Saturday, March 26, 2011

Sand, With Water Or Without

After saying goodbye to Harry on the Santiago Metro, I had a few more stops before arriving at the bus station with hopes of catching a bus to Pichilemu, a small fishing and surfing village about 3 ½ hours southwest of Santiago.

Terminal Alameda was a bit of a monkey house, but shockingly I stumbled upon the two bus companies servicing the route after a few twists and turns through the crowds (without whacking anyone with my backpack amazingly). I should have learned my lesson from Argentina, but of course I didn’t since the other lesson of the last 11 months is that things just happen to work out.

Okay, so I can’t get the express bus. Oh, I have to wait hours for the next slow bus with a seat. Ugh! Wait, a wave from the man at Pullman del Sur and the driver who will take me on the 4:15 bus (even though it’s 4:25 now).  He even escorted me to the bus and gave me seat 2, which may have been the helper’s seat since he wasn't as welcoming.

The bus wasn’t great since it had no AC, but I was still thankful they let me on since the later ones would have been just as hot. I also learned what the women on the side of the road sell (Harry and I couldn't figure it out)- all sorts of baked goods; it is the strangest system as they sell their goods on the bus and then get off wherever when they are finished, somehow making it home at the end of the day. Seems to work for them, maybe we should start selling pastries at toll booths?

After 5 ½ hours I arrived at Pichilemu's Natural Surf Lodge which is super nice. I was warmly greeted by Martin, his wife and Manu, their bulldog, and quickly got into the laid back beach vibe.

It was a pretty quiet weekend with just me and David, a lovely Brit with a bad back.

The plan was to spend a week surfing and learning Spanish, so I first had to meet Chris (originally from Ohio) at Pichilemu Language Institute to take my placement test. He then nicely pointed out all the good places in town and sent me on my way for $3.50 fish and seafood ceviche on the beach (near the trailer washed up at a strange angle by the recent tsunami), fresh off the fishermen’s boat. Yum!!!!!!

I was slightly intimidated to surf on Sunday when the place was super crowded so instead walked the 2km down beach to watch people who know what they are doing at Punta de Lobos-- Chile’s most consistent, long left break (it seemed like people rode that wave for 10 minutes).

My primary mission of the day was to get the TV working to watch the Superbowl, which is so not the same in Spanish, without the commercials and yummy food and alone. A few Americans checked in mid game, so that was a little better and I was so happy Green Bay won- take that Farve!

With the start of the week it was time I motivated, now with my new amigos Jackie and Louis who joined me for lessons and the 4km bike ride to and from school (on pretty crappy bikes that Louis did his best to fix). Awh, so cute biking to school! :-)

Day 1 went pretty well. The Spanish lesson wasn’t so bad and I was feeling pretty confident even though the Chileans are impossible to understand (and people told me the Argentines talked funny). Our surf lesson with Ulysses was also pretty good, even if La Puntilla was super crowded and I feared I was going to crash into someone. Ulysses also enjoyed himself with my waterproof camera; perhaps that is why he didn’t really teach us so much?

Day 2 was still okay- a lot of what Rosetta Stone thought would just sink in now made sense.

Day 3 was a little downhill- future tense and getting a little brain overload, but not terrible. It was all forgotten once I ate the best empanada ever baked in the backyard of a shop with adobe ovens, rejuvenating my spirits for our solo surf venture to the far waves of La Puntilla away from the crowds with our Danish lodge mate, Simon.

This was also a little less successful since some of the waves were terrifyingly big for my beginner status and those in between weren’t strong enough to surf. The first attempt was at least amusing (it took a while to get all the way back to shore, followed by a long walk back to where you paddle out), but after a few dunks in the washing machine and frozen feet I had about enough.

A trip to the market looking for something to eat and a bottle of good, cheap Chilean wine would thaw me. OMG, this supermarket was insanity, but they had chips and salsa!

Day 4 was flat out not good; perhaps wine doesn’t help my Spanish comprehension? My back was killing me from surfing (am I too old to start?) and Spanish class was totally discouraging (past tense today). Why are there so many exceptions? Do words really need to have a gender? Too much info to digest!

But I was a glutton for punishment and decided I couldn’t leave without surfing at the famous Punta de Lobos. Another mediocre lesson on a soft board (which I hate). I was about to quit in frustration due to the board, but then really quit when said board whacked me in the nose. Perhaps this really is not my sport???

To recuperate a bunch of us from Natural Surf Lodge went to the best place in Pichilemu for Pisco Sours at sunset. It was a fun night out with Ryan and Val from Australia, Simon, Louis and Jackie. Too bad we declined the surf shops offer to pick us up in their VW van for their late night beach party.

Last day in Pichilemu! Last Spanish class before heading back to Santiago. Needless to say, at this point I was pretty frustrated and just kinda gave up. My brain hasn’t been in school for ages and it was probably too much to cram all that grammar into vacation brain in one week. Oh well!

Damn, again I should have booked a bus ticket in advance- will I ever learn! Same story, long bus ride, but this time they gave me about 10 minutes to hoof it to the bus stop--- ouch, my cramping calves!

Santiago was easy this time since I knew exactly how to get from A to B on the Metro and even found a place that served cheese fries which I haven’t had since I left home (and they were pretty tasty). If only I could find somewhere to sleep in San Pedro de Atacama where I was flying early the next morning on Sky (their maybe questionable, but way cheaper airline).

A third of Chile’s length is actually desert, the driest desert in the world in fact. According to Frommer’s, NASA has conducted Mars experiments here since the sand is so red, dry and totally devoid of life.

Upon arrival in Calama I had every intention of grabbing the shuttle to San Pedro. Ah, sold out- really! Luckily there were three other slackers, two Brazilians and an Italian who never spoke, with whom I shared a taxi for the hour drive through the desert. The driver had no idea where the guesthouses were once we arrived, but eventually I found my way.

San Pedro de Atacama is a dusty oasis town with a couple streets lined with adobe houses, located on the Tropic of Capricorn. For the most part the town is just a bunch of restaurants and tour operators catering to tourists, but there were a few interesting spots in the old square (which had Wi-Fi amazingly!):

• Archaeological Museum with a collection of pre-Columbian artifacts including a lot of tablets for hallucinogenics, hummmm. They were also supposed to have a “Miss Chile” mummy and deformed skulls but damned if I could find them.

• The Church of San Pedro, a pretty adobe church from colonial days and a national monument in Chile.

• A house of Pedro de Valdivia, built by Francisco de Aguirre in 1540, which was of particular interest to me since I was in the middle of Isabelle Allende’s book about Pedro and his mistress. It could use a new roof.

While in town I did want to hit a few tours.

The first was with Space for a tour of the stars using the largest diameter telescope available to the public in South America. Too bad the tour was canceled due to cloud cover since people the following night saw Saturn. And now I would probably know how to find the Southern Cross (thanks again Andy!).

It was okay; coin- cidentally Michele, who I met in Montenegro last July, happened to arrive that night so I had someone to meet for pizza and beer at the #1 rated restaurant, Adobe (cute place, ok pizza).

Michele and I did manage to leave on an afternoon trip to the Valle de la Luna (thanks to a lovely woman who called all over to get us spaces).

As the name suggests it is more like the surface of the moon-- wacky rock formation, huge sand dunes, canyons, areas where literally nothing lives-- all with snow-capped volcanoes in the background.

It is pretty cool seeing the desert meet the snow covered volcanoes, especially at sunset atop a giant sand dune when the mountains turn lovely shades of pink and violet.

The real reason for coming to San Pedro was to hook up with a tour operator for the 3-day trip to the salt flat in Bolivia. I got a little taste of what was to come while inside a salt cave in the Valley of the Moon.

Online reports of tour operators are terrible, so I did some research and then stopped by the three that seemed reputable. Cordillera Traveler won the business since they appear to compensate their staff well and reported no accidents. It was actually pretty easy to choose since the first only had two Spaniards booked (I didn’t want to spend 3 days with no English) and the other told me they were too busy to chat and I needed to come back (typical quality service).

All to do now was stock up on some snacks, grab another empanada and hit the hammock! The trip to Bolivia starts early tomorrow.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

More Wine Por Favor

Success at last! The third time really is a charm. Alas, Chile!

Getting across the border was uneventful, after maybe seeing Cerro Aconcagua ("was that it?" X 10), only an hour wait and an extensive bag check for fruits and veggies. What does Argentina have that Chile doesn’t want, besides the beavers that are destroying Patagonia (oh, I forgot to mention that in the Argentina post--- so much trash talk about the beavers, how could I forget?).

Good thing I got across or Harry would have been wandering around Chilean vineyards all by himself. He had a very ambitious (wine) plan after all.

My first night was spent in the hip, artsy area of Bellavista with Richard (a Quebecois I met on the bus) and a $2 liter of beer on a very lively street full of plastic chairs and street drummers (and teenagers).

The next morning I headed over to the Hotel Orly in Providencia to meet Harry, fresh off his flight from snowy Philadelphia (he was so happy not to be shoveling).

I found a leaflet for a free walking tour like the one in Buenos Aires so we spent the entire afternoon learning all sorts of whacking things about the city, including my favorites:
  • They love this drink made with a peach, it's juice and wheat- not really my thing, but Richard forced it down.
  • On Independence Day citizens are fined if they do not hang the Chilean flag-- as if there is nothing better for the police to do.
  • Gabriela Mistral, a famous female poet was described as "not the best looking lady".
  • At a few coffee shops waitresses wear bikinis and take them off for one random "happy minute" per day. Still waiting on cousin Steve’s business plan for a US model!
  • Nuts 4 Nuts first started in Santiago, but didn't catch on until successful in NYC.  They are much better in Chile.
Of course we also saw the main attractions as well:
  • The Plaza de Armas, founded by the Spanish conqueror Pedro de Valdivia in 1541, is a lovely spot for some chess playing with the old men or just sitting around, if you can find a bench in the shade as you wait for the walking tour (we were an hour early, oops, my fault).
  • Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino, a well-reviewed museum full of artifacts from various regions. Harry didn’t seem all that interested, but I was pleased to charge my camera battery on the sly.
  • New York Street and the Stock Exchange housed in a lovely French-style 1917 building
  • The often reconstructed Cathedral Metropolitana with the opulent (aka tacky) alter
  • La Chascona, one of Pablo Neruda’s many bazaar homes resembling a boat. I will admit that neither Harry or I had any idea who this Nobel Prize-winning poet was and didn’t really care about the quirky home.
  • Palacio de Moneda, the Presidential office and site of the 1973 Pinochet-led coup that ousted Salvador Allende (it used to be the mint, hence the name)
The day ended with some traditional Chilean food, for me the pipping hot corn casserole- pastel de choclo, while waving away the cigarette smoke. Then of course the standard argument with the taxi driver- I am not getting screwed this time!

We had another day in Santiago to hit the sites we missed on the walking tour, like the old post office and former railway station chock full of copper (Chile is the world's leading producer of copper).

For lunch we stopped by the 1868 Mercado Central for some mystery fish and I bought some jumbo straw- berries (that soon liquefied in the summer heat) for the long walk to Cerro San Cristobal.

The Andean peak rises to 2,820 ft. with great views over the city (if not for the smog you could see the mountains that surround the city) and a 72-ft. high statue of the Virgen de la Inmaculada Concepción.

The1925 funicular delighted Harry on the way up, mostly because the Papa (aka Pope) took our car. Too bad the teleférico was long closed (teleférico es cerrado!?!?!), but good thing we realized it before we walked too far downhill.

In fact we might as well have walked all the way down since we ended up walking the whole way to the hotel for some odd reason--- it was far! Thankfully I got a balloon along the way to distract me.

We were then distracted by a couple of Pisco Sours, the drink of Chile (and Peru). We knew one was enough, but then got one free that put us over the edge. The waiter at the restaurant we arrived to late asked if we were “going to sleep there?” as it was getting so late. Too late for the dog that looked dead on the street—it was the pisco that made it seem a good idea to prod it with my flip flopped foot (it was indeed alive, but didn't react).

Overall I would say Santiago is a much nicer city than I expected as no one really talks of it very fondly. It has lots of nice parks, is clean, has some decent restaurants and some nice buildings, even if most of the old ones have been destroyed by their frequent earthquakes. It doesn’t have the energy of a Buenos Aires, but I still really liked it.

Another thing to like is that you can take the metro to vineyards in the Maipo Valley! Sure, we left the hotel with no addresses or phone numbers, so no surprise it was not the smoothest excursion, but we made it.

Cousiño-Macul was our first Chilean vineyard and coincidentally the first vines to be planted in Chile in 1546. The grounds of the family owned vineyard were lovely and the tour good, but the tasting was a little miserly for the price. I hate when they talk up their good wine and then serve you something else.

At Concha y Toro, Chile's largest and best known winery, we blew off the tour and just had a couple glasses and a cheese plate at their restaurant. A much better idea!

Harry really wanted to go to Almaviva even though the guards said it was far and the taxi would be expensive. Of course we knew better than the locals and found a driver ourselves who took us there and really tried his best to get us into the CLOSED winery. He talked us through the first gate, but couldn’t get them to open for us. We then drove through the vineyard (which appeared to be in the midst of a ghetto) to the metro--$20 poorer and now car sick!

This actually turned into a trip saving experience since Harry had originally envisioned us busing/cabbing everywhere (which would have been a disaster). The next day we had a nice rental car delivered to the hotel and hours of 80’s music to keep us entertained (perhaps Pinochet banned western music in the 80's?). Harry really wanted more of Train’s "Hey, Soul Sister" (aka the national anthem of Chile) which really did play non stop.

When I saw the refugio in Cajón del Maipo I was baffled that we ever considered taking the public bus to El Morado National Park in the Andes. We avoided a lot of bitching.

Don’t misunderstand, there was still a lot of bitching since we embarked on our trip around Chile with no map! Amazingly we managed to find our way through a detour and eventually onto the dirt road that led us to Refugio Lo Valdés and a warm greeting by the manager, Andy.

Andy in fact was a total jerk and cause of many laughs. He was flat out insulting at times and refused to show us the Southern Cross telling us to look up, that it would be obvious. It was not!
We had a great time with Brad, Ilyana and Todd, over a lot of wine (we learned red wine pairs perfectly with girl scout thin mints, but not the “superb” pork chop), prompting Andy to ask what brought us there.

Perhaps we were a little louder than most of their climber clientele, but Todd’s story of the $240 fine they were charged for bringing in an American apple was too funny!
Andy also sent us on a hike that he must have known was too late to start, but I don’t think Harry was too upset when the park ranger turned us away.

Our drive to the refugio was on a Sunday, so the mine was closed. Not as lucky on the way out, we drove much of the way in a giant cloud of brown dust caused by the trucks.

We were headed to Rancagua, which we again amazingly got to despite the lack of map (just a bit of confusion). Of course the hotel staff was completely useless and couldn’t tell us anything about the area.

Once we got to Anakena, which was super easy to find (the hotel staff must never leave the hotel), we had a fabulous, long tasting and learned that Chile had misidentified the Carménère grape as Merlot for years, only discovering the error in 1994. Our guide even took us out into the vineyard to show us how the leaves look slightly different. Good thing they rediscovered the grape since it may be my new favorite variety.

All this driving required us at some point to get gas-- what a debacle. We had no idea how to ask for it, nor did we know how to open the gas cap-- the worker rightly laughed at us. Good thing we were better at ordering McDonalds—the golden arches guided us through the night sky.
Next up, the drive to Santa Cruz and the Colchagua Valley. In my opinion this was the best valley with some good tastings in really beautiful wineries. 

First up was Viu Manent for a tasting and then later lunch overlooking their on-site equestrian club (our "stalkers" from the refugio happened to be boozing it up here too! ;-)

Clos Apalta was amazing pricey, but well worth it to see the stunning $10-million, gravity-fed winery and a taste of delicious Syrah.  We also met a couple from Savannah who we'd continue to run into for the next few days.

We stopped by Montes for some wine and cheese and were denied by some ninas at Las Ninas before we called it a day.

Maybe not the best idea to try to find the hostel after the wine tasting, especially since now we barely recalled the name and definitely did not have the address or map.  Harry circled the main square of Santa Cruz (whose roads are a mess post earthquake) while I tried to get directions from the woman at the info booth (why are there no maps in Chile?).

The night was capped off with a fabulous dinner outside at Vina Bello where we ran into the Savannah couple for the third time that day.
Another adventure in the car and we arrived in Valparaiso, but had a much harder time finding our way around once in town with the tiny, maze-like streets.

We walked all over the city checking out the colorful buildings that climb the hill, hopping a funicular to get us back uphill.  And yes, another chance run in with the Savannah couple.

Since we kept running into them, we figured it best to meet for a drink overlooking the harbour.  Oddly a cat jumped on my lap almost instantly and slept there for the next hour or so-- it seemed to confuse me for an animal lover.

We tried a new restaurant Bijoux which had an interesting concept of interviewing you to get a sense of what you might like--- the fish with chilies and golden berries was pretty tasty.  This led us to spend a lot of time trying to figure how this concept was really sustainable-- not convinced. 

We had one more valley to hit on our drive back to Santiago and much more success navigating Valparaiso and the gas station.

Casablanca Valley was the end of our Chilean wine tour, a white wine region. This valley is most like Napa in that no reservations are required allowing you to hop from one to another (and potentially into oncoming traffic when trying to backtrack to Viñedos Orgánicos Emiliana).

I was delighted when I learned that Veramonte is affiliated with Quintessa in Napa.

We also sampled some food and wine a Casas del Bosque before my shortcut which turned into a giant loop around the area on route to Matetic where they have two winemakers that they pit against eachother (imagine there is a lot of animosity).  Matetic is also organic and uses alpaca and sheep to help maintain the vineyard.

I think we about exhausted all the vineyards in Chile and had a great time doing it.  I look forward to drinking lots more Chilean wine when I return to the States, especially since it is a total bargain!

Friday, March 4, 2011

Lakes & Wine

Ah, the bus to Bariloche-- what turned into a 30 1/2 hour journey through the most mundane landscape in South America.  Same, same and more of the same nothingness! Wait, there is a sheep grazing! ;-)

The only highlights:

1) I almost won at Andesmar bingo.  Yes, they have bingo on the bus and announce the numbers (in Spanish) using a ridiculous game show voice.   My Argentine seatmate translated all the numbers for me, which really wasn't necessary, but appreciated. The winner received a bottle of wine (which you need on a 30 hour journey-- luckily I thought ahead and BYOB-ed!)  

2) I accidentally left my North Face jacket on the first bus, only realizing a hour later.  Amazingly I was able to get it back using my limited Spanish and Google translator.   I was all proud of myself after helping some Israeli guy avoid queso on his sandwich, but  abrigo blanco was a tougher challenge.  I gave the bus driver a big hug when he returned with it- I think he thought I was loco.

3) The fact that I slept an unbelievable amount of the journey :-)

After a day on the bus (left at 4pm and arrived around 10pm the NEXT night), I was dirty and tired when I was warmly greeted with a glass of wine at 41 Below.  It was thankfully a very friendly bunch in Bariloche since it poured rain the next day .

It was actually nice to have a down day when it was too gloomy to go hiking or biking or whatever else was on offer in the Lake District.

One thing that was quickly discovered from Martin, yet another Aussie mate, was that the buses are again booked for days in advance.  ARE YOU KIDDING ME!  I just arrived and I am already stuck here-- a place I had never intended to visit.  Ugh, Argentina was really starting to get frustrating!

No prob, I will just stay one extra day before attempt #2 at entering Chile for surf and Spanish lessons at the beach.

In the meantime I can get some Mexican food and fulfill that craving (not the best I've had, but it's been a while so better than nothing).

Although super windy, a few of us opted for a hike on  2388m Cerro Cathedral.  Yes, it should have been a ride up a chairlift and walk across and down, but it was too windy so the chairlift was closed. 

Instead Martin, Francesca (Germany), Casey (Canada) and I did the 20km round-trip hike to Refugio Frey with beautiful views of Lago Nahuel Huapi along the way.

Casey had enough sense to turn around just before it got hard, but we braved the wind for some nice views and pizza at the top with a Slovenian we happened to meet a few days earlier at 41 Below.

The following day I was all about the Circuito Chico bike ride that everyone does around the lake.  We heard it was pretty hard, so thought maybe we should take a bus to the town of Ville La Angostura and bike around Parque Nacional Los Arrayanes instead.

Oops, this bike ride is harder?

Okay, we'll take the boat there and bike back since it is easier- great!

Why does no one tell us that the boat is sold out BEFORE we bike down the huge hill that we now have to bike back up?  Ugh, Argentina!!!!!!!

We made the best of it and biked to a scenic lookout which seemed hard since it turned out it was all uphill.  We got back to town in no time which made us feel really lazy. At least it left time for more yummy ice cream--- I have mentioned that the ice cream in Argentina is fantastic, right?

We did have another moment of frustration when the next bus back to Bariloche wasn't for 5 hours, but thankfully they added a bus so we didn't have to cry!

Done with Bariloche; now for my second attempt at Chile, but first I had my thousandth tear-my-hair-out moment. (Really, in 10 months I've never been so frustrated!)

Of course it was Friday, so we had to make an ATM run before the town ran out of money-- a common problem in Argentina for some reason.

Then best to get money changed since I can foresee being stuck at the border with no Chilean Pesos and no ATM.  Of course they don't change money between 1-5pm! WHAT THE F!!!!!!!!!!

Teetering on the edge...

Get to the bus station and realize after some time that they don't mean Gate 5, they mean the bus is delayed until 5--- great, now I will miss all connections to Santiago.  Deep breath (after again temporarily hating the country)!  I can hopefully catch the midnight bus to Santiago if all goes well. 

WHAT? CANCELLED!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Seriously, the only thing that prevented a full breakdown was coincident- ally hearing Fergie's "Big girls don't cry" in the bus station- I had to laugh.

It's all about flexibility!  Ten minutes later I changed course and hopped on the next bus--- Mendoza it is.  

A 20 hour journey that I wasn't really prepared for, but it was actually a nice ride along the Ruta de los Siete Lagos. 

The next morning I finally arrived in toasty warm, wine country (I am following summer, but it's been cold since landing in Ushuaia)-- things could be worse!

Sure I had to stay at a crappy place before I moved into Hostel Lao, but no big deal.  Instead I spent the day with some Americans I met on the bus and at a cafe on Plaza Independencia checking out the town and a great view from a rooftop pool.  (Rand from Nashville had just attempted to climb the western hemisphere's highest summit, Cerro Aconcagua, but weather was problematic leading to two fatalities.) 
In good Domingo (Sunday) fashion, I did nothing.  I have learned that NOTHING in South America is open on Sunday, so you might as well spend the entire day dozing and reading in an orange hammock.

I was pleasantly surprised to run into my Aussie mates, Nathan and Woody, from El Calafate who I joined for a movie (El Tourista, as they say en Espanol) and a tasty dinner.  Like Calafate, Mendoza is full of dogs, one of which followed us all the way across town as we ran into a truly bazaar bachelor party, at least that is what we think it was.

It's about time I got wine tasting! Per strong recommendations, I joined an Aussie, Swede, Oregonian and Brit to bike around the vineyards of Chacras de Coria.  We hit four spots:

Carmelo Patti- a family owned winery that took us a while to find since there was no sign.  It was worth the effort since we met Carmelo and he was DElighful even if we didn't exactly catch everything he was saying. The wine was good too!

We then rode to Cavas de Chacras for lunch, a tour by an informative (if slightly arrogant) guide and a tasting of their lesser quality wine.  I still wish we had tasted their "A" line.

Alta Vista, a larger producer, was quite a complex.  The wine cellar and tasting room, complete with our guide from New Jersey, felt just like home.  I was slightly disappointed to not try their highly praised Alto, but what we did try was very nice and I appreciated the complimentary tasting of dessert wine. 

Our last stop was Pulmary, another family operation that makes organic wine and pours a healthy tasting.  They even let you taste right out of the tank (which are concrete here in Mendoza, interestingly).

It was a lot of wine, but shockingly we made it back to the bike shop unscathed despite riding against the flow of traffic on a narrow street.

Funny enough, when I returned to Hostel Lao I learned that I knew everyone staying there from either wine tasting, El Calafate or Bariloche--- I know this is the 8th largest country, but it is beginning to seem pretty small ;-)

I had considered another day of wine tasting in a different valley, but instead Nathan and I opted for lunch at a vineyard, Nieto Senetiner.  Sure, we probably spent more on the cab and lunch than we had on a few days lodging, but it was SO worth it.  We LOVED it here and had the whole place to ourselves (after clearing security)!

In fact we so enjoyed the meal and bottle of Bonarda that we opted for a second bottle on the patio overlooking the beautiful grounds and mountains in the background.  It was the perfect day (until they made us leave since they wanted to close!)

What a good way to end my month in Argentina.  But wait, it can't possibly go smoothly.

Unbelievable- no one at the bus station would print my ticket despite the fact that they all had printers right in front of them and I offered to pay.  So nice of them to offer me one last chance to lose it! ;-)

Once on board the bus all was good as I watched the vineyards pass by and tried to guess which mountain was Aconcagua with my Canadian bus mate.

Fingers crossed I can cross the border on my 3rd attempt!

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Picture Perfect Patagonia (Until You're Stuck)

Back in Buenos Aires for one final day and night.

I had intended to take the evening ferry from Colonia, Uruguay, but enough was enough; instead I could use the day to see the sites in BA that I missed when I slept the days away.

The biggest miss, Cementerio de la Recoleta, where over-the-top mausoleums house Argentina’s elite, including past presidents and Evita herself. The architecture of the sarcophagi was an equal match to the buildings outside, just splendid! Each resemble little churches, with statues, one more impressive than the next.

On the way to the cemetery I attempted to find an English language book (since my Kindle was busted). I didn’t really find a book, but did stop by a really impressive bookstore housed in an old theater where the box seats on the side are now used as reading rooms. It was pretty cool.

A decent walk and I made it to my final destination, the Museo De Arte Latinoamericano De Buenos Aires (aka MALBA). The modern art museum is housed in a modern glass building and displays the collection of Eduardo Costantini, including Xul Solar-- an artist I was unfamiliar with but liked a lot.

Now the the toss up--- stay in and get a good night sleep before my 9am flight or meet up with Ariel and Ilse one final time. Guess what won?

It was a long night!!! First I took a cab to Ariel’s place which confused the cab driver- I think he thought I was confused and kept saying “Providencia, not Capital.” Yes, I know!

After an asado (bbq with chirizo- yum!) we went to a club and danced all night to bad 80’s music and a lot of Madonna, if I remember correctly. They had me drinking Fernet, their favorite beverage which is DISGUSTING!! The place was packed all night and was great, but sadly I had to leave at 6am to catch my flight to Ushuaia.

After that night I couldn’t even remember which airport I was leaving from, luckily my great effort to come up with “domestico” worked (sometimes it works to just add an O to the English word ;-) and I made it to the right place. Check it was a bit hairy and I did ram one woman with the cart in my tipsy, sleepy stupor, but amazingly managed to check in and clear security.

Another amazing thing--- waking up 4 minutes before departure, perhaps a good time to board the plane? ;-)

I arrived in Ushuaia, a port city set between the Beagle Channel and the Martial Range—literally the bottom of the world as its southern most city. It has sort of a rugged appearance with buildings climbing the hill and ships anchored in the harbor, including those leaving for Antarctica (I thought about taking advantage of the last minute $3,500 fare but my lack of winter clothes ultimately prevented me from going).

While there I went on two excursions with Canal Fun.

The first was to Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego,  with our guide Valentine, where we hiked along the lakes taking in spectacular views of the Argentine and Chilean mountains (when the wind didn't blow hair in my eyes). After canoeing against some pretty strong wind (my canoe won!), we stopped at the end of the Pan-American Highway which starts in Alaska- maybe one day I will go to the northern most point?

I also sadly watched the Eagles season end--- the game was just as nerve wracking and the last play (Vick interception) just as devastating watching dots and squiggles on :-(

That night it poured and poured and poured so I was not terribly excited to go on my tour of Estancia Harberton and the penguin colony.

Miraculously the sun came out just as we left for the long drive there- yay!

We started off rafting with a tailwind and then ridiculously against the wind---we flat out could not get to the dock after several fruitless attempts and had to paddle around a different way to get off.

After lunch it was a speedboat to see the penguins which were way better than expected. The island is home to thousands of Magellan and Gentoo penguins and had me thinking my favorite Dr. Suess’ “The Sneetches” watching the orange billed penguin (Gentoo) walk with an air of superiority though the plain penguins.

We ended the tour with a fairly uneventful hike through the ranch, seeing trees that are constantly battered by the southern winds.  Finally, a draft of the southernmost micro brew in the world. Of course we also needed to fit in some crab since Ushuaia is known for their crab, plus a visit to the most southern Irish pub in world.

Next stop-- El Calafate, a couple hours flight up the west coast of Argentina.

I arrived fairly late into town and was greeted warmly by the amazingly helpful guys at America del Sur- the best place to stay in Argentina.

I was only there a few minutes but they had already arranged my trip to Glaciar Perito Moreno in Parque Nacional Los Glaciares.

The glacier was really pretty spectacular.  I took about 1,000 pictures and now understand why Mom and Dad had all those pictures from Alaska.  Honestly the pics don't do it justice since you can't see the different shades of blue, how huge it is or the sound and splash as icebergs fall off into the water (surprisingly loud).

With a combination of boat ride and viewing platforms, you really got a good view of the 30km long, 5km wide and 60m high glacier, which they claim is constantly advancing (2m a day).

Funny enough, upon my return to town I ran into two Dutch guys I met in Ushuaia (through Anil from BA days). Coincidentally they were staying at the same place, so I had new buddies for the next few days. First thing to do with friends?--- eat Calafate ice cream, which really tasted a lot like blueberry.  Second thing- pick up a bottle of good, cheap, Argentine wine at the supermarket-- love wine producing countries!!! 

It was great, I was able to convince the Dutch to join me for a night in El Chalten, a town that was quickly built in 1985 to beat Chile to the land rights.

There really isn't anything to do in El Chalten except hike, which we had grand plans to do.  The real reason to come is to see the 3405m Cerro Fitz Roy which we decided to tackle on day 2 when the weather was forecasted to be even better.

Around noon we headed out for Laguna Torre which was really beautiful, even if Cerro Torre was always in cloud cover.  We even got a glimpse of Fitz Roy while taking a break for lunch. 

However, after 22kms we were pretty spent--- maybe we should have done Fitz Roy today since 25km tomorrow was looking doubtful (after dinner with beer and lots of wine it was even less likely).

It's official- trek burnout, plus an incredibly windy day.  Needless to say, we saw as much of Fitz Roy as we were going to see (see pic- peak on right in clouds).  We then made the fatal mistake of returning to El Calafate where the frustrations began.

The Chilean border was still closed (they were protesting an increase in gas prices)!!!  Yes, it has been closed for 3 days now, but certainly the protest and blockade wasn't going to last long.  I had to catch a boat up through the Chilean fiordlands from Puerto Natales in a couple days, and I wanted to stop by Parque Nacional Torres del Paine on the way. 

The Dutch were smart and made a quick scramble to the airport and got out before the masses, but I needed to be in Chile on Monday night, so waited it out with a very optimistic attitude.  I was even more hopeful after the delicious beef stew (served in a pumpkin) I enjoyed at Pura Vida all the way across town.

My hopes were dashed as the days went on and I heard more stories from people that made their way over the border into Argentina.  One Brit faked an injury and crossed the border in an ambulance.  Others had their car shaken and stones thrown at them.  Torres del Paine was reported to be like a refugee camp with people lined up for food (the W is a famous 4-day trek there and you have to carry all your stuff, so you wouldn't have extras).   Others dropped off their Avis rental car at the blockade where the Avis clerk met them to hand over the keys,  then they walked 20+ kms. with all their stuff.  Not good!!!

Things worsened when two people were killed and the military evacuated all the tourists from southern Chile.  I guess I am NOT making it to that boat--- let's hope AmEx or my travel insurance refunds the $400.

Now I am part of the masses of unhappy travelers trying to get out of El Calafate.  Yes, a cute town for a day or two, but not five!!  I was back at the bus station, chatting with the same people I met there every day, all looking for a way out, but of course now everything is booked for days.

Where to go?  Just get me out of here!

Bariloche it is!  I didn't have much interest, but it appeared to be the only option since I had already been to Ushuaia.  Look at a map- this country is huge- the 8th largest in the world! A bus to anywhere is going to be an ordeal.

I was able to find two options- a bus a 3am that seemed like a sucker bet since it look 32 hours and involved three transfers.  I appeared better to wait yet another day for a 4pm departure--- interestingly the direct bus to Bariloche was sold out for days, but when I asked about connecting through Rio Gallagos I could get a seat------ OMG, it was the SAME bus, I just had to move seats (this was NOT the most resourceful or helpful woman!)  You can see why we were all so frustrated!

And now I had to move out of America del Sur since they were booked up, but on the plus side I met Nathan and Woody from Australia and had a nice dinner and more Malbec at a cute bookstore/bar (after eating a fruit that looked like cherries from the tree outside). 

El Calafate was really a nice town, even if there are stray dogs everywhere (seems to be a South American thing), you just don't want to be stuck here.

Yay!!! Finally I get to leave.  Wait, first I have to get out of the room.  Crazily enough, I was accidentally locked IN the room.  Not sure what my life has come to--- I actually had to climb out the window--- I really can't get out of El Calafate!

At last success!  On the bus for the next 26 hours heading north to the Lakes District. :-)