Monday, March 29, 2010

Mas y Mas

Still playing catch up here:

From Ushuaia, at the very bottom of Argentina we took a bus North and West to El Calafate. The route crossed through Chile for about two hours, and included a 45 minute ferry ride. Stunning scenery all around, so it seemed a shame to be sleeping, but we had not slept the night before, so there was little choice. The bus left at 5 in the morning, so we figured it' be easier, and cheaper just to stay up, and not pay for another night in the hostel. So we went to the casino. Doub won 80 pesos. Cap lost 100. i stood watch and sipped bourbon.

The main attraction of El Calafate is the Perito Merino glacier. At one point, we'd seen 4 different Patagonian glaciers in the space of about 10 days, but this was by far the most impressive. It was a massive, jagged wall of black and blue ice. Black from all the earth it picks up as it rolls down out of the mountains; translucent blue in the center where the ice is most dense. The contrasting colors, the ice, the verdant mountains on either side, the lake water a sublimely tropical color, and to top it all off, a rainbow struck across the blue and white sky combine to create a somewhat pleasing scene.

Next was Puerto Natales, about 6 hours south and into Chile. This is the most convenient jumping off point for journeys into Torres del Paine National Park. This park is all about grandeur. If Tierra del Fuego is small and sublime, Torres is enormous and untamed. Untamed, save for the 3 or 4 refugios strategically placed along the trekking route, where those folks not intrigued by tents can rent a bed and buy a hot meal or three. There are two options for dealing with Torres: the Circuit takes about 10 days, and as the name implies, is a big circle; the W took us 4 days and 3 nights. Again, as the name implies, the route requires climbing up and back down again, then across, up and down. At a rough estimate, we walked 70+ kms in those 4 days.

So I will refrain from describing in detail all the mountains and rivers and forests and glaciers which are standard fare for Patagonian National Parks. Cap and I camped for the first two nights, enjoying fine wine, playing chess and feasting on spicy beans and rice. Like this:

However, the third afternoon of hiking was rudely interrupted by gale-force winds and rain. Coming over a ridge, I stopped and with arms spread wide, laughed into the wind. A gust arose immediately, briefly loosening the agreement I keep with gravity, and suggesting that maybe I humble myself in the face of Nature and just hug a tree for a minute.

We arrived at the refugio/campground soaked to the bone. Dripping and dirty. We told ourselves we would wait an hour before pitching the tent, just to see if the rain let up. So we sat in the lobby, uncomfortable as can be, picturing ourselves setting up the tent in a puddle, then attempting to cook, and imagining ourselves pulling on the same soaking wet clothes in the ice-cold morning. Then I learned that the refugio accepts credit cards, and suddenly things were looking up. Suddenly we had beds, a heater to dry our gear, a hot shower, and a bar with a spectacular view, looking out over the lake.

We were sitting in said bar with our fantastic new friends, Tom and Hannah, from the South of England, when there was a clatter against the back of the building, followed by some scraping on the roof, and then, ahh there it is, a mostly set up tent flying away some 100 ft in the air, wafting and drifting in the merciless wind until finding respite under water, 200 meters off shore. It was only moments later that a young man and girl came running around the side of the building waving their arms in the air, eventually settling with their hands on their heads in complete disbelief. After witnessing this, and later hearing stories about rats who chewed through tents to gain access to peoples trail mix, we were happy to think of the egregious price of one nights lodging as money saved.

Thus we passed a fantastic evening sipping wine and rum, delving into the intricate depths of dental hygiene with Tom and Hannah (Tom is a dentist; Hannah an oral surgeon), getting Hannah riled up about how bad she is at checkers, and generally bemoaning the fact that we were irrevocably trapped in the unbearable midst of a full-on luau. Oh well.

Okay well I'm paying for internet right now, so I'm going to stop. Slowly, surely, we're getting back to real time here. I'll try to continue with my diligent updates. I still need to discuss the NaviMag, Bariloche and El Bolson, the volcano in Pucon, then this past weekend in Santiago and Viña del Mar/Valparaiso. We are at the bus station in Santiago, waiting for our bus to Mendoza. Time for chess, a truly cruel and pointless game that Cap and I have become quite obsessed with ever since we bought that little magnetized travel board in Uyuni, Bolivia.

Seems like a long time ago.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Touch and Go

This is a rare opportunity: free internet and time to spend typing. I'll start where I last left off, somewhere in Argentina. Cordóba, that's right. Cordóba is a college town in north-central Argentina. It manages to exude a laid-back vibe while maintaining its bustle. We spent two days cruising the streets, just trying to get back on campus. We were dead-set on getting a dorm tour, but were unable to find any willing guides, although they appeared to be everywhere. We went bowling in blacklight, throwing neon balls down the lane as fast as we could, since the pins simply had no pop. In such situations, it's all about ballspeed. A group of giggly too-young girls were in the lane next to us, and we fear they spoke more English than we had assumed.

What else, oh: Cappo bought a tie. In the process of reliving our days as mallrats, we wandered into several upscale clothing stores, intending to try on suits, or at least buy some cufflinks. It was only when Cappo saw this golden tie, really gold on gold, hanging from the neck of a window mannequin that we (he) saw something he absolutely had to have. But the salesgentlemen refused to sell it to him. They claimed that to remove the tie from the mannequin was above their paygrade, that they couldn't possibly replace it since they themselves could not tie a tie as neatly as is required for display in their prestigious window. And to be fair, seeing the state of their knots, we could not help but agree.

So anyway, we went back later that night (after bowling; tie shops are open late in Argentina) and spoke with the manager. He had been told the story of the gringos locos who demanded that one tie. We could not have possibly been interested in any other tie, for the gold was truly the only one worth buying, a class act all the way, brilliant with a simple black suit and white shirt. These are articles of clothing Cappo owns, as he continued to admire the mannequin saying, in all ironic seriousness, "I could have that look." So anyway, after battling through the language barrier by placing cashmoney on the table, the manager said that if we came back tomorrow, the tie would be ready for us. Short story longer than it needed to be, Cappo has a stunning new tie. But only after we went back 3 times! It appears to be amatuer hour in the sales department.

So that was Cordóba. Oh, also, we stayed in an American-owned and operated hostel, called The Turning Point, and it was a terrible error. There were long-term residents who felt they owned the place, and were offended by our mere presence in 'their' room. There was a half-assed tourist office whose knowledge of the local bus service was second-rate at best (our outdated Footprint guidebook was more well-informed), and, to top it all off, what really made us furious, was when they promised we could go skydiving, then we waited around the hostel all day, hearing reports of "20 minutes, 20 minutes, the guy will be here". Supposedly he came, but a group of Hawaiians jumped the line by sitting in the doorway, obstructing all entrance and exit, while we made the mistake of being merely in the lobby, and therefore clearly not interested in going. If the day wasted was not infuriating enough, it was made more so when the owners (who had been all buddy-buddy with us) asked us to pay for half-a-days stay. Clever fucks.

So we shorted them and skipped town to Capilla del Monte, three hours North. Capilla is pronounced Capeesha, and is the UFO capital of South America. It is a small town, set at the base of Cerro Unitorico, with a thriving 'mystical tourism' industry. They also boast lots of outdoor adventures (horseback riding, paragliding and the like), and have some of the best fruit available. We consistently feasted on plums and peaches beyond compare. So we went to the UFO museum and managed to transcend the language barrier with the owner-operator, agreeing that all we need is patience, and all will be revealed.

We visited the Pyramide Mysterioso, which turned out to be not so mysterious as we might have hoped. Then we got my aura read. Turns out I'm green and blue and live from my heart, but tend to brood over the scars this heart has accrued. Something about carrying a 'burden of love'. I blame it on the language barrier.

And then we climbed a little mountain. Cerro Unitorico is a nice little cliff they claim requires 4 hours to conquer. I believe it took us two. At the top we lunched on olives and Oreos, polishing off a bottle of Carmenere in the process. Then we ran down. We figure it takes more energy to fight against gravity than to just let it have its way with us. Risk divided by fun to the power of wine equals I broke my camera.

Okay so, after two days in Cordóba, and two more in Capilla, we were finally on our way to Buenos Aires, with promises of steak and dance parties, babes and Boca. We arrived on a rare Friday night when Boca Juniors were playing a home game. Our siesta ran a bit long, so we missed the train of friends we had arranged to meet, but we managed to finagle our way into the game through some nefarious means. Well, actually we still aren't sure.

Clearly gringos, a man sought us out and offered us entrance. He said nothing of tickets. He suggested that we give him 300 pesos for the two of us (regular tickets would have been 280), and that his friend, who happened to be walking up just then, would bring us in. His friend was decked out in Boca gear, so we figured okay, sure, porque no?

We passed the cash, and followed the Boca-clad man. We got in line at a turnstile, and as we got to the front, he gave the guard a look, then pointed at Cap and I. So okay, up we go, climbing nicely spaced stairs way way up, until we found seats at midfield, essentially providing us with the same view as you see on TV. When we first sat down, there was a game in process, just ending as a matter of fact, and we were shocked with the thought that we had misread the gametime, or failed to translate the time change accurately, and had just paid a stupid amount of money to watch 6 minutes of soccer. Oh, nevermind, that was just the junior squad. So we got to watch Boca snatch a draw from the jaws of victory with Estudiantes. 1-1. Boca made several inexcusable errors in the last 5 minutes, failing to clear their lines with any authority, and the Estudiantes fellow took the ball on the half-volley and buried it high to the far post. Brilliant goal, deflated the atmosphere a bit. The Boca fans did manage to sing nearly the whole time though. Really fantastic fan base, jumping up and down in unison to literally shake the stadium.

Then the next night was Paul van Dyke, a DJ most famous in Europe about 10 years ago, but still touring the electronica/trance circuit, pumping up the jams for all the party people in the place to be, and that sort of stuff. So we drank, and danced, got offered drugs, and were constantly disappointed by tension in the music, which was constantly building, but never dropping. They build it up, but refused to let it drop. No lo entiendo.

Great night. Ended at about 8 am with Cappo and me in a yelling match with the elderly owner of our friends apartment building because she refused to let us out. We were locked in, and she was standing there with the key, demanding to know which apartment we had been in. Before letting us even think about answering, she started buzzing the wrong apartment. Then she told her elderly husband to call the police, but he said something incomprehensible and she let us out. Great fun. But seriously, all over Buenos Aires, people get locked into buildings. Our hostel, this apartment, this other apartment, everywhere. Is this not a fire hazard? Are they not creating thousands of death traps? Seems crazy. Nice lady though, just hope we didn't get some random people evicted simply because we wanted to go home and sleep.

And then... and then... umm Oh we flew to Ushuaia on the 3rd of March. Ushuaia is the southernmost city in the world, and the jumping off point for the vast majority of expeditions to the Antarctic. It has the feel of a little ski-town, maintaining a hefty dose of charm despite the fact that it is entirely oriented towards tourists. We stayed at the Freestyle Hostel, and recommend it highly enough to have purchased Tshirts. Hot showers, firm pillows, and a pool table with generous pockets. (Hint: the table is supposed to take pesos, but 25 centavo pieces work just as well). So we took a boatride out around Beagle Canal, saw some penguins, seals and cormorants, a red-and-white striped lighthouse on a lonely island outpost, and were treated to free beer the entire time.

Ellen, I found a quartz rock on a sacred island and pocketed it for you even though they told us not to. It was so obviously yours, it would have been irresponsible not to return it to you.

We spent the next day organizing future travel plans, booking our place on the NaviMag (to be explained later) and buying bus tickets North (nowhere else to go). Cappo and I then climbed up to the glacier that pokes its nose just over a mountain ridge at the top of Ushuaia. There is a chairlift available, but for 20 USDs we decided we could just as easily walk. I don't know why anyone would ever take the lift. You can either sit suspended, getting dragged up over destroyed forest floor at a snails pace, or you can take the path and walk for 20 minutes up a gentle slope, crossing a glacial river through evergreen forest and stunning scenery which you can simply spin around to see, instead of cultivating an unnecessary crick in your neck. Anyway, it was a spectacular stroll, and again, would recommend it highly to anyone who finds themself in Ushuaia.

Tierra del Fuego National Park is the most amazing place I've ever been. Hands down. It requires about a 2 hr busride from Ushuaia, but if you get up early enough, you have time to climb to the top (there is only one peak to climb) and hike some other tamer trails as well. We, of course, were not up early, and starting climbing at 2 in the afternoon. The sign says not to start after noon, so we hustled up, and were the last people on the summit that day. Alone, with a 360 degree view of Beagle Canal, ocean and the town of Ushuaia in one direction, lakes of at least five different blues below mountain ranges as far as the eye could see. We could see Chile, we could see.... everything. And to boot, there was a fox waiting for us at the top. Yeah, a fox. We just sat and looked at each other for about 20 minutes while we ate M&M's. Something profound about a mountaintop fox. I will refer you to Michael Cappo's Facebook photos for evidence of this event. I believe they are in the album named At Least The Maximum.

I have to go now. We are in Santiago, staying at the apartment of a friend we met in the Pampas in Bolivia. She is taking good care of us, and today we are headed to Valparaiso to see how big a party we can be a part of. Okay for now.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Quick One

Today is my birthday. Tengo 24 años. We are in Bariloche, Argentina. We are going to go go-karting and, seeing how the sun has been up for hours now, start drinking (but not necessarily in that order). Our next move is to the idyllic little hippie town of El Bolson, about 130 kms South of here. Then there is a volcano demanding that we conquer it in Pucon, Chile. Then we skip to Santiago (hopefully the roads are okay after los grandes terremotos) for a few days of couch surfing with the dozen or so Chileños we met in Bolivia and told us to come visit. Then Mendoza. Then back to BA. Then a few days seeing what life is like in Montevideo, Uruguay, from where I have a one-way ticket to Bogota. Life is hard...

Monday, March 1, 2010

Overdue Update

Okay so today is March. I've got a solid two weeks of events to describe, but soon the sun will come up and it will be Tuesday, our last day in Buenos Aires. We have been here since Friday morning, and expect to return after our journey down to Ushuaia and back up through Patagonia. However, I will start where I left off.
We spent one day and one night in Potosi.

We arrived at midnight, and Cappo set the alarm early to be sure we'd find a tour of the old mines. This is a place where all the miners are self-employed, selling what they personally find for personal profit. Apparently there were years upon years of tragic working conditions in these mines. With no canaries, the average expected life-span for a miner was 6 months. No kidding. Okay so sure, book the tour, no problem. We shared breakfast and bad coffee with another English-speaking individual who was going on the same tour.

Time to go, we stash our bags and go to the door, and what do you know, they left without us. There could not have been more than four people booked on this tour, and we were two of them, and boom, gone. The dude we ate breakfast with apparently neglected to mention that not everyone was there. We grabbed a cab and tried to catch up, but that was a wild goose chase, so we wandered through the market for a while, and watched a woman slapping the severed head of a boar with a dull knife. I politely asked for a picture, having practiced my sentence in Spanish with Cap first. But she said no, so we went back to the hostel and demanded to redirect our funds toward tickets on the next bus moving South out of town. It was at this time that Cappo traded his pop-fiction novel for L. Ron Hubbard's classic original, Dianetics.

To top things off, the clever guy at the desk who 'helped' us book the tour sent us to the wrong side of town to catch our bus. Luckily, we were still operating on Bolivian time (which is simply Bolivian time, except when it's not), so being 45 minutes late for our bus was no problem, right on time.

This bus brought us to Uyuni, a mostly nondescript town with lots of hostels and pizzerias, but the jumping off point for multi day tours of the salt flats and surrounding areas. Before attending dinner with 4 gorgeous Chileñas we encountered in our hostel, we booked a three day round trip tour. This basically meant 3 days sitting in the way-backseat of a Toyota LandCruiser, watching spectacular landscapes slide by. This area of southwestern Bolivia is otherworldly. The salt flats act as a mirror for the sky, and it is nearly impossible to distinguish between earth and horizon. The mountains in the distance appeared to float on air. We captured some miraculous photos of us levitating. Observe:

We found a hostel on the side of a mountain, and thank goodness they had many bottles of wine available for sale. Unfortunately, this was Bolivian wine. It seems that, regardless of proximity, there is no substantial import market for Argentinian or Chilean wines in Bolivia. Truly tragic, and acidic, and overripe, and, ugh... But yeah, so we played drinking games with some boring British girls, end of story. Got up to see the sunrise. Words fail. Two days followed, full of multicolored lakes and stunning mountainous landscapes. Our driver owned two tapes, one of painfully dull, repetitive calypso music, which was heavy on the pan-flute, and one of ancient American disco. Both of these were fine the first time around, but once the repeats got into the double digits, we started to go a little stir-crazy. Eventually it was revealed that he also had a tape adapter which could play an ipod. Ben Harper helped us home.

Back in Uyuni, we hopped a bus bound for the border. Villazon is on the Bolivian side; Jujuy is in Argentina. There is a fifteen minute walk from the Bolivian bus station to the bridge which is the border. It took us four hours to cross this bridge (it was Saturday), but it seems we might have got across much faster if we had been a bit more bold. There were people cutting the line left and right, and as soon as the border agents saw our US passports, they expedited the process and shuttled us right through, thrilled to see us. If only we had had the sense to claim we had a flight to catch, we could have cut our wait time in 4. Oh well.

Flavor country! First order of business was to find a steak. We have been eating as much steak as possible, since the state subsidizes it and you can seriously have a top-class steak dinner with wine for 12 dollars. The cuts are excellent, but the preparation, we have found, is amateur at best. They love to cook it brown, so much so that even when we ask for it rare, bloody, very little done, it comes out at least Medium. It is a bit infuriating because there is so much flavor available, and they just destroy it. This is not to say the steak is not delicious, because it is, but these cooks refuse to allow it to achieve its true potential. So anyway, Cap and I have invented a 20-point rating system in order to keep track of how much and how great our steaks are. Our highest score so far is a 15. We maintain the highest of expectations. We can't afford not to.

Salta is a 6 hr bus ride from Jujuy, and there is beautiful scenery to be found in the surrounding areas, but we were on a tight schedule, and were unable to go off for 2 days to look at multicolored mountains and such. These were rather tame days and nights.

Okay I have to sleep now, there is no other choice. After Salta it was Córdoba, then Capilla del Monte, then Buenos Aires. I'll try to cover it all soon as I can. There is a lot to say. Many things happen every day. Life is fun. I may never come back.