Uruguayan Vacation

Uruguay is a sleepy little country. In a book I’m reading (see below) one character calls it the “Switzerland of South America.” Well, maybe. Really it’s more like a tiny version of Argentina where things cost just as much as in the United States. There isn’t a whole lot to do here, which is actually what I was looking forward to. We’re about to dive into Brazil, which may prove challenging due to the language barrier and the incredibly long distances between all the dots on the map we’d like to connect. (Truth: We just bought plane tickets from Iguazu Falls to Rio to cut out about 24 hours of bus travel.)

Our quiet beach on a Sunday afternoon.

I’m writing from Punta del Este, Uruguay’s resort city. If you’ve been following the blog, you’ll remember that I’ve been craving a nice, warm, comfy beach where we could sit and stare at the ocean for hours ever since we left Bolivia last October. In Uruguay we finally got there. But first, we spent a few days in Montevideo.

A rainy day in the park.
We’ve noticed that water conservation isn’t a priority.

Montevideo really is just like any city in Argentina except for the climate, which was perfect when we were there. Highs in the upper 70s/low 80s, cool at night, often with a pleasant but not blow-you-over breeze. It did rain on our last day there, but even so it wasn’t terrible. That said, Montevideo doesn’t give you much to do except visit museums and eat large portions of meat. We did both, visiting a gaucho museum, a photography museum, a cannabis museum, a sculpture garden, and a grill that seemed heavily favored by the locals.

Too much of a good thing.

One neat concept that we’ve come across in both Montevideo and Punta del Este is the outdoor photography exhibit – the photos are literally displayed on glossy posterboard in an outdoor park. In Montevideo the photos were from past Carnival celebrations, while in Punta del Este we found an exhibit highlighting the effects of humans on the environment around the world.

A novel approach to art.
And another.

The hostel we booked in Montevideo was in the Barrio Sur, a veritable ghost town. In Punta del Este we found a hotel that wasn’t on the expensive peninsula of the city proper, but was instead nestled in a residential neighborhood halfway between the public beach and a shopping mall. We’ve spent a lot of time on that beach, but we did wander into the tourist trap part of town in a fruitless search for postcards and affordable ice cream.

The *only* way to get a photo of this sculpture without tourists in it is to steal one off the Internet (like so).

The beach is fine, white sand; the water is cool, clear, and full of tiny jellyfish. Vendors wander up and down selling their wares, but to my frustration they’re selling the wrong stuff – clothing, empanadas, toy airplanes. Not one person walked up to us with a cocktail menu. That was a missed business opportunity. More than once I would have dropped a dollar or ten on a caipirinha or a frozen margarita.

The first place on our trip where people can play in the water without freezing.

And if I had, it would have been pricey. Like I said before, prices in Uruguay are equivalent to those in the United States, and there’s nothing in Punta del Este that makes it different from any place on the Florida coast. For a long time Uruguay has had very friendly policies toward American expats, and the increased prices are apparently a consequence of welcoming so many retired Yanks.

Still, I’m glad to have finally got my beach time. Brazil promises even more, and also (we hope) new activities to engage in as well. Catch you next week from the other side of the border!

P.S. My Book Recommendation for Uruguay

Right now I’m enjoying The Invisible Mountain by Carolina De Robertis. I’m not going to finish it before we leave the country, but that’s okay. Uruguay is so small that even in the book the characters have to run away to Argentina and Brazil to have anything interesting happen in their lives. The Invisible Mountain reminds me a lot of The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende. Both depict their country during the 20th century through the eyes of three generations of strong, unique women. The difference is that De Robertis is a much better novelist than Allende. Allende wrote with the cold detachment of a historian. De Robertis lets you experience her characters’ lives more intimately, and with more poetry. Once I’m done, my full review will appear here on Goodreads.

P.P.S. Our Route Through Uruguay

Here’s the road we took (or will have, after tomorrow night) including our “round the Rio Plata” bus ride from Buenos Aires. We’ll cross into Brazil sometime in the middle of Tuesday night, and we’re led to believe that we don’t even have to be awake – the bus company will handle our exit and entry and return our passports in the morning. That’s a little nervous-making, but apparently that’s how it’s done.

P.P.P.S. Lea’s Macrophotography!

Free Buenos Aires

I haven’t talked about money much on this blog. In general we tend to travel cheap so we can spend more on seeing the sights. This often has the odd effect of making small towns more expensive than big cities – the farther out in the wild we are, the more likely it is we have to pay more for national parks and excursions. In big cities, while housing and food may be more expensive, finding ways to spend our time is much less so.

The reason I bring this up is that I track our spending on a daily and weekly basis. In this past week in Buenos Aires we’ve spent less money in a seven-day period than we have since we were in Bolivia. That was unexpected. Then again we’ve been staying in small apartments, eating out as little as possible, using Buenos Aires’s very inexpensive public transit system, and going to free (or cheap) attractions as much as we can.

Street art, for example, is free.

By the time we leave Monday evening we’ll have spent ten days and nine nights in Buenos Aires. That’s a little less time than we spent in Santiago, the last comparable city, but we decided back then that perhaps two weeks was too much time in one place. As in all of northern Argentina, “hostels” don’t seem to be a thing here so we’ve rented apartments instead. We only booked three nights at the first one with the option to extend if we liked it. After the roaches came out to play that first night, it was pretty clear we’d be moving on.

The second apartment we landed in was much better, despite being tiny beyond belief. The beds, which can double as couches, fold down from cabinets on the wall and can be folded back up to create more space when not in use. The kitchen (with a tiny sink and one working burner) is in a closet, hidden from view when not being used. The result is that despite the space being small, the use of space is flexible. And while there’s not much in terms of storage area, at least the one available shelf isn’t crowded with useless knickknacks like some other places we’ve been.

Not our apartment, but far cooler.

Survival need #2 after shelter is food. The first thing we did after dropping our luggage was to eat a real breakfast. The “breakfast” provided by Argentinian hotels has consisted mainly of toast, tea, and nothing else. When we’ve had our own fridge (and occasional stove) we’ve added eggs to that mix, or lots and lots of cereal. Down the block from our first apartment, though, was a real French café with a mouthwatering Brunch For Two. We bought groceries immediately after to cover us for the next day or two, but oh my gosh that real European-style breakfast was a welcome surprise.

And so, fed and rested, we set out to explore the city. In a week, we’ve barely even scratched it. Buenos Aires is enormous. Fifteen million people live in the metro area, fully a third of the population of the entire country. You can get around most anywhere by using the bus and subway. Each ride costs between $15 and $17 ARS (less than 50¢ US) but travel times can be long. In Santiago it felt like it took us at least half an hour to get anywhere. In Buenos Aires, it’s more like an hour to an hour and a half – and that’s not if you get on a train going the wrong direction or waste time at a stop for a route that isn’t running.

(Fun fact: Even though Argentina is a right-side-drive country, the subway lines in Buenos Aires run on the left, ensuring that you will end up on the wrong side of the station at least once, even after you get the hang of it.)

So that’s life in the city for the tourist passing through. In the interest of travel bloggery, here’s a rundown of where we’ve been:

Centro

We ended up here twice, once on purpose (to meet someone from CouchSurfing) and once by accident (looking for a pharmacy and a working ATM). Not much to recommend about the area – it’s just a maze of narrow streets, old buildings, and shopping. The main skyline feature of Centro is the Obelisk that dominates the wide Avenida 9 de Julio. Neither time we were there did I bother taking a picture so the one above is courtesy of Wikipedia. Some things, like the Eiffel Tower, have been photographed enough already, don’tcha think?

Tigre

Our first touristy excursion was to take a train all the way back out of town to the community of Tigre on the delta of the Luján River, a tributary of the Rio de la Plata, and buy a boat tour. Tigre had been hyped to us by folks online, but when we got on the water we realized that the delta region was no different from any other river along the American Gulf Coast – full of private camps, docks, and motorboats. The tour recording went on about the architecture of the buildings and the way of life of the people who lived there, but to me it was just like boating around the Tickfaw or the Amite back home in southern Louisiana. Given that getting there, taking the tour, and getting back took up nearly the whole day, in hindsight it wasn’t the best use of our time.

El Ateneo “Grand Splendid”

This, on the other hand, was much more enjoyable, though we didn’t stay long. Just a few blocks from our first apartment was El Ateneo, an old theater that had been converted into a magnificent bookstore. We’ve seen bookstores everywhere in South America – they’re as common as gas stations in the U.S. – but this one beats them all by far. If I could read more Spanish beyond menus and street signs I could have browsed the shelves all night.

Recoleta Cemetery

Of course we went and saw dead people. The cemetery in the neighborhood of Recoleta isn’t colorful, but it showcases some beautiful design, sculpture, and stonework in its many mausoleums. Lea spent the time fascinated by the high quality and variety of stone used in the tombs’ construction. Personally, I was appalled at how little effort Buenos Aires’s vampires are putting into hiding their resting places. The tombs had windows where you could look right in and see the coffins, locks on the doors for easy egress, and spiderwebs right out of a vintage Dracula movie. I suggested that Lea and I come back at night with a hammer and some stakes so that she could chip off pieces of granite, gabbro, labradorite, etc, and I could take care of the cemetery’s other problem.

Chinatown and Koreatown

Every city in the world may have a Chinatown, but Buenos Aires is the first we’ve come across in South America that’s real. Lima’s sure looked like a Chinatown, just without any actual Asians. Santiago had an area of Chinese knickknack shops and real Asian groceries, but we never made it to a hub of authentic Chinese restaurants. Buenos Aires finally provided, but that’s not what we got excited about.

Because Buenos Aires also has a Korean district in the neighborhood of Flores. Lea and I love Korean food but we weren’t expecting to come across it again until we returned to Atlanta. But whaddaya know, there’s a whole community right here in Argentina.

Korea Town isn’t the bustling hub of tourism that Chinatown is. In fact, we were warned not to go to Flores at night. During the afternoon, nearly every business in the neighborhood was closed except for a handful of restaurants. The one we were looking for was Una Cancion Coreana and it was everything we’d hoped for. Banchan with kimchi, bibimbap, and Korean BBQ steak and squid – my kind of surf and turf. We got there right as lunch was wrapping up and probably looked like we hadn’t eaten for months with the way we stuffed ourselves.

The Art Scene

It’s bad when you’ve seen so many art museums that you can’t bear to look at another painting. I haven’t quite reached that point yet but Lea definitely has. Nevertheless we took a trip to the Museum of Fine Arts which has an excellent collection including many of the classical masters. At present it houses an exhibit of sculptures by Rodin, but it also has at least one painting each by Monet, Van Gogh, and Rembrandt (plus legions of their contemporaries).

Even better was the walking tour we took of the street art in the Palermo SoHo neighborhood. The tour was in English, as most of the tourists were European. The walk was over two hours (in fact, Lea and I bailed before the end) but in it we learned a lot about the street art movement in Buenos Aires, the significance of many of the images, and the fact that much of the street art in town is done with the permission of the local building owners and the city of Buenos Aires itself – especially for the giant murals done on commission.

Back To Nature

For a break from the relentless concrete of the city, we went to both the Costanera Sur Ecological Reserve and the Carlos Thays Botanical Garden. The garden wasn’t that far from our second apartment, so it was an easy morning stroll through the hot, though shady, park. It’s not the right time of year for much to be in bloom except in the butterfly garden, but the paths were pleasant to walk through and there was a nice variety of interesting trees.

As for the Ecological Reserve, we waited too late in the week and too late in the day to visit. It’s home to many species of birds and other wildlife, but temperatures have been steadily climbing since we arrived. By the time we got to the reserve, it was far too hot for birds, lizards, or humans, and everything was in hiding except for pigeons and doves. Nevertheless, the Costanera Sur did afford us our first view of the Atlantic since our cold, cold morning in Comodoro Rivadavia (which was more Antarctic than Atlantic).

Tango In the Night

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Tango is a big deal in Buenos Aires. It’s one of their main exports, to tell the truth. We got to see an Argentinian tango show at the Rialto in Atlanta, and you can pay good money to watch tango and eat dinner at one of the many theaters here in the city. If you’re cheapskates like us and don’t want to pay good money, you can look for one of the free “tango in the park” shows. We found out about one on Sunday evenings at Plaza Dorrego in the neighborhood of San Telmo, so we went to check it out:

The show was basically a handful of professional dancers who would try to persuade members of the audience to strut their stuff on the dance floor, and would then put on a short presentation of their own. There weren’t the crowds of locals dancing that we’d been hoping for, just a bunch of tourists like ourselves watching with their cellphones.

And Then This Happened:

Off To Uruguay

Tonight we get back on the bus for the border crossing to Uruguay and eventually Montevideo. We’ll have a whole day left in Buenos Aires, so assuming we don’t get continuously rained on (as Weather Channel is threatening) we may head down to the artsy neighborhood of La Boca and then back up to Chinatown. Who knows? The last thing I want is to spend more time than we need to in the Retiro Bus Terminal, one of the nastiest I’ve seen on this voyage.

Next week I’ll be reporting from a sunny beach somewhere on the eastern side of Uruguay. For the record, here’s a map of the course we charted through Argentina. It’s been a long, long road, and with Brazil still to come it’s going to get even longer.

Argentina, We Need To Talk

We spent most of last week in the city of Córdoba, dead center in the northern half of Argentina, the city where God is at this moment aiming his magnifying glass and causing humans to burst into flames. As Mendoza was for wine, Córdoba is where you go for all things Jesuit. It’s the site of many fine cathedrals – the most beautiful we’ve seen in a long while – as well as Argentina’s first university, a variety of art museums, and an underground Jesuit crypt which, once we walked there, was closed for renovation.

Dammit, Argentina!

Catedral de Cordoba en Plaza San Martin

We spent most of our time in Córdoba melting. The air conditioner in our room worked better than the one in Mendoza, though we still felt the need to let it recover once in a while. We also had to move the bed under it every night so we could cool off. During the day we didn’t dare open the blinds or turn on the lights for fear of adding to the heat. Going outside was no use. The ambient temperature was above the melting point of human flesh, so we spent a lot of time trapped in a dark, monastic cubicle while the rest of the city was at siesta.

Paseo Sobremonte y el Palacio de Justicia, about to burst into flame.

If you’ve been following this blog, then you may have noticed a recurring theme for the last few weeks. Lea and I had five months of South American travel experience under our belts before crossing the Andes, yet it’s seemed that Argentina has gone out of its way to make things more difficult than they need to be. I’ve felt myself become increasingly irritated with Argentina’s quirks – some small, some bigger – and I’ve tried to keep it in check by reminding myself that I’m the guest here and it’s not my place to criticize another culture.

What is the temperature at which humans broil?

But you know what – after baking for days upon end in the ovens that were Córdoba, Mendoza, and San Rafael, having gone weeks without even a single comfortable piece of furniture to relax on, and having absolutely nothing else of interest to write about this week – here it comes.

My criticism may be harsh, Argentina, and I’m sorry. So first, here’s a kitten:

Let’s start with something easy: keys. What is up with your keys? They’re enormous. Seriously, they look like something out of a Robin Hood movie where the jailer has a key ring the size of one of Mr. T’s necklaces. The first time we were handed one of your door keys, all the way back in Ushuaia, we thought it was a joke. I wondered if maybe our hostel had a collection of “quaint, antique keys” for kitsch value. But no, almost all the door keys in this country are in this bizarre, oversized style, different from everywhere else we’ve been on the planet.

And the keyholes? Just as bad. They’re twice the size of the key itself, so you practically have to be a locksmith to find the right angle and position to insert the key so it’ll catch the tumblers and open the lock. And then let’s move on to the fact that in most places we’ve had to use the key on both sides of the door. Mostly we’ve stopped bothering to lock our room when we’re inside because if there were ever a fire in the building we’d burn to death before we were able to unlock our own door and escape.

Seriously, Argentina. The art of locksmithery has made many advances in the last two hundred years. Just take a trip to Home Depot and look.

Now let’s talk about clothing. Specifically, the English language T-shirts from decades-old rock bands that everyone seems to wear, or the generic shirts with English slogans. It’s like the people in the U.S. who get tattoos in foreign languages that really mean “toilet bowl” or “insert tab B.” I refuse to believe that eight year old kid I saw attended a Pink Floyd concert in 1972 – in fact, I’m pretty sure his parents weren’t even born yet.

Yes, I’m glad that all those unsold shirts from Spencer’s and Hot Topic have found a home. And I know that as Americans this is surely our fault. Via Goodwill and Salvation Army we export all our castoff clothing to foreign countries. In lots of places, such as Guatemala or Tanzania, this practice is horrible for the local economy – no one can make a living making clothes locally if everyone can just go and buy some American Metallica T-shirt for half the price.

But in those countries the American clothes were being unloaded by the truckfull in giant piles in street bazaars. In Argentina, our old Blondie shirts are being sold in trendy and/or goth fashion outlets. Wouldn’t some of you like to own T-shirts with logos in Spanish? Hell, if you had those, I might even buy a few. God knows I need cooler clothing now that we’re moving away from the Andes.

The statue of your great hero will liquefy in the heat in 3… 2… 1…

Which brings me to the heat, and the management thereof. Northern Argentina is hot. It’s Louisiana hot. It’s South Texas hot. It may not be Australia hot, but with climate change you guys are on the way. I know that electricity has become expensive what with Argentina’s recent economic problems, so I understand the need to cut back on power usage. It’s an admirable trait to be able to tighten that belt and live with the higher temperatures. I doubt us ‘Mericans would be able to do that – we’ll push the planet into full Greenhouse Gas Hell just to keep our A/C set to 68.

Iglesia Compania de Jesus, with – look closely – FANS.

However, there is a technology that may help mitigate the hellish conditions inside your homes, stores, and offices – the fan. Ceiling fans, box fans, rotating swivel fans – like modern door keys, the technology has been around for a while. I know you know about it, Argentina, because I’ve seen them in your cathedrals. I just haven’t seen them anywhere else. (Not true – when we got to Buenos Aires, the place we rented finally came with a floor fan. It also came with roaches, but that’s another story.)

Fans draw an awful lot less power than an air conditioner and can do wonders in a stuffy restaurant or hotel room. They are sacred objects, but it’s perfectly okay to put them in your hostels. They’re great for siesta.

An afternoon starry night in the Basilica de Santo Domingo.

Speaking of siesta… love it, guys. I think the siesta is the greatest single invention of the Spanish world, aside from possibly the tortilla (which South America scorns for no reason I can fathom). Like the tortilla, I wish the United States would culturally appropriate the siesta into our daily lives. A nap for adults? Brilliant!

But there’s got to be moderation. For example, there were a lot of museums we wanted to visit in Córdoba. Unfortunately many of them were only open from 10:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., and then from 6:00 to 8:00 at night. Guys, if your siesta lasts for five hours? It’s not a siesta any more. It’s just being closed.

Art in the Faro Museo Emilio Caraffa, which apparently needed a really long nap.

Which wouldn’t be so bad if your restaurants didn’t keep the same hours as your museums. That’s not cool, Argentina. Some of us get hungry, especially after we’ve been siesta-ing for five hours in a dark, sweaty hostel room with nowhere else to go. Also, some of us have to get up in the morning, either to catch a bus or pick up a rental car or to go to one of your museums that only stays open until lunchtime.

Argentinian restaurants seem to come in three flavors: brunch places that stay open until 1:00 or 2:00, dinner restaurants that don’t open until 8:00 or 9:00 at night, and fast-food burger and hot dog joints that are the only things open in the afternoon and early evening. Thanks to these screwy hours, we’ve eaten more Burger King and street panchos lately than we ever did back in the U.S.

We’re old folks. We want to eat at 6:00, 7:00 at the latest, so we can go home and digest before going to bed at a reasonable hour. I understand that in Argentina, a “reasonable hour” is a lot later than we’re used to in our culture. I’d like to accept that, but riddle me this – if everything happens so much later in the evening in Argentina, then why is hotel checkout still at 10:00 in the morning? Hmm?

The Argentinian foot-long, or “pancho.”

On the topic of food – you guys are good. I admit it. I’ll preach it. I’ve told every Argentinian I’ve had a conversation with that I love the food in your country. The wine, the meat – you guys are absolute magicians when it comes to grilling. I don’t know how you do it. It’s not like you drown your steaks in sauce or dry rubs. Somehow, with just meat and fire, you achieve a heavenly perfection that makes me weep for the poor, deprived soul of every Vegan I know back home.

Another Argentinian staple, the “Alfajor” – upscale cousin of the moon-pie.

But guys… you need more fiber. You need a lot more fiber. TMI, I’ve been suffering physical pain due to your lack of fiber. To be honest this isn’t an Argentinian problem, it’s a South American problem. The reason I’m taking you guys to task is because unlike those other countries you guys know how to cook. Therefore, you should know better. There’s more to life than meat, white bread, and sweets. Just sayin’.

One last thing before I go:

Sliced lunchmeat is never a pizza topping. Look at that picture above and you can almost forget everything I said about what good cooks you are. What is that?? That’s an abomination, I tell you. And you’ve got so many Italians living here I don’t know how you get away with this. I know you can make good pizza. Our friend Paula in Trevelin made excellent pizza. Then we go to a grocery store and see the likes of this on display.

No. Just no. I don’t even have time to get into the whitebread sandwiches with the crusts cut off. That thing pictured above? That’s just wrong.

You cut the crusts off? What… What… What… Why?!

Okay, I know I’ve violated every single rule of travel writing, cultural understanding, and not displaying ugly American snobbery in this article. I’ve been hot, tired, and sore from interminable bus rides, and am just a little drunk on the fine Cuban rum you guys have readily available. (You don’t know how lucky you are for that.) The trip through Argentina hasn’t been easy and I’ve started to fray at the edges.

Iglesia de los Capuchinos in full Technicolor at sunset.

I’m typing this from a 7th-floor apartment in Buenos Aires, the “Paris of South America.” I’ve never been to Paris, so I’m not one to judge if it lives up to its moniker. I will try to relax and open my mind back up while we’re here. I’ll let you all know how that goes next Monday.

Ciao Ciao.

Driving Mendoza

So we made it to summer. After spending a month and a half in Patagonia and wondering where all the heat went, we packed up our cold-weather gear, shipped it back to the U.S., and took a hellacious long bus ride to San Rafael in Argentina’s scorching hot Mendoza Province. Google describes the Mendoza region as “semi-arid” to which I have to reply “Who are you kidding?” Granted it has rained a few times, but it’s so hot that all moisture bakes right off the ground and back into the air.

We also put my “We should have rented a car” hypothesis to the test – scientifically! We took two similar trips to canyons with lots of neat geology. One was by a tour company and the other was on our own via a rental car and self-determination. How’d it turn out? Let’s compare:

That long, windin’ road.

San Rafael – Atuel Canyon

The Atuel Canyon is a river gorge just south of San Rafael. It is dammed at several points for use as both a reservoir and hydrothermal power for the surrounding area. It’s also a popular spot for camping, kayaking, and white-water rafting (more on that in a bit).

We booked a day trip with a local company who picked us up at our hostel early Sunday morning. For some reason, we always end up being among the first on the bus, which lets us pick our seats but also means we get to wake up earlier and bump our way around town while the tour group picks up everyone else. After the whole crew is rounded up, the tour bus heads off along semi-paved roads for the head of the canyon, stopping along the way at an overlook at what I think was the highest point in the area – a hill with miles of featureless scrubland as far as the eye can see.

A hydroelectric dam where they actually let us out of the bus.

We took photos – or “fotitos” as our guide insisted on calling them – and, after wasting twenty minutes or so, got back on the road. Our next stop was a twenty minute layover at the dam for the reservoir – the “largest reservoir in Mendoza Province!” and then a short ride to lunch in the little village of Nihuil.

I’m going to go on record as stating that Nihuil is the ugliest little town in all of South America. It’s basically one restaurant that the tour groups dump people at, a bunch of shacks, and the Argentinian equivalent of a KOA campground. And we stayed there for an hour and a half. While most of our group made use of the restaurant, Lea and I had packed our own sandwiches. The heat was pretty oppressive, so I went looking for a tienda selling cold drinks. The few ramshackle shops I could locate had nothing to offer but beer and Red Bull. I’ve been in plenty of small, poor towns in the world, but this was the first one outside the U.S. where I was surprised I didn’t stumble across a meth lab.

The trick was taking pictures around the smudges on the window.

It was well into the afternoon when we finally began the descent into the canyon proper. The Atuel Canyon is full of stunning features. It’s a smorgasbord for geologists. We’d asked the agency if the tour would stop for us to look at all the geological formations, and technically it did – we just couldn’t get out of the bus. Instead, we got to enjoy them through heavily tinted and scratched windows. The bus only stopped at a handful of pull-offs where the geology wasn’t the most fascinating but where people had set up tables of souvenirs.

The high point of the trip was when we reached the bottom of the gorge past all the hydroelectric plants and into the section of the river used by the general public. For a modest additional fee, we could throw on our swim trunks and go white-water rafting. “Ya pays your money and ya takes yer chances,” a wise man once said. We did.

Valle Grande. It’s a lot less placid downstream.

Unfortunately we don’t have any pictures to record this event. I wish I’d had a camera if only to capture the look on our rafting guide’s face when we told him I only spoke English. He sent us to another guide for basic paddling instructions – “adelante” for forward, “atrás” for back, and “alto” for stop. Combined with “derecha” for right and “izquierda” for left, I had all the Spanish I’d need to follow orders. And off we went.

These were lowly Class II rapids in the stretch of water we braved, but I’m pretty sure our captain steered us into a few of them at an angle designed for maximum turbulence. I nearly got thrown out of the boat twice and one other person actually did get ejected. She seemed to enjoy it a lot more than I would have. We passed many campgrounds full of bemused bystanders who I’m sure were laughing at us and thinking “There but for the grace of God go I.” I enjoyed the experience enough that I’ll happily do it again, though I’d be more comfortable if I actually spoke the same language as my steersman.

The canyon really was amazing.

That would have been a perfect end to the day – except it wasn’t. Instead of taking us back to San Rafael, our tour insisted on tacking on one more stop, this to a farm where they dry fruit, make preserves, and bottle wine. Frankly at that part of the day I couldn’t have cared less. I just wandered around with the group, tried to look like I was interested, and marked time until the ride to our apartment. We were very, very late getting back.

San Agustín – Ischigualasto Provincial Park

Just a few hours up the road from San Rafael is the city of Mendoza itself. We stayed one night, picked up a Chevrolet Joy from Cactus Rent-a-Car, and after a brief struggle trying to figure out how to lock the doors we were on our way. It was a five hour drive through trackless arid scrubland to the village of San Agustín del Valle Fértil, but by doing it on our own we could stop for a break whenever we wanted, control our own air conditioning, and have actual elbow room. We also got to create our own side-trip by pulling off at the shrine to Difunta Correa, an unofficial but popular Argentinian saint.

Difunta Correa.

The legend is that the Difunta Correa was a woman whose husband was drafted into the Argentinian army and later became ill. His wife took their baby and tried to find her husband but died in the wild when her supplies ran out. Her body was found days later with her still-living infant miraculously nursing at her breast. There are roadside shrines to her all over the country, but the site of her burial outside of San Juan is the mother-load of all roadside shrines. People leave her bottles of water, snacks, and other supplies she could have used in the desert in 1840.

Shrines, or housing for desert gnomes?

It was also insanely hot. After hours and hours of driving on our own, we made it to San Agustín, checked in to our hotel, and ate goat. The next day we drove another hour north to Ischigualasto Park, where instead of riding with a tour group you take your own car in a caravan led by a park ranger. We stopped at sites of actual geological interest, including the site of a dinosaur dig, and made our own way out at our own pace and speed. After a brief stop at a YPF station for lunch, we were on our way back to Mendoza.

WWWOOOWWW
An alien landscape?
And that would be an actual dinosaur.

An aside here about YPF Stations: YPF is the main gas station chain in Argentina, and we’ve come to appreciate them as a company even though we haven’t been using them for gas. They consistently have comfortable, air-conditioned cafes when nothing else is open and we need a place to sit down and relax. In our layover in Comodoro Rivadavia, our day walking around Bariloche, and in Mendoza itself, the local YPF proved a comfortable refuge from the conditions outside.

Not Mars.
Still not Mars.
I swear, not Mars.

Renting a car ended up being a lot more work on our end, what with driving a ten hour round trip, but it gave us freedom and comfort that we’ve never had with packaged day tours. In hindsight, after the way our next few days in Mendoza went, we should’ve kept the car for longer.

Us v. Argentina: The Saga Continues

We originally considered skipping Mendoza, but someone we talked to convinced us otherwise. We should have gone with our original instinct. Mendoza is the heart of Argentina’s wine country but the city itself is blazing hot with little to offer.

To have chopped-up goat delivered to your table on a bed of charcoal, you have to drive five hours north.

Plus, it was hard on us to come straight to this region from frigid Patagonia with no transition in-between. It would have helped if more places in Mendoza had functioning A/C, but… It was okay where we stayed the first night and at our hotel in San Agustin, but when we came back to Mendoza we got a room in an older hotel with tiny, tiny A/C units that simply weren’t up to the task. In our first room, it barely worked at all – we ended up moving the bed across so that what little air there was blew directly on us. We had the hotel move us to a different room the next day, which was better, but even there the A/C unit would freeze up and die if we ran it for more than a few hours at a time.

Despite our reluctance to come back to a hot room, we just had to leave the poor machine turned off to recover while we ambled around town looking for places to eat and other things to do. In this, also, Mendoza frustrated us. While the hotel was waiting for our new room to be ready, we took our car back and decided to walk to a few art museums. Both that we wanted to go to were closed for renovation. The next day we wanted to find a vegetarian restaurant for lunch and go to the science museum. It took us about twelve blocks to find a restaurant that was actually open, and the bus line to the science museum didn’t seem to run on Saturday. We made it, but only after sweating our weight in bottled water.

The art museum in Plaza Independencia. It’s closed.

On Sunday we wanted to drink ourselves silly in Mendoza’s wine district before hopping on our night bus to Córdoba, but the company that runs the hop-on hop-off wine tasting buses closed before we got to their one office on Saturday, so we opted to make our own way to the Kaiken Bodega via the cost-effective municipal bus system, RedBus.

Brothers and Sisters, let me tell you about RedBus.

With the exception of Santiago, all the city bus systems we used on the West Coast were cash-based. In Argentina, the buses run on card systems like many metro systems in the U.S. The card system used in Mendoza is called RedBus. There is a RedBus kiosk at the main bus station so we bought a card (after a brief skirmish with people cutting in line ahead of us) and made a wild guess as to how much money we would need to load on it.

Our guess was spot-on. When we got back to the bus terminal with our luggage on Sunday morning, there were only 6 pesos left on the card – 1/3 of a ride. We stashed our bags at luggage storage then went looking for a place to load enough money on the card to get us to the winery and back.

So of course, the RedBus kiosk at the main bus station was closed. Apparently it’s only open from Monday – Friday from 8:30 to 4:30. Why would it need to be open more than that? After a few well-directed words of frustration we moved on to plan B – add money to the card at a kiosk somewhere in town. We’d seen several convenience stores in central Mendoza with “Carga RedBus” signs, we just needed to find one somewhere near our bus route. The RedBus website has a map of vendors, but it turns out that map is hopelessly out of date.

To make it worse, on a Sunday only about a fifth of the shops are open at all. We wandered several streets in the climbing heat asking at every place we came to if we could charge our RedBus card. Even at the shops with “Carga RedBus” signs, however, the answer was No.

It turns out that on Sunday, in all of southeastern Mendoza, there is one guy with a stall on Rioja and Catamarca who, beginning at 12:30, will Carga RedBus. We loaded 300 pesos on the card just in time to catch the 700 for a fifty minute ride south to Luján de Cuyo, a.k.a. Wine Central. From there Google suggested there was another bus that would take us to the Kaiken winery, but we got sick of waiting for it and grabbed a taxi instead. We got to the winery just after 2:00 p.m. We asked the taxi to pick us up when they closed at 5:00.

Nectar of the Gods.

Why Kaiken? We’d picked up a bottle of their Malbec in Punta Arenas, Chile, and loved it – but strangely, could never find it in stores in Argentina. It turns out that the owner of the winery is Chilean himself and that Kaiken exports 90% of their wines outside the country. We knocked on the door, told the guard that no, we didn’t have a reservation, then signed up for the Four-Wine tasting… and added two more wines to the list, then bought a bottle of their Merlot all for our very own and drank it at a picnic table under a tree on the premises.

¿Vale la pena? It’s a close call, but yes – drinking for three hours in the shade on a hot Sunday afternoon at the Kaiken Bodega was well worth the effort of getting there.

Too bad our cab never showed up. Lea walked (I staggered) out of the bodega just before five, but our taxi never came. In hopes of finding a bus, we started the long, hot trek down the gravel road back toward Luján de Cuyo. We stopped at paradas in the hopes that a bus or taxi would pass us on the way, but no – we ended up walking four kilometers to get back to the bus stop where we were just in time to catch the express back to Mendoza.

(We didn’t realize how far it was until I looked it up on Google Maps just now – we only knew that it was hot and it took forever.)

So that’s my tale, O Dwellers of the Frozen North. (Seriously, I see that Atlanta is closing down for snow?) We sweltered for a few more hours and took the 10:00 night bus to Córdoba. The bus, my friends, was air-conditioned.

P.S. My Book-of-the-Country for Argentina

My pick for Argentina was Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges. This is the first of my selections from my “Reading Around South America” project that I can’t honestly recommend. A few of his stories, yes – most of them, no. Borges was a 20th Century Argentinian literary icon, but his style is too remote and didactic to be enjoyable. Many of his plots are nonexistent, and others are just thin frameworks to hang long-winded philosophical treatises on. One of his favorite tricks is to write literary criticism on authors who never existed. Much of the time I had the feeling that he was making some sort of clever joke that, not being one of the Argentinian intelligentsia from the 1940s, I just couldn’t get.

Of Borges’s stories, I would recommend “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” which introduced me to Borges in The Big Book of Science Fiction and is included here, as well as “The Library of Babel,” “The Secret Miracle,” and “Three Versions of Judas.” My full review is over at Goodreads.

In San Rafael there is actually a hedge-labyrinth designed in Borges’s honor that you can visit and get lost in. (Labyrinths feature prominently in a lot of the author’s work.) We thought about going there, but in the end it was more important that we take a day off. We’re never going to see everything in South America, and Borges is never going to be one of my favorite authors.

Hours, Miles, and Centuries From Anywhere

The panic set in on our second night in Los Antiguos. We’d just come back from a needlessly long expedition to the Cave of Hands. The following day was the start of the thirtieth annual Cherry Festival (the only thing that ever happens in Los Antiguos) and since all the rooms were booked we would be moving to the neighboring town of Perito Moreno. There we had a reservation for two nights in an apartment and a day trip to the Marble Caves.

Anyhow, with our next major transit three days away, I crawled through our hotel’s painfully narrow Internet connection to check on buses from Perito Moreno to Esquel. The last time I’d looked, just days before, there were plenty of seats remaining.

A few searches online confirmed that the bus was now sold out.

I’m not ashamed to admit it – I freaked.

Perito Moreno is on Route 40, the north-south backpackers’ road along the Argentinian side of the Andes. For the most part, the Taqsa/Marga bus company has a monopoly on this route, and they only run one bus per day. Fun fact: the towns of Los Antiguos and Perito Moreno are the most remote places in all of Argentina. They are the furthest human settlements from any others in the entire country.

For want of some cherries, our bus seats were lost.

Getting into Los Antiguos and Perito Moreno had been tricky due to the timing of the Cherry Festival, but we hadn’t anticipated that leaving before the festival would be a problem. What we hadn’t factored in was all the pass-through traffic – travelers coming up from El Calafate and heading toward Bariloche without stopping in between.

The plan had been to take a bus on January 11 to Esquel, where we would be met by Lisa’s friend Paula. We would stay with Paula for a night, let Lisa stay with her friend for two more days, and head on our own to El Bolsón. From El Bolsón we would be out of the Taqsa/Marga bottleneck and have many options to get us to our next destination.

That plan being shot to hell, we quickly came up with Option B – spend an extra night in Perito Moreno if possible, cancel our reservation in El Bolsón, and travel up to meet Paula on the 12th. The trouble with this was that we had no idea if there were any rooms left in Perito Moreno – we knew for a fact that Los Antiguos was full. Before worrying about lodging, though, it was vital to grab three of the last remaining bus tickets on the 12th.

I selected our seats online and was all set to buy them, when… Dum Dum DUMMM …the Internet went out. Fine, I could still use the data on my phone, right? Nope, the data connection was gone. Oh well, we’d head to the bus station first thing in the morning. We did that, but the bus station’s Internet was out. The guy at the Taqsa counter called ahead to the Perito Moreno office and had them jot down our names, but it felt as if we were on thin ice. We went back to the one restaurant in town with WiFi in the hopes of getting online while the Cherry Festival slowly took shape around us. I got on the WiFi but… no Internet.

The Internet had gone out in the entire town. Lea asked and was told this was a common occurrence, and that it could be out for a day or more at a time.

Our eventual destination of Trevelin – would we ever make it?

We’d hoped to look around the Cherry Festival (which seemed no different from any other weekend street market) but instead went back to the bus terminal for the first afternoon ride to Perito Moreno, where hopefully we’d have connectivity and be able to book something. Unable to cancel our reservations in El Bolsón online, we called the place and did so over the phone. Meanwhile Lisa had the idea of talking to the folks at the Andesmar desk about alternate routes and discovered that there was another way to Esquel.

We reached Perito Moreno and found that the Taqsa office – with our supposed call-in reservation – was closed. Not wanting to wait for them to reopen, we spoke to the nice young lady at the La Union counter about Lisa’s alternate route. Oh my stars and garters, that woman was so helpful – she got us booked through to Esquel on our original date, the 11th, so we wouldn’t have to scrounge for rooms in Perito Moreno. The only downside was the route we would have to take.

As I’d said, every seat on Route 40 was taken. Bus routes to the coast, however, were still available. To bypass the eight-hour direct drive to Esquel, we would have to get on the 2:00 a.m. La Union bus to Comodoro Rivadavia, lay over there for the morning, then take the afternoon Etap bus inland to Esquel, arriving at 10:00 p.m. I’m sure we looked like zombies when Paula picked us up. Here’s our final route:

Fun times.

It finally occurred to us, after spending twenty hours to detour around a single sold-out bus line that this whole affair would have been easier if we’d just rented a damn car. I even searched for car rental agencies in Los Antiguos and Perito Moreno, but those towns have no tourist infrastructure to speak of. We’d have had to pick up a one-way rental back in El Calafate and dropped it off in Bariloche, or even Mendoza. We didn’t know then, but I’m telling you now – don’t rely on bus service for anything along Route 40. Rent a car.

I started thinking about the benefits of car rental the afternoon before this all started on our trip to Cueva de los Manos (the Cave of Hands). The Cave of Hands (more of an overhang than a cave) is the site of some fantastic, brightly-colored art dating back as far as 9,000 years. We really wanted to go, but the tour company sites and reviews on TripAdvisor talked about a 5km trek down into the canyon to see them, without being clear as to whether it was 5km one-way or round-trip. We did not feel up for that, but we found a company that offered the trip without the hike.

It’s amazing how these paintings haven’t faded.

Our guide that day wasn’t very clear about the itinerary, where we were, or what we were doing, and at one point had everyone get off the bus for a “short trek” down a salt flat without explaining where the trek would end – was this the death march to the canyon that we’d opted out of? Apparently not – it was just a salt flat they added to the tour to pad the time.

Our guide also promised us “free bathrooms” – as in behind a rock.

It turns out that you can just drive right up to the park entrance and take a guided tour along the canyon wall to see the paintings – total walking distance less than a kilometer. All the hyperbole about long treks and other stops and lunch being included and yadda yadda yadda… It just shows the problem with these tour company day trips. They take what should be a quick, half-day excursion and pad it out so that they can charge more for the time and make it worth the company’s while.

A gorgeous canyon I’m glad not to have hiked.

This particular tour was one that, if we’d had a car, we could have done ourselves in four or five hours. Instead we spent the whole day on an uncomfortable, bouncy tour bus. The tour would have added even one more stop on the way back to town, had it not started snowing.

That’s right, folks. It snowed on us in the middle of summer.

The next trip we probably couldn’t have done on our own. We were picked up from our Air B&B early in the morning, driven back to Los Antiguos where we joined more fellow travelers, and rode across the border into Chile – a long way into Chile – to visit Las Capillas de Mármol, the Marble Chapels (or Marble Caves) on Lake General Carrera. The caves are erosion features into a marble formation that date back to the end of the last glaciation and the formation of the lake, about 6,200 years ago (making them younger than the cave paintings). They can only be viewed from the water, and only if the lake is low enough and the winds aren’t too high.

Chile has everything except paved roads.

As soon as we crossed back into Chile, Lea and I felt a million times better. Just across the border is the village of Chile Chico which, while smaller than Los Antiguos, is obviously geared up for the tourist trade in ways that its Argentinian counterpart is not. We didn’t stop there, but we did in Puerto Guadal when our 4×4 had engine trouble. While our driver made a brief stop at an auto repair, the rest of us got to raid a Chilean grocery store. This was an unexpected bonus that let us buy more bottles of our favorite Carménère and several packages of Tuareg coconut cookies.

The boats for the caves leave from Puerto Río Tranquilo, a solid four hour drive on dirt roads from the Chilean border to the far end of the lake. Our boat in particular felt like it was barely large enough to be seaworthy. Lea asked our guide how strong the winds have to be before they cancel the tours and he said fifteen knots. The wind that afternoon was thirteen knots. The ride was wet and bumpy.

And worth it:

Our fellow excursionistos had a bus to catch in Los Antiguos, so our driver hauled ass to get them to the station in time. From there we had another driver take us back to our Air B&B, waited around a little while, then left at 1:00 a.m. to hike to the bus terminal for our 2:00 a.m. departure.

We were ready for a break. We were so very, very glad for Lisa’s friend Paula, and Paula’s friends Mariana and Nicolás for providing one.

Paula picked us up, bone-weary from buses and excursions, at the station in Esquel and drove us to her home in Trevelin, forty minutes or so back towards the Andes. We camped in her living room, we slept late, we washed clothes and hung them to dry in her backyard, we played with all her beautiful stray cats. For three days we didn’t make a single decision or arrangement. We just went where Paula took us and ate what she cooked us. Homemade pasta, bread, pizza – it was all fantastic.

Myself, Lisa, Paula, Nicolás, Lea, and Mariana. You’ll note that my glass is already empty.

We went to Nicolás and Mariana’s house for a good old-fashioned Argentinian cook-out with sausage, pork, chicken, steak, and lots and lots of Malbec. I got somewhat drunk. (Side note: In situations with freely flowing non-beer alcohol, I tend to get drunk first and sober up first. I’m an early adopter.) While still fuzzy, I may have assembled their daughter’s telescope, complained about its lack of a viewfinder, and showed everyone the craters on the moon. Because I’m a particularly nerdy drunk.

The kittens were worn out too.

The following day we were promised a boat trip and picnic on the lake. (They didn’t say which lake, but I’m guessing that’s because the name of it is Futalaufquen and not even Argentinians can pronounce that.) Lea and I thought it would be some kind of public boat ride, but no… Nicolás and Mariana own an actual sailboat. They and friends of theirs (with another sailboat) sailed us about an hour from the public boat launch to a beach that’s only accessible by water, where we spent the whole afternoon snacking on leftovers from the previous night’s cook-out and drinking five or six more bottles of wine. There was barely any light out when we pulled back in to the dock.

Now *this* is a day trip.

The next day we slept late, borrowed Mariana’s car, and Paula drove us (and Mariana) to El Bolsón, the hippie capital of Argentina. (We also picked up a puppy and took it to Paula’s sister, but this post is running long already.) We got ice cream and beer in El Bolsón, then caught the last bus out to Bariloche. (Full name: San Carlos de Bariloche, but who wants to say all that?)

This was all last Monday, and lacking time, physical stamina, emotional fortitude, and an Internet connection, I chose to take a week off from the blog. We spent the next few days in Bariloche not doing much but walking and riding around town. These were our last days with Lisa – she had a flight to Buenos Aires on Thursday – and our last days among the Andes, Patagonia, and the Lake District. It was another tourist trap town, but a good place to end this phase of our journey.

Lago Nahuel Huapi has to be one of the most beautiful lakes in Andes. We took the teleférico to the top of Cerro Otto for the full view (including rotating restaurant and hot chocolates with cognac) then rode the city bus west for an hour to the entrance to the National Park, where we ate sandwiches and drank wine on the lakeshore while soaking in the Andean air.

By now we’ve moved north and away from the mountains into the part of Argentina that actually experiences Summer. More on that next week. First, I’ll just recap a few life-lessons:

  • Book everything along Route 40 well in advance. Do not make assumptions about lodging or transportation, nor about having access to the Internet. Assume the worst and plan accordingly.
  • Cross the border and stay in Chile Chico, not Los Antiguos or Perito Moreno. I’m sorry, but the towns on the Argentinian side simply do not have the infrastructure to handle any level of tourism, much less the flood they seem to get around the Cherry Festival. Just from a glance, it’s obvious that Chile Chico is much more well equipped. It’s only drawback is that it’s hard to get to from Chile; you almost have to come in from Argentina.
  • Rent a damn car. Seriously. It’ll make so many things easier along Route 40 if you have your own transportation and don’t rely on Taqsa/Marga to get where you need to go. With a car you can also take your sightseeing into your own hands and cut out some of the annoyances associated with day-trip tour companies.

That’s all for now, true believers. Next week we trade the majestic Andes for really big holes in the ground.

Patagonia On Ice

The Perito Moreno Glacier, in the southern end of Argentina’s huge Los Glaciares National Park, is one of the few glaciers in the world that is advancing instead of receding. The massive sheet of ice pours slowly out of the Andes into Lago Argentino, forming at its end a solid wall over three miles wide and taller than a twenty-story building. You can take a boat up to either the north or south face of the glacier, or watch it from a series of trails and viewing platforms where you can feel the ice-cold wind blowing off its surface and listen to the thunderous noise as blocks of ice the size of houses break off and crash into the lake.

We went twice.

A year of summer – that’s what we told ourselves when we left the United States in August. We flew straight to the tropics and as the northern hemisphere slid into autumn we traveled south into a second spring and then, of course, another summer.

We weren’t completely delusional. We knew that Patagonia was going to be frigid and arranged to have cold-weather clothing shipped to us in Chile. What we didn’t anticipate was that aside from a few warm islands here and there, the trip was going to be chilly all the way down the West Coast, that our “year of summer” was going to be dominated by the high altitude of the Andes and oceanic currents from Antarctica, and that the prolonged hours of sunlight weren’t going to do much at all to warm us up.

Oh well. We’ve been assured that once we get into northern Argentina, summer heat will become a sweaty reality. Until then, we still have several weeks to appreciate the harsh steppes of the South.

The launch point for trips to Los Glaciares is the little town of El Calafate. It’s not the kind of place where one generally spends a week, but we did. Ushuaia was too expensive – and boring – and El Calafate was the best place to rendezvous with Lea’s sister Lisa who will be spending the next two weeks traveling with us!

Me, Lea, and Lisa – not dressed for summer.

Staying in El Calafate for longer than normal gave us the chance to scope out tours and excursion options in advance while, as I said earlier, seeing the Perito Moreno glacier twice – something we haven’t been able to do with any other point of interest along this trip.

The glacial blue of Lago Argentino.

Other things to do around El Calafate: We visited the town’s amazing Argentine Toy Museum, with its huge collection of toys from around the world from 1870 to 1970. We visited the Laguna Nimez Bird Sanctuary right on the edge of town. We had unlimited drinks for 25 minutes in the Yeti Ice Bar, where the temperature inside is a balmy -17⁰C. We hiked into some windy, sandy desert formations 100 kilometers outside of town to see a petrified forest. Oh, and we Zip-Lined down the eastern face of Cerro Frias.

Email subscribers, click here for that video.

El Calafate is a town of expensive hotels and cheap backpacker hostels, with nothing in between. Since we were staying for a whole week, we went for cheap – especially since the backpacker place afforded us the use of a kitchen so we wouldn’t have to eat out. It did land us in a dorm-room situation, which we’ve previously endeavored to avoid. We booked an entire room for ourselves to avoid sharing bunks with total strangers, but even so our room in El Calafate wins hands down for the single most cramped accommodation we’ve had.

They call this a room for four people.

That’s a minor quibble next to the main difficulty Argentina has thrown at us this week. Last week I discussed the dearth of bus transportation in Argentinian Patagonia. This week in Round Two of “Us vs. This Country,” the point of contention is Argentina’s ATMs. We budgeted plenty of money to get through Patagonia, but the banks down here are making it annoyingly difficult to gain access to it. From our research we knew this would be a problem, but reading about it and experiencing the reality are two different things.

A long-tailed meadowlark at Laguna Nimez.

Imagine, if you will, that you were operating solely on cash, that the most you could get out of a bank machine at a time was $100, and that you got charged a $10 fee every time you made a withdrawal. To add insult to injury, imagine that the ATM then dispensed your $100 in a giant wad of $2 bills. Imagine paying rent in those conditions. Imagine saving up enough cash for a big purchase. Imagine buying groceries.

The Sci-Fi display at the Toy Museum.

Because of Argentina’s banking laws, the ATMs have very low caps on how much money you can withdraw and very high fees when you do. Compounding the problem is the fact that the ATMs in tourist towns in the middle of nowhere, like El Calafate, are continually short on cash. Rounding out the trifecta of annoying money problems is that Argentina has virtually no coins. Everything is done with paper money, so you end up carrying around thick stacks of bills that are not really worth that much but are difficult to hide without making giant bulges in your pockets.

Felled trees in the Petrified Forest.

We’re lucky that we were able to set up a bank account for this trip that refunds ATM fees – that’s been a life-saver – and also that we’re allowed to take up to three withdrawals a day. It’s annoying that we’ve had to do that. Because the banks here can’t be trusted to have sufficient available cash, the rule has been for us to take money out well in advance if we have an expensive tour or a week of lodging to pay for at once. It’s not fun to have to carry that much money, and it may not be the smartest thing in the world to be advertising that fact on this blog for all the world to see.

Rock formations near the Petrified Forest.

Thankfully 1) no one down here reads English and 2) by the time this is posted we’ll be well out of El Calafate.

Next up: caves, more caves, and… cherries? Stay tuned, dear readers.

Lea and Lisa at the Yeti Ice Bar, still not dressed for summer.

The Train to the End of the World

Ushuaia, nestled between the Beagle Channel and the Martial Mountains, is the southernmost city in the world. A gaudy tourist trap at present, it was originally an Argentinian penal colony. Back in those days, a train ran west from the settlement into what is now Tierra del Fuego National Park. Prisoners would take this train into the wilderness and chop down lumber for the construction of the town.

El Tren del Fin del Mundo.

The last seven kilometers of the old rail line still exist and, like the city itself, has turned into a cheesy tourist attraction – El Tren del Fin del Mundo. For a mere $1200 Argentinian Pesos ($30 USD) you can ride in a cramped passenger car along a narrow, twisty track pulled by an actual steam-driven locomotive from a terminal 8km outside of Ushuaia into the National Park itself. For an extra fee you can have a cheesy photo taken with actors in prison garb.

Inlet to the Beagle Channel.

It’s the most expensive and complicated way to get into the park, but come on – there’s no way we could pass it up. (Except for the cheesy prison photo.) The ride takes an hour to go 7km, putting it at the pace of  leisurely jog. There’s a recorded narration in Spanish, English, and Portuguese, set to – I kid you not – the theme to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Conan the Barbarian.

Laguna Negra and peat bog.

From the platform on the other end, you’re still at least 8km from most of the hiking trails. The easy way to see the rest of the park is to book a tour that takes you to the train station, picks you up at the end of the ride, and drives you around for the rest of the day. The cheapskate way (our way) is to hire a cheap transport company to do the driving and hike on our own with nothing but a poorly detailed and somewhat inaccurate park map as a guide.

Laguna Verde and “Jeez, how far did we walk to get here?”

Tierra del Fuego National Park is a beautiful confluence of mountains, meadows, lakes, rivers, and winds straight from Cape Horn. These were nothing to the gales that blew us over at Torres del Paine, but the hiking was long enough that it made me pine for my crappy old Honda. Eventually we found our way back to the end of the rail line and waited in the rain for the train back to town. And that, it turns out, was an adventure all on its own.

Your intrepid and sometimes befuddled explorers.

“An adventure is something horrible that happens to someone else.”

-Charles Stross, Accelerando

It turns out that the company we hired to do our driving for us was further on the shady side than we’d have liked. (When we mentioned who we were waiting for, an attendant at Tren del Fin del Mundo said, “Ooh, I wouldn’t recommend them.”) But on Friday they took us up to the Martial Glacier and back with no problem, so we booked them for Tierra del Fuego Day as well.

The Martial Glacier. We came, we saw, we said “That’s close enough” and walked back.

They took us out to the train station, but never turned up at the other end. If we’d waited five more minutes (after the twenty we’d already hung around past pickup time) we could have ridden with one of their partner companies, but we hitched a ride with another driver who took pity on us. We were able to find our own company again to take us from the Tierra del Fuego Interpretive Center to the park train platform, but they never showed at the Ushuaia platform to take us back to town. All the other passengers and train station employees had left for the day. We had to contact them several times until they finally sent a driver from a different company to get us.

Customer Complaints at the End of the World.

Half a week in Argentina and our relationship with this country is already a little… antagonistic, shall we say. Part of the problem isn’t Argentina’s fault, it’s just that we’re running into Tourist Season in a part of the world that’s solely comprised of tourist trap islands separated by hundreds and hundreds of kilometers of absolutely nothing else.

Our bus left Punta Arenas at 8:30 a.m. on the day after Christmas and arrived ten long, tedious hours later. Unlike other ten-hour rides we’ve endured, this was at least broken up in spots, first for the ferry ride across the Strait of Magellan and later at the border crossing between Chile and Argentina. Border crossings stress me out, but at least they give you a chance to stretch your legs.

Then we got to Ushuaia and had to climb up an [expletive deleted] mountain. I guess we’ve gotten spoiled. With the exception of Valparaiso, all of the places we stayed in Chile were flat. What little flat land there is in Ushuaia is taken up by the coast road, travel agencies, shopping, and expensive restaurants. The one affordable hostel that wasn’t miles outside of town was still a leg-breaking climb up eight steep blocks from the bus station and it wasn’t close to anything. Laundry, groceries, restaurants, bus tickets – everything we needed required us to repel down the mountain and climb the rock wall back to our room afterward.

Ushuaia. It keeps going up.

Maybe it’s not fair to blame a country for its own geography. You get what you’re born with, fine. But the buses – the buses are a point on which it feels like our travel luck almost ran out and Argentina nearly put us in a bind.

We’ve already had to shift gears in terms of booking rooms. For months we had the luxury of flexibility, the option to extend stays in cities we liked and not lock ourselves into accommodations until shortly before we traveled elsewhere. Because it’s now High Season we’ve had to book our rooms much farther in advance, but we didn’t realize that we had to do the same for our transits. We don’t like buying bus tickets online because so far we’ve always found that there are more, cheaper options available when booking in person at the bus station and paying in cash.

If only we could’ve booked a ride on that.

Ushuaia doesn’t have a bus station. It has a parking lot where buses drop you off and pick you up. Okay. Fine. The bus company offices were several blocks up the street and we already knew that we wanted to leave on Saturday. As soon as we dropped our luggage at the hostel we scaled back down the cliff to make arrangements for the next leg of our journey.

We knew that there were three bus companies that ran into and out of Ushuaia. What we discovered that evening was that two of them only run routes back into Chile. The third company, Marga/Taqsa, is the only bus company that will take you from Argentina to Argentina, and they only run one bus a day out of town. And the bus on Saturday was already full.

[expletive deleted]

This, dear readers, is when I started to panic. Using crampons, pickaxes, and other mountaineering gear, we climbed back to our hostel and prayed to our lord and savior the Internet for a solution. A search of bus websites confirmed what we’d been told – there was no way out of Ushuaia on Saturday unless we stowed away on a cruise ship. We inquired at our hostel about staying an extra night, but no luck there either – they were already booked up. So not only did we have to find out if we could leave Ushuaia on Sunday and get to our next stop in El Calafate, but we also had to find lodging on a weekend in a town that was already booked out.

Monument to the Pioneers and Native Peoples who were also stuck in Ushuaia.

I won’t lie. I’ve got this irrational fear that somewhere along the way we’re going to get stuck sleeping in a bus station. (It’s happened before – we spent a cold night in the Mexico City airport in October 2017 because our layover hotel canceled our reservation.) Thankfully it didn’t happen here. There were a handful of places with beds still available, and we found a room at a hotel that ended up being much nicer than its rating on Booking.com suggested. And we got Sunday bus tickets – twelve hours from Ushuaia to Rio Gallegos, then a layover and another four hour ride to El Calafate, arriving at our next tourist trap at 12:30 in the morning on December 31st. We went ahead and booked our next ride too, an overnight haul to Los Antiguos a week from now, despite the online service fees.

It was a hell of a transit day, but at least we weren’t huddled outside with our luggage in the rain in the town at the End of the World. Ushuaia was such a tourist town that it never really struck me that we’d crossed into another country until we left Tierra del Fuego behind and were riding across the endless pampas. This vast, brown expanse of dry scrub was not pretty during the day, but during the long southern sunset the plain turned to gold as far as we could see.

Twilight on the Pampas.

At last we’ve turned the corner. We’ve traveled as far south as we ever will until we come back for a cruise to the Antarctic. From here the nights will get longer and the days will slowly grow warmer. We’ve come to the other side of the Andes into a whole new world to explore. Four more countries remain, with glaciers, grasslands, beaches, and jungle. A new year starts tomorrow. Who knows what it’s going to bring?

P.S. We miss you, Chile!

One last shout-out to the country that’s been our home for two months, and to Punta Arenas – a much nicer place than Ushuaia. (There, I said it.) Christmas and Christmas Eve were two lazy days spent recovering from our blitz of excursions. (See last week’s article.) However, while drinking Carménère and eating at wonderful Casino buffets are in themselves worthwhile things to do for the holidays, Punta Arenas still had more to offer. On Christmas Eve, we visited an outdoor museum with full-size recreations of Ferdinand Magellan’s Victoria, a very tiny ship to sail around the world, and H.M.S. Beagle, a cruise liner by comparison. You can climb on board and wander around these models, getting a feel for how unimaginably hard life at sea must have been during the Age of Exploration.

Magellan’s Victoria.
Darwin’s Beagle.

On Christmas we went to the cemetery, since it was the only thing open. We weren’t the only ones. The place was packed with tourists looking for something to do!

Graveyard Christmas Tourists.
Graveyard Christmas Angel.

Which, at last, bring us to:

Lea’s Christmas Day Cemetery Flower Macrophotography

The Longest Days of the Year

In planning this trip we plotted out month-by-month which countries we expected to be in, and it worked out that we would probably “turn the corner” at the bottom of the continent sometime in December. It occurred to the astronomer in me that it would be awesome to be as far south as we could on the December 21, the Summer Solstice. So here we are for the holidays in Punta Arenas, Chile’s southernmost city, on the Strait of Magellan itself.

Technically our next stop – Ushuaia, Argentina – is even further south, but only by a hair. Between the two, there’s a lot more to do in Punta Arenas so we decided to spend the time here.

On the topic of “Things To Do,” this last week has been more densely packed with excursions and sightseeing than any other period of time on the trip since the Galapagos. And while we didn’t do any “trekking” (as they call it down here) some of these trips were grueling simply for the sheer amount of time and territory covered.

The plan was to alternate our sightseeing with days for rest in between, but the gods of weather and travel schedules had other ideas. We ended up with five solid days on the road, on the water, and in the air.

Welcome to Patagonia!

Semi-dry dock in Dalcahue.

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Tuesday, December 18 : Chiloe Island Tour from Puerto Montt

Sunrise: 6:13 am | Alarm Clock: 7:00 am | Departure: 8:30 am | Return: 9:00 pm | Sunset: 9:24 pm

Tour Language: Chilean “Spanish.” | Intelligibility: Zero. | Confusion level: Medium-High

We went to Chiloe, the big island that forms the western side of the Gulf of Ancud, because Puerto Montt was intensely dull and we had to go somewhere. The Chiloe tour options either visit the towns and the bays down the island’s east side, or send you on long, arduous hikes through the national parks. We picked a day trip that was a little longer than others but offered both nature and civilization without a lot of exertion. It went to the towns of Chacao, Ancud, Dalcahue, and Castro and stopped at an “Ecological and Mythological Park” outside Ancud that offered a hike through a wooded area sprinkled with carved models of wizards, witches, and monsters from Chiloe folklore.

Sexy!

These included the Trauco, a woodland creature who lures young women with the sheer force of his sexual attraction, and the Furia who inflames the passions of men and drags them off to have her way with them. Other cultures’ mythological systems answer questions such as “How was the world created, why are there seasons, and what happens to us after we die?” Chiloe mythology, on the other hand, seems more focused on the question “Where the hell were you last night?”

It was nice to get away from Puerto Montt and the landscape of Chiloe was pleasant to look at, but there wasn’t much to see in the towns except churches, ships washed up on shore, and houses built on stilts so the tide washes under them.

The tide is low.

Wednesday, December 19: Transit Day from Puerto Montt to Punta Arenas

Alarm Clock: 5:30 am | Sunrise (Puerto Montt): 6:13 am. | Bus to Airport: 7:20 am | Flight Time: 10:50 am | Arrival at Hostel: 2:00 pm | Sunset (Punta Arenas): 10:10 pm

Change in Latitude: 12⁰ Southward | Immediate Increase in Daylight: 2 hours

Puerto Montt and Punta Arenas have this in common: their airports are a long way out of town. The flight took us over stunning glaciers and fjords that we’re going to have to come back someday to see by cruise ship. Punta Arenas is on the Brunswick Peninsula, a barren grassland where the few trees on the plain lean at a steep angle due to the nonstop 20-30 mph wind.

What we missed by skipping a third of the country.

Our hostel is a handful of blocks from the shore and not too far a walk from the center of town if you only make the trip once. We did laps around the city several times on our first day, first to track down travel agencies and groceries, then to eat at a lousy “Chinese” restaurant, and later to walk along the beach – which turned into a trip over to the Casino and back up through the tourist sector in search of new sunglasses. No sunglasses were found, but we did catch a drum circle in full swing.

Thursday, December 20: Torres del Paine

Alarm Clock: 3:30 am | Sunrise: 5:12 am | Pickup for Tour: 5:15 am | Return to Hostel: 9:00 pm | Sunset: 10:10 pm

Tour Language: Spanish & English | Guide’s Knowledge of Geology and Glaciology: Good enough to keep up with Lea | Wind Level: Wizard of Oz

At sixteen hours, the excursion to Torres del Paine National Park is the single longest day trip Lea and I have ever taken. It’s not the most time we’ve spent in a bus without a break; that honor goes to our overnight transits back in Peru, but it was an awful lot of butt-in-seat time on unpaved roads once we got to the park itself. The park is… Holy crap, guys, just look:

Pictures can only convey half of the experience: namely, the stunning beauty. The other half? The WIND. When we stopped for our first view of Torres del Paine’s iconic skyline, I stepped out with my trusty tripod and the intention to weigh it down with a backpack full of heavy lenses to keep it from shaking. All that weight wouldn’t even stop it from blowing over. I asked our guide Manuel if the wind was going to be that bad all through the park. He gave me a look, then answered that he didn’t want to say because it could change so quickly. I understand now that that look he gave me said “Oh, you poor fool. You have no idea what you’re in for.”

Once we passed the rangers’ station, we turned west for a look at Grey Lake and its accompanying glacier. This involved walking across a suspension bridge over a river in the middle of a gale, then struggling across a sandy beach toward the lake face-first into a frigid, hurricane-level blast.

Think I’m exaggerating? The Internet tells me that gusts in Torres del Paine have been known to reach 110mph. I’m a Gulf Coast boy who once drove through a tropical storm on my way to work without even realizing it, so I’m no wimp when it comes to wind. This was nearly intolerable. My backpack acted like a sail and almost pulled me off my feet a few times. I never made it far enough to see the glacier; I had to turn back for the shelter of the van.

¿Vale la pena? Oh, hell yes. The cloudy morning turned into a clear blue afternoon, the best possible conditions to see one of the most beautiful parks in the world. I only wish I could have held my camera still to get better pictures of the icebergs on the lake. My next chance for that is a couple of weeks away in Argentina.

Friday, December 21 – Summer Solstice! – Magellanic Penguins on Magdalena Island

Sunrise: 5:12 am | Alarm Clock: Not a chance | Check-in at Dock: 1:30 pm | Ferry Departure: 2:00 pm | Return: 5:00 pm | Sunset: 10:10 pm

Tour Language: Spanish & English | Guide Involvement: Negligible | Penguin Cuteness: Extreme

Originally we meant to take the Torres del Paine tour on the Solstice, but were persuaded to do it the day before due to the weather forecast (which was a good choice). After such a long trip we meant this for a day of rest, but the Penguin Problem wouldn’t let it be so. The penguin colony on Magdalena Island was one of our pillars – like the Nazca Lines or Machu Picchu, it was a place we absolutely had to visit. Unfortunately, getting there turned out to be harder than we were lead to believe during the planning phase.

That’s a lot of penguins.

It used to be that there was a public ferry out to the island that ran in the morning and the afternoon unless the weather was bad. All you had to do was buy your ticket and get to the dock. It seems that the company that ran that service stopped doing so – the last date listed on their website was December 3 of this year. That left the other tour companies and consolidators, and the tours were filling up quickly.

We wanted to wait until Sunday or Monday, and because the weather here tends to be worse in the morning we wanted to go in the afternoon. It turned out that we could have one or the other, but not both. The company we used for Torres del Paine had slots open for Friday afternoon, but we had to decide before 11:00 am if we wanted to go. The other company that had monopolized a lot of the tours had an opening on Sunday, but at 6:30 in the morning. After checking one or two more places and having no better options, we chose to forego our afternoon off and see the penguins immediately.

SO CUTE.

The ferry took a little over an hour to get to the island and about ten more minutes to pull up onto the beach. There was a roped path for humans to walk, but the thousands upon thousands of Magellanic penguins don’t care. There were many breeding couples with fuzzy offspring, many right next to the trail. Some of the birds gave out warning calls that tourists were approaching, but while they didn’t hang out on the walking path they didn’t run away either. The hike around the island was forty-five minutes, the first part in mild but stinging rain and the second in open sunlight.

While this was our shortest excursion we would take this week, it was also the most expensive. To get that close to penguins in the wild and be able to spend so much time around them was definitely worth it.

Saturday, December 22: Tierra del Fuego and King Penguin Park

Sunrise: 5:13 am | Alarm Clock: 6:00 am | Pickup for Tour: 7:15 8:00 am | Return to Hostel: 8:00 pm | Sunset: 10:11 pm

Tour Language: English | Guide’s English: So-So | Confusion Level: Moderate | Penguins: Kingly

For the first time in our five months in South America, the tour company we were waiting on arrived early! Unfortunately, this meant they caught us in the middle of breakfast and we had to ask them to come back after picking up the other passengers, who turned out to be an irritating herd of Italians. From Punta Arenas we took a two-hour ferry across to Tierra del Fuego Island while the guide explained some of the history of what we were going to see – mostly pertaining to the Selk’nam people, a group of Native Americans who were quite literally hunted to extinction in order to protect the local sheep farms.

Memorial to the Selk’nam.

The ferry across to the island only ran in the morning, so we were going to have to take the long way around to get home. About five tour groups were running the same route that day, so the operators got together and worked out who would go where in what order before disembarking the ferry. This meant our tour got rearranged slightly, giving us an early lunch before visiting the local history museum and the small Selk’nam memorial park. The main draw for this trip, and the only reason we signed up for it, was the visit to the King Penguin colony on the island.

A royal audience.

King Penguins are the second largest species (after the Emperors in Antarctica) and are identified by the yellow and orange markings on their chest and head. According to our guide the Kings fled Torres del Paine five hundred years ago. This small colony returned to the area in 2010 and set up camp on private property, which the owners turned into a conservation park. Unlike on Magdalena Island you can’t get close to the penguins, but you can view them from two “duck blinds” set up far enough away that the penguins aren’t disturbed by the tourists.

The royal family.

Once again the winds were ferocious, but the birds were beautiful. We got to spend an hour watching them before the interminably long drive back.

A royal holiday at the beach.

And that’s about it for Chile. Christmas will be our last full day in the country. I want to give a shout-out to Turismo Selknam, the travel agency who took care of us in Punta Arenas, and Hostal Doña Irma, the wonderful, homey place we stayed.

We entered on October 30 and will be leaving on December 26, the most time we’ll probably spend in any one country on this trip. Having been through Chile from top to bottom, we wish that we had spent less time in the North and more in the South – and also that we’d won some lottery tickets so we could have taken that fjord cruise. In scoping out retirement possibilities, Santiago is definitely on the list of possibilities with its modern big-city atmosphere and easy access to the Lake District.

The country is so skinny that I’ve had to break the map up into sections to show any detail about our travel. My next report will be from East of the Andes.

Ciao for now, and Feliz Navidad!

The long, long sunset in Punta Arenas.

Sleepless In Valdivia

You gotta love insomnia. We stayed three nights in a pleasant, secluded neighborhood in the (almost) seaside town of Valdivia. For two of those nights in a row I barely slept at all. We went from Valdivia to the absolute dump of a city that is Puerto Montt and I finally managed to nod off. Part of the insomnia was due to hard beds and biting cold. We’ve hit the region of Chile that’s chilly and wet all the time and none of the rooms we’ve found are heated. Sure, they’ll layer five heavy blankets on the bed, but that doesn’t help the rest of the time. At least our hostel in Puerto Montt keeps a fire going in the kitchen.

Tick.  Tock.  Tick.  Tock.

A big part of what kept me up, though, is that we’ve hit a stage in the journey where we have to invest a lot more energy and stress into planning ahead and that’s prompted me to start thinking about our lives once this saga is over. It’s become harder to figure out the basics of housing and transportation in our short-term future (given that we’re heading into tourist season and things are booking up more quickly).  That’s got my mind churning about the long-term future as well, dwelling on the difficulties of returning to the States and resuming our lives in whatever form they take.

Colored tile is in style in Valdivia.

How hard will it be to find jobs and an apartment? What unseen problems are going to crop up while trying to reestablish our lives? Will I eventually be able to make money from my writing, or will I have to go back to management and customer service? Will our cat even remember us? That’s a lot of uncertainty to process at 3:00 in the morning when the cold is causing condensation from my breath to build up on the inside of my C-PAP mask, which is also lovely.

Anyway, one positive thought to emerge from my middle-of-the-night ruminations was the decision to assemble and publish an anthology of my short stories that saw print during Phase One of my writing career (2008-2015) while I push forward on Phase Two. Next summer, dear readers, I expect you all to buy copies of The Unwinding House and Other Stories. Here endeth the sales pitch – for now.

On with the tourism!

Valdivia

Valdivia is a city just one or two river-bends from the Pacific. It’s here that the Lake District wears its German heritage on its sleeve. Many place names and businesses are German, as are the family names in the cemeteries. If I were a beer geek I would happily have tried the local German-style brews and compared them to the real thing, but unfortunately I can’t stand the stuff. Lea and I did, however, sample the local German cuisine.

Crudos. Because it’s too much trouble to cook meat.
Kuchen. This one is merely dry pound cake under a thin layer of raspberry.

The German food that’s popular in southern Chile isn’t the sausage and sauerkraut that I was expecting. Instead it’s kuchen, a word used for pie, cake, and cobbler that don’t resemble any German pastries I’ve ever seen, and crudos – or “raw” – which is the specialty of Das Haus 1959, Valdivia’s premier German eatery. Crudos is a thin layer of beef tartar spread over toast (see above). Lea enjoyed it, but my digestive system is firmly against raw red meat so I had to pass.

After four months of travel, Lea and I have become jaded toward the normal tourist stops. A museum of ancient artifacts? Sure, I guess. A collection of colonial Spanish art? If we have to. Ruins? Oh, please, no more. The first question we have of any place we visit now is, “What do you have that we haven’t seen yet? Is there anything original or unique?

Valdivia provides in the most German way possible – with a U-boat! Behold the Chilean naval submarine O’Brien:

Permission to come aboard, Cap’n?

The O’Brien was in active service from 1976 to 2005 and is now permanently docked in Valdivia as a museum. Tours run once an hour in both Spanish and English. Inside, the sub is amazingly cramped and endlessly fascinating. That 75 sailors lived on board for 50 days at a time is almost unimaginable, and to think that I’ve complained about the size of some of our hostel rooms. On the O’Brien I couldn’t even stand up straight without banging my hardhat.

The steering wheel.
The engine room.

Other sights in Valdivia include a Foucault’s Pendulum on the riverwalk, a lovely botanical garden on the UACh campus, and the nearby Parque Saval which features a sculpture garden and a pond full of lotus plants currently in bloom. On our last day we took a bus in the rain out to the Fuerte de Niebla, the old Spanish fort overlooking the Pacific and the mouth of Valdivia’s river. After that we took our final inter-city bus ride down the west side of the continent.

Blooms at Parque Saval.

Puerto Montt

There’s no nice way to say this – Puerto Montt is ugly. Puerto Montt is so ugly that if I were to take a picture of it, my camera would turn to stone. Puerto Montt is the port that marks the end of the Lake District and the beginning of Chilean Patagonia – channels, fjords, and inaccessible glaciers. We looked really hard at taking one of the cruises that sails from Puerto Montt and explores that region, but the cost and timing were both prohibitive.

However, there’s still stuff to do. Puerto Montt is just south of Lake Llanquihue and another of Chile’s most active volcanos, Volcán Osorno. We took a day trip to visit the lake, the volano, another lake (Todos Los Santos) from which several volcanos are visible, and the glacial blue Petrohue Falls. Before we leave Puerto Montt we’ll take another day trip south to Chiloe Island, but more on that next week.

Volcan Osorno from Lago Todos Los Santos.
Osorno and Puntiagudo from Petrohue.
The Falls at Petrohue.

It feels really weird to be typing this, but we’re almost at the halfway point. Months ago in Ecuador, in order to show “proof of onward travel” at border crossings, we booked a flight for December 19 from Puerto Montt down to Punta Arenas in Tierra del Fuego. That fixed date has always looked so far away, but now it’s upon us. Back then we also booked our accommodations for Christmas week, thinking all the places to stay might fill up before we got there. Beyond that we hadn’t planned much until recently.

Now, though, January has turned into a logistical nightmare. As I said earlier, we’re coming into High Season for tourism in the vast, barren wasteland that is Argentinian Patagonia. We’re going to cross from Punta Arenas to Ushuaia, then north to see the glacier at El Calafate and the Marble Caves near Los Antiguos. The trouble is that those towns are packed out already, especially Los Antiguos which is having its annual Cherry Festival during the time we wanted to be there. There are no rooms available at all during the festival, so we’ve had to work our plans to get there ahead of it and still, barely, have a place to stay.

The rare bird that will hold still for a photo.

The great news is that in a few weeks Lea’s sister Lisa is coming to travel with us! Lisa is a travel pro who’s lived overseas, been on five continents, speaks multiple languages, has a degree in International Communications, and knows people everywhere. We’re really looking forward to sharing the road for a while.

Which reminds me… If any of you folks fancy taking a vacation south of the equator this spring, let us know and we’ll see if our paths can cross!

Into the Lake District – Tourist Mode: Reactivate!

After pretending to be city dwellers for two weeks in Santiago, it was time to hit the road. We squeezed back into our backpacks and hopped on a grueling nine-hour bus ride to the city of Temuco, the gateway into Chile’s Lake District, which RoughGuides.com describes as “a region of lush farmland, dense forest, snow capped volcanoes and deep, clear lakes.” Gone were the arid, skin-cracking deserts we’d spent most of our time in since leaving Ecuador. Here there are actual forests and – believe it or not – rain.

Sunset on Lake Calafquén.

When we got off the bus, we were tired and sore. Apparently we’ve lost the knack of long-haul bus travel, although even the shorter rides in this region are bone-crunchingly bumpy. Also, for the first time since our odyssey began, it was hard to figure out how to get to the next town. The major bus websites in Chile are shockingly barren of routes to Pucón and Coñaripe, the lakeside tourist towns we were aiming at next. In the end we reasoned that the vast majority of  tourists who come to this area drive on their own. We did at last find the local collectivo buses that service the tourist towns, much to the chagrin of our lower spines. If the rides weren’t short, my teeth might have rattled out of my skull.

This is Pucón cake. You see why we had to get there.

Temuco

Temuco itself isn’t much of a destination. As we were told by people who live there, its only tourist business is from those passing through on their way to the lakes. Nevertheless it has a good museum of the Mapuche people, who were the last indigenous culture to hold out against the Spanish, and a lovely nature preserve (i.e., a forested mountain) right in the middle of town that, being in need of exercise and greenery, we climbed.

Just another city… with trees!

We came into Temuco on the second day of the “Teleton,” Chile’s annual charity drive. There were performances linked to the Teleton right in Temuco’s central park, but for some reason nearly every shop and restaurant was closed, even though it was Saturday night. On the next day there was some sort of celebration around the local fútbol team, which involved lots of people chanting, driving around, making noise, and nearly setting themselves on fire.

Go team! Score points! Don’t combust!

Coñaripe

To begin our week of excursions, we bypassed the tourist hub of Pucón to go straight to the tiny village of Coñaripe. Tiny, as in the whole pueblo is about seven blocks long and three wide, only the main street is paved, and at least one public utility (water, electric, gas) went out every night we stayed there. We did score a spacious and very comfortable guest house and, despite our first inclement weather in a long while, enjoyed the sunset over Lago Calafquén.

The sun did come out to light up the hillside.

The reason for going to Coñaripe was to visit Termas Geometricas, billed as the classiest of all the hot springs in the region. It had been a long time since Termas Papallacta in Ecuador, and our muscles needed  a good, warm soak.

Steamy.

Termas Geometricas is a series of seventeen (give or take) heated pools that snake up a narrow river gorge into the Villarrica National Park. There are tours from the larger towns of Villarrica and Pucón, but on those you waste most of your time in transit and only get to spend two hours or so at the pools. By hiring a driver in Coñaripe, we were able to get to the termas soon after they opened and spend most of the day relaxing.

Which was all fun and games until we dared, dared! to eat a bag of Doritos. While it was clear that no one was allowed to eat in the pool area, there was nothing to indicate that we weren’t allowed to bring food from outside at all. It put a crimp into our afternoon to be told we weren’t allowed to snack while sitting right next to people who were eating food from the overpriced on-site restaurant. The staff chewing us out took a while to explain exactly what we were doing wrong. At first, all they said was “You’re not allowed to eat” while the people next to us were happily munching away.

In the end, we had to take our lunch out to the parking lot. Oh well; that’s what cranky travel blogs and TripAdvisor reviews are for: customer feedback.

Pucón

The tourist hub of the area is on the other side of the national park from Coñaripe, nestled between the shore of Lago Villarrica and Volcán Villarrica, the giant active volcano looming over the city with a steady stream of superheated water vapor puffing out of the top. Villarrica is one of Chile’s most active volcanoes, but that’s okay – it hasn’t had a major eruption since 2015.

Nope, nothing to worry about.

The trouble with Pucón is that its tourist industry is all based around “adventure tourism” – kayaking, white-water rafting, biking, climbing to the top of the volcano, etc. We wanted to see the sights, but not if we had to hike ten kilometers uphill.

So I’m going to give a shout-out to Viajar en Chile, the fantastic travel agency we used for all of our excursions around Pucón. The great thing about Viajar en Chile is that they actually run their own tours. Before now, almost every tour company we’ve dealt with was a “consolidator” that sold seats on other agencies’ tours when they couldn’t fill enough of their own. As such, no matter who we booked a trip with, we were never really sure which company was going to take us. With Viajar en Chile, that’s never an issue. If you book with them, you travel with them.

Which leads to another nice thing about Viajar – they offer different tour options than the other agencies in town. Walk down the main street of Pucón and the trips listed on all the billboards are exactly the same: climb the volcano, tour the region, go kayaking, go fishing. With Viajar we got to do things that weren’t on the generic Lake District menu, and we didn’t have to keep pace with a bunch of twenty-year-old German athletes who run up and down mountains every day before breakfast.

Sunset from the volcano.

On the day we arrived, we were able to schedule a tour to the base of the volcano (meaning the point halfway up where the ski lift starts). All the agencies in town offer tours to the base, but only Viajar has a sunset tour, complete with hors d’oeuvres, Chilean beer, and pisco sours. From that far up the mountain, you can see four of the nearest lakes and several other volcanoes. Once it gets dark, and if it’s a clear night (it was) you can see all the stars of the southern sky and, as an added bonus, the volcano’s glow.

That’s not actually fire and/or lava. (Aaawwww…) It’s the water vapor cloud that you can see during the day, which at night reflects the light of the lava in the volcano’s crater. After four pisco sours (our guide Paulo kept pouring and pouring) it really didn’t matter. It was just pretty. 

I’ll reiterate what I said last week: Chile is driving us to drink.

The Milky Way with volcano.

Next we took an all-day tour of the local area. This one visited the rapids at Saltos de Marimán, the waterfalls at Ojos del Caburgua, the beach at Lago Caburgua, and Termas Peumayen. The most fantastic of these was the Ojos del Caburgua – four waterfalls pour into an azure pool from all sides. Trails and miradors let you view it from every angle, and cool air blows upward from the glacial water – a relief on an otherwise blistering summer day.

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Your humble travelers at Ojos del Caburgua.
Lago Caburgua. Before swimming, you should know that all that water is snowmelt.

After a day of rest (overcast with a high chance of rain) we took one more tour that only Viajar had as an option and that Lea couldn’t pass up under any circumstances. We went into the volcano.

Ready to go. That’s hardened lava she’s standing on.

There are volcanic caves (lava tubes) accessible at a private park on the side of the mountain. These are quite different from the limestone caves most people have toured at one time or another. We had hoped to visit lava tunnels in the Galapagos, but there they were closed due to venting of toxic gases from the volcano on Isabella. These caves were safe at the moment, so we jumped at the opportunity. It was cold as a knife both on the mountain and inside, but well worth the trip.

A lava tube overhead.
The way through.
The way out.

Next on our tour of the Lake District we’ll be heading into German-settled Valdivia and Puerto Montt before hopping on a plane and flying to the ends of the earth. Will there be bratwurst? Stay tuned!