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.