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.