via telephone. Thus, it was a rather frustrating morning battling the elements in the frantic search for somewhere to sleep. Yuval, bless him, left me to wait somewhere warm with the mochillas (backpacks) while he ran around town. Twelve rejections later, he finally found us a place.

Having lost his mind somewhere in the desert, Yuval right away busied himself with orchestrating a hike into the horrible weather and up to some horrible mountain. The Fitz Roy is, evidently, quite the big deal in trekking circles. Being clueless about all things outdoorsy, I of course had never heard of it and opted to stay inside with a pot of hot coffee and a book. Yuval raced a giant Dane the entire way there and back. The trek is supposed to take nine hours- they did it in five. At the top, they were greeted with snow and hail and sleet and wind, and an obscured view of the Fitz Roy. Him and the Dane celebrated with waffles, and then he came to find me and we celebrated further with Patagonian lamb and beer.

And then we caught the first bus to El Calafate.

Perhaps it was the cold, or the fact the trip was nearing its end, but we began to travel much faster in Patagonia. Two days in El Chalten, two in El Calafate... we were becoming efficient! We were even planning ahead: booking hostels, researching bus times, making itineraries. It was all quite foreign to our usual lackadaisical approach to traveling. I prefer to take my time and play it by ear - the word itinerary makes my eyes glaze over- but I wasn't sad to whip through Patagonia. It was beautiful but it was like one of those really beautiful people whose also really mean. Nice to look at, but the less time spent in their immediate presence, the better.

El Calafate, much like El Chalten and its mountain, has only one tourist attraction: the Perito Moreno Glacier. It's a two hour bus ride outside of El Calafate, pricey, but spectacular: five kilometers wide and 76 meters high. The glacier looks like an ice fortress, but it sounds like a massive, creaky old house that's literally falling apart. And it's awake. It advances along the lake, towards the shore, creaking and calving; icebergs fall off and bob around in the lake like the Titanic. The calving is mesmerizing; we could hardly tear ourselves away - what if you miss something? Just before we had to catch the bus back, we watched as one huge iceberg broke off, the crash thunderingly loud, and turned somersaults in the frigid water.

Every few years, as the glacier reaches the shoreline separating two halves of the lake,creating a dam and building water pressure from one side to the other. This pressure eventually ruptures the front section of the glacier in a spectacular scene. This last happened in 2006.

Take a look!

The following day we spent relaxing at the hostel, a reward for our newfound efficient traveling. For dinner we cooked steak marinated in wine and garlic sauce, and a zapallito pie - instead of the intented zucchini we found zapallitos, which looked like mini green pumpkins, but tasted like a cross between a cucumber and a zucchini. Both steak and pie were cooked to perfection.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Bumming around Chile

"When God was finished making the world, he had a little of everything left over - deserts, mountains, lakes, volcanoes, forests - and he put them into his pocket. But, his pocket had a hole in it and as he walked along heaven, it all fell out and the long trail it left was Chile."

The Carretera Austral

A popular starting point for the Carretera Austral highway is Futaluefu (Mapuche for Rio Grande, or Great River). There is literally nothing to do in this town, and most everything is only open when someone feels like it. The only reason tourists don't just pass right through is the white water rafting, which is supposed to be the wildest in South America and is also the most expensive. It was from this sleepy Chilean mountain town that Yuval and I decided to hitch hike down the Carretera Austral.

Augusto Pinochet, malevolent Chilean dictator of the 70s and 80s, built the Carretera to connect isolated parts of Chile and to protect the land from the ever encroaching Argentineans. Now it's become a tourist attraction solely for the road itself, and the surrounding scenery. Israelis hitch hike it in droves, and rich American tourists rent large spacious vehicles and never stop for the hitchhikers (not that any one's bitter or anything). This road embodies the metaphors and cliches about enjoying the ride and not the destination. On the Carretera, the road literally is the destination.

Our first day as hitchers was spent getting to where the Carretera properly begins, at a town called Santa Lucia. We waited all morning at the edge of Futaleufu for our first ride. We figured people would be leaving early for work. We had mistakenly assumed that anyone was going to work. And early? Ha!

Luckily for us, the weather was pleasant and there was a puppy to play with - perhaps the ugliest puppy ever, only cute because of his puppyishness. A thin man with a mullet (very common in Argentina, where male hairstyles are seen in every mullet permutation you can think of and then some) and his son were driving to pick up some rafters. He drove us out of town, about 30 km from Santa Lucia. At one point he pointed out a condor - the quintessential South American bird - circling right above us, close enough to see the circle of white around his neck. I took this to be a good omen.

At the junction we were dropped off at, we met the first of many Israeli hitchers. They were not happy to see us. The three boys had been waiting for two days for a ride and our presence would further decrease their chances. Not wanting to be jerks, we rambled on down the road a while and sat near a sheep pasture and resigned ourselves to a long wait. Not that that was a bad thing; the sun was shining and I had a good book.

With Yuval hiding in the bushes, I stopped a car after about a half an hour.

Apparently, blonde hair and two X chromosomes are invaluable assets in hitchhiking through Latin American countries. Yuval said that I should rent out my hitchhiking assistance to those who'd like to do the Carretera. I can see the business card now: Professional Hitchhiker. Not responsible for inebriation level of drivers.

The man who stopped was also with his son, and the rest of his family was in a spluttering van up ahead. They were going to Santa Lucia, but first would be stopping at a lake for a picnic. He said that if we wouldn't mind waiting, he'd take us. Lunch and a swim at a lake with a nice Chilean family on a gorgeous day? He really had to twist our arms.

We were in Santa Lucia by six pm. The town was very small, populated by a smattering of dilapidated shacks on stilts. The beginning of the highway was an unassuming dirt number. By the end of this adventure we would be coated with layers of dust; the highway's version of a souvenir, perhaps. But the surrounding mountains were indeed beautiful.

My luck continued. Within literally five minutes, again with Yuval lurking unseen in the bushes, I stopped the first passing truck, which was already full. The driver had initially passed me by, but then turned the corner, went around the block and came back. They rearranged the luggage in the back of the truck to make enough room for us and our packs. After some time sitting in the back feeling the icy wind rushing past our cheeks, the truck stopped and let two of the people out and we moved into the warmth of the cab. The driver was a wiry older man with thinning white hair and a permanent Marlboro hanging from his mouth. The cab smelled of stale smoke and something mechanical. In the passenger seat was an exuberant Chilean man, probably in his mid thirties to forties with a thick swatch of black hair and round, red face. He never stopped talking. His cigarettes appeared to smoke themselves. The driver periodically offered a brief quip, but for the most part it was a monologue. They made another stop at a cabin where they went in to presumably chat up the girl who worked there, and the younger man came out with beers in hand. After that his talking sped up and his face got redder. After he finished a beer, he crushed the can with his hands and threw it to the floor with a giggle.

They were stopping for the night in the newly touristy town of La Junta at a friend's house and offered to bring us along with them and give us a place to stay. We politely declined (figuring that alcohol and Latino hormones probably wouldn't be a good combination in the exuberant younger Chilean and I might not have the best time), and went to camp in the nearby cattle pastures by a river.

The next day was just as hot and sunny as the previous day. Only I was feeling the effects of the sun; I was sun burnt everywhere including a particularly sensitive part on my scalp and suffering a heat induced headache. However, luck was on our side again, and after a bit of a wait we were picked up by a silent, stern looking Chilean man who drove us six hours to the capital of Patagonian Chile, Coyhaique. He had also picked up a South Korean gringo somewhere up by Bariloche and they had been driving together for days. Our driver didn't say much but when he did, we didn't understand a thing. The Korean, whose Spanish was much clearer to us, had to translate.

The road twisted somewhat Bolivia-style through the mountain pass: it was a narrow, bumpy dirt road that hugged the mountain, with barely enough room for the two directions of traffic. We had one very close call with an SUV barrelling around a corner. The vegetation was rain forest-like, carpeting the mountains right up to the line where the snow starts, and we passed by large and shimmering trout and salmon filled lakes. In certain lakes the trout can reach up to 8 kilos. We decided that when we arrived in Coyhaique, we would eat fish. Our driver made a pit stop along the road to eat stalks from a rhubarb-like plant that covered the lower parts of the mountain. It tasted like raw rhubarb, sour and fibrous. Our driver saw that Yuval didn't like his very much, and came over with a little packet of what looked like sugar and sprinkled some on for him. But it wasn't sugar, for some reason it was salt, and it was all Yuval could do not to throw his rhubarb back where it came from. When we stopped in another small town so he could check something that wasn't working quite right in his jeep, we bought him cookies.

The mountains turned into rocky hills, and the forest disappeared into sparse, low bushes. Coyhaique lay in a valley, a larger town of about 40, 000 people; also quite touristy. I thought, not for the first time, how wonderful these towns must have been when the road was first built, just emerging from isolation, rustic and suspended in time.

He dropped us off in the main plaza of Coyhaique with a surprisingly warm hug and cheek kiss. We decided to forgo camping in favor of staying in a hostel with a real bed and, fingers crossed, a warm shower, on account of my persistent headache and thus slight crankiness. Unfortunately our luck didn't seem to extend to finding a bed to sleep in. Most every hostel, hotel, hospedaje, and hosteria was full. High season made it impossible to find accommodations and hitching and guerrilla camping in farmer's fields doesn't leave much opportunity for booking ahead. Eventually we found a hospedaje run by a grumpy old man who let us sleep in what was essentially a shed in his back yard that had a bunk bed in it. Good enough!

Day Three; woke somewhat late but feeling much better than the previous day. We meanderingly made our way just outside of the city - only briefly tempted by a car rental office - and joined a few small groups of Israelis also waiting for rides. I flagged down a young Chilean couple with a small daughter and they took us twenty km down the road, where we waited and waited in the whipping wind, feeling tiny whispers of frustration starting to build. After what seemed like hours - although I don't know for sure because I on purpose did not keep track of the time - we were picked up by an aging cowboy in a dirty baseball cap, originally from Wyoming. He said he had not been back to the States since '98 and had been in Patagonia on and off for twenty years. He worked as a fishing guide for American tourists on a nearby ranch. We began talking about trout, and mentioned the wonderful trout that we had eaten in Copacabana, Bolivia, from Lake Titicaca. He was shocked that we ate "holy" trout. For a moment I thought he meant that because Lake Titicaca is sacred (as the Incan birthplace of the sun, it does indeed hold a great deal of importance to Bolivian culture). But no, he meant trout were holy in their own right. He practiced catch and release fishing. We joked later that the poor returned fish were indeed "holey". I'm of the mind that if you are going to torture something - yank it out of its home by a hook through its mouth and suffocate the unfortunate creature - you should have the decency to eat it.

Yuval thankfully changed the subject from 'ethical' fishing, and commented that our cowboy's Spanish must be pretty good by now. He responded that he only spoke "combat Spanish" and always would. He then cautioned us against getting into any vehicle that stopped, because you "never know with these yahoos" and unself-consciously took another swig of beer.

It was another brief wait after the cowboy dropped us off. Almost immediately we were climbing into the back of a nice Chilean family's truck. The two young girls and I played peek-a-boo through the back window. Riding high on our streak of luck, we decided that instead of going with the family to Puerto Ibanez and taking the ferry to Chile Chico - thereby ending our hitchhiking adventure - that we would hitch the long way to Chile Chico, around the lake (second largest in South America, after Lake Titicaca).

We should've have stopped while we were ahead. Our luck ran out the second we jumped out of that truck. My theory is that a combination of factors were working against us. One, there is a paltry amount of traffic and more people looking for rides than there were rides to be had. Second, of the small trickle of vehicles, most of them contained the aforementioned American tourists with aversions to Good Samaritan-ism.

It took all day to get a ride ten km to the next town, Ville Cerro Castillo (Castle Mountain Village). When we got there, there was already a gaggle of Israeli hitchers that had also been waiting for ages and ages. One of them came over to give us shit for poaching their territory. I couldn't help but think of prostitutes defending their corners (perhaps because I had been reading a book about a young women escaping from the sex trade at the time). It was about supper time regardless, so we retreated into the field and set up camp underneath the jagged peaks of the Cerro Castillo, with the intention of taking the one bus that passed through in the morning.

In the morning, the bus we intended to take was completely full, leaving us essentially stranded. Curbing the frustration with cookies, we resigned ourselves to the fact that it appeared we were done with hitchhiking. We then went about flagging down a bus going back the way we came, and headed for Puerto Ibanez and the ferry.

The ferry proved to be a further nightmare. Yuval went to ask for ferry tickets and was told that it was full until Sunday. It was Monday. And the wind was maddening; no matter what the direction we were walking -struggling - into it and it whistled in our ears so loud we had to yell to hear each other. It was just one of those travel days where nothing goes right and all you can do is hold on until its over.
Unsure of what our next step should be, we sat huddled up against the side of a building, trying to block at least some of the wind, and made lunch. A kind Argentinean lady, perhaps seeing our distress, came over to offer her help (God love the Argentineans and their altruistic helpfulness). She told us that the tickets were only for cars and that we could just walk on and buy our fare directly from the Captain. Cue the flood of relief.

We both dozed off on the ferry, heads spinning from all the wind, and stomachs tossing with the waves. The journey from Puerto Ibanez to Chile Chico and from there taking a combi over the border and into a small town called Los Antiguas was blessedly uneventful, and we were both very glad to return to Argentina.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Land of Chocolate

Bariloche, at the northern end of Argentine Patagonia, is a small town that looks like a postcard and is jam packed full of tourists. It's set against a backdrop of snow capped mountains and a large, sparkling lake that is constantly being whipped into a frenzy by the hyperactive wind. The town is a mecca for all sorts of hiking and biking in the surrounding mountains, so the droves of tourists are largely of the granola eating, trekking pole toting sort. I've never seen so many outdoor stores in one place. Nor so many chocolate shops. In addition to be inundated with grisled european hikers, Bariloche is swimming in chocolaterias. Remember that episode of the Simpsons where Homer daydreams about a land of chocolate? It's just like that. There is a supermarket sized speciality chocolate shop on every corner, adorned with chocolate fountains and bucketfulls of ice cream. Sounds like heaven? Indeed it is!

Barilochean steak is purported to be the best in Argentina. We tested this theory thoroughly. One night, we ate at one of four famous restaurants entitled Don Alberto's. Alberto certainly takes his steak seriously... nearly everything in the restaurant was derived from cow. We ordered off menus made from hairy cow hide, and ate off of leather menus. There were pictures of cows on the walls.

While the steak and wine at Alberto's was almost perfect, we found that we preferred a small restaurant called El Campestre. The decor was rustic gaucho; warm, wine colored walls, rough wooden trim and stuffed deer busts adorning each side of the bar, one still wearing his Santa hat from Christmas. The owner greeted us at the door and spent the evening talking with customers, picking up their babies and dancing them around the restaurant. The second night we were there, he treated the entire restaurant to a complimentary glass of champagne, just because. When we went to thank him and tell him how wonderful we thought his restaurant was, he said that he worked to make it a warm, family atmosphere and he told us that this was the real Patagonia - not the tourist version. The best part, though, was the old jolly gaucho who played the guitar and sang all throughout the evening. He looked exactly like Kris Kringle: rosy cheeks, constantly smiling and chuckling, a mane of white hair and beard.
Cutest moment: a young girl, probably around 5 or 6, lay down on her stomach in front of the small stage where he was singing, and watched him with her head cradled in her hands, smiling like everything in the world was perfect.

Check out his music on myspace:


In which I briefly masquerade as a granola eating, trekking pole toting hiker:

During our week long stay in Bariloche, I agreed to going on a two day trek with Yuval, who had been itching do to some sort of unnecessary physical extertion for a while. I'll be the first one to admit that walking at an incline for prolonged periods of time isn't quite my cup of tea (call me lazy!) but Yuval assured me that it was an easy hike. And admittedly, after all the time in the chocolaterias, some physical activity wasn't going to hurt.

However, by "easy" Yuval had meant "we're going to climb a mountain".

The three hour walk to the base camp was quite nice; the trees cut the wind and it was just cool enough to hike comfortably. We walked along the river's path through forest, and through expanses of bamboo-like trees that looked really out of place but are actually native to the region, called Colihue in Mapuche (indigenous language). The park is called Parque Llao Llao and is named after these orange spongey fungus spores that look like golf balls and were everywhere along the path. The fungus infects the trees which react by swelling up and creating a tumor on the branch. The tumor produces fruit: the orange spongy golf balls, which are called llao llao, or "Indian bread". The llao llao can be eaten raw, but the Mapuche typically add it to their homemade alcohol, chicha.

When we arrived at the base camp, which was already dotted with a few tents and hikers settling in for the night, I thought that we were nearly there. But, to my boundless delight, it was just the beginning of the ascent to the top of the mountain, where the point of this whole excursion lay, Lago Negro (Black Lake). After more time than I care to recall, I was just about at my breaking point: lactic acid was searing holes through my muscles and I was beginning to stumble over the rocks that littered the path. Now above the tree line, the wind howled ferociously and tried its darnest to knock us off the mountain. There was snow, which seemed to thrill Yuval and conjured in me thoughts of giving him a proper face washing. Even in my grieved state, however, I did appreciate the epic waterfall coursing down from the very top of the adjacent moutain, and the view of the cluster of mountains was impressive. And then. And THEN, we asked a lady on her way down how much longer we had to go. She said thirty minutes. I almost burst into tears. All I wanted was to collapse in a heap and be carried back to a comfy bed somewhere, with someone to bring me hot chocolate and put in a good movie. But I decided that I wouldn't let this stupid mountain make me cry, and I'd make it to the top.
Which I did.
Yuval, not for the first time, called me stubborn (why not just stop if you're miserable? he says). But, really, you can't go all that way and not make it to the top.

Lago Negro was small, dark and wind tossed, sitting like a puddle in the the navel of the top of the mountain. The wind was vicious. We ate huddled beside some tortured looking trees, and I stretched out my screaming muscles. And then we went back down the mountain to make camp, with me in a much better mood.

We tried to light a fire at camp, but the wind was coming in strong and from every angle. Not even paper would stay lit. So we scrapped that good-in-theory idea, made supper and climbed happily into the tent. Outside, the wind sounded like a massive waterfall crashing all around us.

I'd heard of the epic winds of Patagonia, and they certainly weren't underestimating. It became very clear that the wind was going to factor in as another travel partner through out Patagonia.

Surprisingly (mostly for your indolent narrator) this experiment in outdoorsiness has a sequel. Stay tuned.


The hippy studded road back to Chile:

From Bariloche, we stopped for a night in El Bolson: the town where hippies come to train and perfect their art. Everywhere you looked were dreadlocks, drumming circles and piles of hippy jewelry. We arrived on a Sunday and they were having a parade, huge and pulsing with brightly colored costumes, dancing its way through the streets. As far as I could tell it was a parade just for its own sake.

When night fell, the hippies all vanished. The drumming stopped and the stands of pipes and mate cups and bracelets were packed up. They had all gone to wherever it is that hippies go to at night. In their place, in the main square, all the Argentine families emerged and there was a concert of old gaucho music. White haired men in black rubber boots, jeans and button down shirts played the guitar, accordion and fiddle. To which costumed dancers danced the traditional courting dances. There was a crowd of both people and dogs around the mouthwatering chorizo asado (sausage barbecue). Kids and dogs chased each other through the dancers and around the square until scolded by adults.

Over the next couple of days we passed through small Argentine towns on our way back to Chile, to the start of the famously beautiful Carretera Austral highway.

Saturday, January 16, 2010


After a hellish 27 hour bus ride complete with an excruciatingly frustrating five hour wait at the border crossing, I arrived into Santiago and reunited with Yuval.

The Lake District
The next day we left Santiago for Pucon - a lovely mountain town in the Lake District. The area is dotted with titular cerulean blue lakes, of course, and over 2000 volcanoes. Pucon is guarded by a picturesquely snow capped, active volcano. Our plans to climb the volcano and look into the pit of lava were thwarted by recent avalanches and subsequent closure of the volcano. The climate was radically different from sweltering Buenos Aires: the air had a snowy chill requiring a change of wardrobe from shorts and tank tops into long pants, sweaters and jackets. We stayed at an adorable wooden cabin style hostel with huge fluffy duvets to cosy up in at night and a large, homey kitchen. Yuval spent our the evenings cooking our own dinners - a nice change of pace from always eating out.
We spent hours scouring the supermarket and the veggie stands for ingredients and preparing recipes that we looked up on the internet. We'd come back to the hostel with bagfuls of goodies, open a bottle of wine (some for the sauce, some for the cooks!) and sit amicably chopping veggies (trick to cutting onions without crying - put them in the fridge first).
One night, we made a fantastic pumpkin pasta that we still talk about:

1 pound whole-wheat penne
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
3 to 4 cloves garlic, grated
2 cups chicken stock
1 (15-ounce) can pumpkin puree
1/2 cup cream
1 teaspoon hot sauce, to taste
Freshly grated nutmeg, to taste
Sprinkle of Oregano & Basil
1\2 cup of red wine
Salt and black pepper
Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

Heat water for pasta, salt it and cook penne to al dente.

Heat the oil, 2 turns of the pan, over medium heat. Add chopping onion and garlic to the pan, saute 3 minutes. Stir in chicken stock and combine with pumpkin, stir in cream then season sauce with hot sauce, spices, red wine, salt and pepper. Reduce heat to medium low and simmer 5 to 6 minutes more to thicken. Toss with pasta with grated cheese, to taste.
* we adapted this from a Rachel Ray recipe. And incidently, this dish would go great with salmon.


We left Pucon for the town of Valdivia, just slightly inland from the Pacific, where we visited a surprisingly fun fish market, situated right alongside the estuary. The sheer amount of fish was incredible - oh the dinners we could make! - and there was a crowd of sea lions eagerly vying for the cast-offs from the efficient fish cleaners. They competed with hordes of shrieking seagulls and cormorants. The edge of the fish market was complete chaos, the air was flying with fish heads and swooping birds and sea lions fighting over the choice pieces. The sea lions were so spoiled and gluttonous, they turned their noses up at the less desirable pieces.

We took a day trip to the stormy coastal town of Niebla. It was cold and windy and we were shocked to see Chilean families jumping around in the surf on the black sand beach. We spent the day being touristy - we visited the old spanish fort and saw the museum devoted to the defense of Chile and the interaction of the Europeans with the native Mapuche people. And we visited a German brewery for a midday pint. Chile has quite the German population, due to the migration of Germans after the second world war. There is also a Nazi commune somewhere in Chile with a scandalous past.

We then briefly passed through Osorno on our way to the hot springs in one of the many National Parks in the area. The park itself was closed off to hikers on account of the rain, but it was perfect hot spring weather. The hot springs were nestled in the mountains and right beside a beautifully frigid river.

The rain, however, was not perfect for the next phase of our plans for the day: hitch hiking to the Argentine border and then onto the Patagonian town of Bariloche. With hair still wet from the springs, and backs laden with our packs, we waited miserably in the pouring rain. No one stopped. Yuval convinced a bus to take us to the border in exchange from some inflated Chilean pesos (2000 pesos for a bus ride!) but he insisted on dropping us off 5 kilometres away from the border at a small, red wooden Church that looked like a barn. It wasn't raining anymore and we figured it wouldn't be difficult to catch a quick ride from here. We were quite mistaken.

Walking the 5 km wouldn't have been so bad except for Yuval's gigantic pack; it was much too heavy for a long distance walk. So we waited. And waited. Again, no one stopped. In the field next to the church there was a dilapidated farm house, and I saw that there was a man standing on the porch, watching us. After some time, he began to cross the field in our direction. But instead of coming over to chat, he stood in a grove of trees and continued to watch. We prayed for a kind soul with truck space, but still no cars stopped.
Another figure appeared out of the field across the road, a weathered old gaucho carrying a child's car seat and stroller. He came right over and told us in incredibly difficult to understand Castilleano that we were unlikely to get picked up here. Something about drugs. Perhaps no one wanted any wild cards at the border.
Our watcher friend eventually came over to us. It turned out that he was mute. He mimed all sorts of macabre warnings at us. We gathered that he was the caretaker of the barn church and either loved or hated god, was afraid of the looming volcano and traveling down either direction of the highway.

A little shaken, very frustrated and with dusk beginning to gather, we began to walk towards the border. Thankfully, we came across an American couple out fishing and they agreed to drive us up to the border.

At the border, we were only momentarily relieved. The Argentine side of the border was an hour's drive away. We ate some empanadas to quiet the gurgling of our stomachs and chocolate to stave off the grumpiness, and began to ask the stopped cars for a ride. Eventually, we were saved by a genuine and warm Argentine family who drove us to the other border, waited for us to go through migration and then drove us to a town very close to Bariloche.
Further frustration awaited though... just when we thought we were in the clear. It's peak tourist season in Patagonia and everything was booked solid. After a couple of hours wandering in the dark, being barked at by dogs and turned away from every sort of lodging, we gave up the search and camped at an overpriced site beside the supermarket. It was a miserable night for me: it was freezing cold and I had no sleeping bag. We improvised the best we could but I woke up all through the night shivering. Morning could not come soon enough; all I wanted was to get to Bariloche and a hot shower.

Feliz Navidad from Buenos Aires

After a couple of meandering days through the sweltering heat of Cordoba, I left Yuval to meet with Roisin in Buenos Aires for the holidays. He and I planned to reconverge in the New Year, and I planned to push back my flights home (original return date: January 6th) so we could travel all the way down to the end of Patagonia together. After spending more time in Bolivia than I had expected I felt as though I would be cheating myself out of the Argentine experience if I left when planned. Especially since I've been dreaming of Argentina since high school...

I arrived in Buenos Aires on a bright, sunny morning. The city was a huge urban rainforest, tropical and slow moving with a cacophony of traffic sounds and music, like the screeching parrots of the amazon. My ten days in Buenos Aires were dominated by the heat, eating and drinking wine with friends and dancing until the sun rose.
The hostel I was at was cozy and clean, and I immediately felt at home - so much so that I frequently forgot my sandals in the common room and left dishes in my dorm.

Roisin and I treated ourselves to a tango show and sat enthralled for hours watching the incredible dexterity of the dancers' feet. One of my favorite things about Buenos Aires was the tango dancers that put on shows in the middle of the main pedestrian streets. It gave cruising the trendy stores a nice Argentine flare.

Christmas was somewhat surreal. Without my family, it didnt feel much like the holidays. Plus, there was no hint of snow... unless you count the gringos on cocaine binges. Roisin and I, and her friend from back home in Ireland, Clair, joined the hostel for a huge asado (barbecue) on Christmas Eve. Argentine Christmas traditions consist of eating a lot of meat, drinking a lot of wine, setting off firecrackers until it sounds like the city is under seige, and partying until dawn. I heard from someone at the hostel that some people even go to midnight mass completely drunk. To make it feel more like Christmas, us girls exchanged small gifts on Christmas Day and watched cheesy holiday movies.

Traveling with a group of girls was a definite change of pace from traveling with Yuval. We spent much of our days poking in and out of the shops, visiting the many markets, and going to museums - including the very enjoyable Evita museum. We gathered a few more girls as we spent more time at our hostel, including two girls from Alberta; one that I knew from Calgary and the other from Edmonton - technically the enemy, but we let that slide.

I happily adjusted to Argentine time: eating at 10:30 or later and going out after 2:00, which quickly resulted in not waking before noon most days. I was in great company - I met many other travelers who were great and funny and interesting. The Edmontonian girl made me laugh until I cried with her stories of misadventures in Ecuador - the sort of stories that are only funny after the actual experience. However, I quickly tired of the club, bar and party scene. Literally and figuratively. I found myself wishing for quiet nights with Yuval, slowly savoring a bottle of wine and a nice dinner.

New Years Eve was my last night in Buenos Aires, and the girls were psyched for a grand party. To start off the night, we had a picnic of pizza, empanadas, wine and champagne. We laughed and talked for hours over our little picnic, eventually tearing ourselves away to visit the first bar of the night. The hostel bar was packed with gringos and everyone was dancing and waiting in the epically long line for drinks. The buses to shuttle us to the next bar showed up at 1:30 and we all piled on, heading for what was supposed to be the party at a giant, out of the way nightclub called Pacha. We danced until the sky was pink with the first day of 2010. We emerged bleary eyed and exhausted, but pleased with a new years well spent. The club was right beside the ocean, and the wind was whipping the waves into pink, white crested frosting.

Meanwhile, Yuval had been in Mendoza being disappointed by the quality of the wines on the bodega tours. He then went on to Santiago, Chile and bought a tent, and went on a trek to test out his new toy. For New Years he was at a giant, mad party at the beach town of Valparaiso. I left Buenos Aires on New Years day to meet him Santiago.

Northern Argentina

Across the Border:

Arriving in the northern Argentine town of Salta after two months of being in Bolivia was like coming back into the city after an extended period of camping. The lights and buildings were overwhelming - things like traffic lights and the obeying of such traffic rules struck me as odd. I certainly did not expect to feel such a culture shock moving from one South American country to the next. The bathrooms were the biggest shock. They not only had seats, but toilet paper and soap! and sometimes a hand dryer! The buses even had bathrooms on them... no more excruciating waiting until the next stop, or yelling at the bus driver in the middle of the night to pull over. I felt spoiled to have such luxuries on the bus.

Salta was cloudy and the days were warm and damp, with tepid rain in the evenings. The clouds broke only when you left the city limits and drove into the countryside. Then the sun shone brightly over the fields and fields of verdant tobacco plants, and the rust red mountains and warped rock formations.

I do not recommend the wine tours out of Salta. We spent only about a half hour actually in the winery - the rest of the time was just driving around or wandering through markets in small towns (which, there's nothing wrong with... unless you were expected to go on a wine tour). And the wine we were given to sample was terrible. And that's not even being a wine snob... these wines were physically painful to swallow. The wine tours in Mendoza, sadly, are the same deal. Both regions make good wine - Mendoza moreso than Salta, but they serve the leftover junk/vinegar on the tours for some reason.

I had my first Argentine steak in Salta - and I'm glad to say that it lived up to its reputation. I've never eaten so much red meat in my life as I have in Argentina. Even if I wanted to, I couldnt escape it: every restaurant is just dripping in carne. Even the salad bar has meat in it. A friend of mine ordered a salad, and was served a meat salad with tuna juice as dressing. Thankfully, Argentineans know a thing or two about the cooking of meat, so I've been eating very well.

My travel companion of the last 3 months, Yuval, and I had split up in Bolivia and traveled to Argentina independently. In Salta, two weeks later, I ran into him randomly on the street and so we decided to continue traveling together. I was incredibly pleased to have my travel buddy back - we travel well together, and he motivates me to do things I never would on my own (more on that topic later).

He and I left Salta for another large city a few hours south called Tucuman, which was similar to Salta, but I enjoyed it more. It was sunnier and the parks and plazas nicer. Every morning we drank the first palatable coffee since before the severe draught of decent coffee in Bolivia, and every afternoon sated ourselves with ice cream. Argentina, if anything, has been a decadent gastronomical experience.

From Tucuman we rented a car - an adorable Brasilian-made Corsa - and went on a four day road trip through Northwest Argentina, armed only with a map and lots of snacks.

Day One:
Tucuman to Familia - the empanada capital of Argentina. Every year they have a contest to see which restaurant makes the best empanada. And every restaurant has large signs displaying which year their empanadas won. The town itself was not particularly hospitable. I asked for directions at a Butcher's, and the man slicing through a giant piece of raw meat with a horrifyingly large butcher knife looked at me with utter disdain and directed me out of town. We went to the winners of 2006, got a giant bagful of empanadas and made a hasty escape. By the end of the day the word empanada made me feel nauseous and neither of us touched the stuffed pastry for a while afterwards.

From there we drove through a mountain pass draped in wild rainforest. The clouds hung low over the peaks and shrouded the mountains in mist, creating beautifully eerie scenery - the perfect backdrop to South American folklore. We stopped by a waterfall and a road side shrine to the Pachamama (Mother Earth). At these shrines, which are many along South American roads, travelers offer her coca leaves, alcohol and cigarettes to ensure safe passage.
Once we were through the mountains, the rainforest abruptly dropped away and was replaced with wide expanses of bright green fields dotted with hundreds of cacti. As we approached our next destination - the Valle de Tafi - a dense fog descended on us. It was a complete white out, we could barely see two feet in front of us. As if on cue, as soon as we drove into Tafi, the fog disappeared and revealed a gorgeous valley with a large reservoir. There were a few museums tucked away in the valley, but each one was closed - either because they had closed early or had decided not to open at all. The one "museum" that was open was hardly a museum at all.

The signage had directed us to a house with a small hut made of stone in the back yard. We knocked on the door and a glassy eyed man who looked just like Benicio del Toro in one of his scummier roles. He had only three buttons on his shirt done up and they were all straining hard against his protruding pot belly. In slurred castillean Spanish (Argentine Spanish), he called another man to bring us into the "musuem". We could hear shouting inside the house as the other, smaller but no less drunk man directed us into the stone hut. Once inside, there was a stone staircase hugging the circular wall and descending into a dark pit. On the surrounding ledge there were small artifacts and photographs of the hut's construction. On the dirt floor there was another, smaller hole meant for sacrifices. We thanked our guide and got back into the car.

We drove further north towards the connection with Ruta 40 - the infamous highway the runs the length of Argentina and gained notoriety via Che Guevara's famous motorcycle trip. We stopped at the Quilmes ruins - a pre inca civilizaton and one of the few ruins that Argentina has. It was closed for the day when we arrived, but they let us in anyways, so we had the ruins to ourselves. The area was studded with large, looming cacti and black crow-like birds circled and cawed overhead, like an Alfred Hitchcock movie.

We spent the night in a small town called Santa Maria just off Ruta 40.

Day 2:

We left Santa Maria and drove forever on Ruta 40 through an endless, arrid desert. It was here I gained an appreciation for air conditioning. And also for our brave little Corsa. The road was unpaved, rocky and twisted, and slippery with dust. The most impressive feat was the Corsa making it through a large lake covering the road.

We passed through a few small towns, Belen, Londres, La Rioja, and finally stopped for the night in larger Catamarca. Being too exhausted to find anything better, we stayed in a horrid little hole of a hostel with a horridly grumpy owner who Yuval did not get on with at all.

Day 3:

After a breakfast of wonderful Argentine pastries, we were on the road again, on our way to a town known for its thermal hot springs called Rio Hondo. Being that it was over 30 degrees outside, the hot springs weren't particular popular at the time. All 170 hotels in the small town were closed for the off-season. We had to convince a hostel to clean a room for us. We stayed around the town for most of the day, meandering around and taking it easy. I had my first manual driving lesson (and did pretty decently, I might add!). The lady at the tourism office completed Yuval on his castilleano and asked if we were from Buenos Aires. Very complimentary but absurd seeing as how she spoke for 20 minutes while we smiled and nodded, understanding maybe 10% of what she said. Castilleano is much different from the Spanish spoken in Bolivia. But even though our understanding faltered until we got used to the new dialect, the Argentineans were spectactularly hospitable and helpful.

Day 4:

We made our way back to Tucuman via a National Park in the jungles, and a little reluctantly returned our corsa and resumed carrying our lives on our backs.