Thursday, December 31, 2009

Looking for a place to happen...

Our highly anticipated stay in Mendoza is coming to an end after two weeks and after we've said goodbye to the fantastic year that was 2009.

Our time in Mendoza hasn't quite been what we've expected. The city is so incredibly beautiful and it is easy to waste away many days here, but we both can't help like feeling we're being pushed out due to our string of bad accomodations - first, the dungeon and lack of water at the hostel for the few days. And then, when we were happy to finally get out of the dungeon and into a better room, we met our roommates - the bed bugs! After our initial contact with the blasted little critters, our hostel quite diligently got a fumigator in to dispose of them (they actually weren't in our bed, but in the wall behind the bed). It seemed to work the first night, but after the second night I woke up with a few more bites. Frustrated with the whole situation and the response of the staff, we started looking for another place to stay. Finally, the hostel offered us our remaining two nights in their apartment downtown at the price of what we would have paid at the hostel.

We accepted, knowing we likely had no other options during this busy time of year. I also personally think they should have given us the apartment for free, or at least given our stay at the hostel with some kind of discount, but they refused. The apartment was also nothing to write home about, except to say that it could use a good deep clean.

To escape the hostel and the city, we did venture out of town for one day to a water park in a little town called Cacheuta about an hour away. It was nice to be away from the bustle and driving through the multi-colored Andes once again! The setting for the water park was breathtaking against the pink and green backdrop of the mountains and overlooking a small river below. There were countless pools of all sizes including some thermals (not sure why anyone wants to sit in a hot pool when it's +30 degrees...but they were full!), water slides and fountains. It was a nice way to spend the day - alternating between sun and water - although the park could do with an infusion of beach chairs and lockers.

Water park at Cacheuta

We were sure that all of this rest and relaxation would be needed to get ready for our last night in the city - New Years Eve! Gill returned to town to celebrate with us, and we all were very excited to ring in the New Year - Argentinian style - whatever that meant.

We were severely disappointed. Apparently, we picked the one city in the world that does absolutely NOTHING to ring in the new year! We wandered down to the main city plaza expecting some sort of celebration (at the very least a countdown), and it was the absolute deadest we have ever seen it since being here. We tried a few more streets that are normally busy, nothing. Asked some locals, nothing. All there seemed to be was odd groups of tourists like us, wandering aimlessly.

With only twenty minutes to go until midnight, we wandered back to Gill's hostel, grabbed a bottle of bubbly and headed to the outdoor patio where there was supposed to be a "party". There were 5 other people, a disco ball, and a very intoxicated DJ/bartender who wouldn't play anything but The Clash and Joy Division. It was the best option we had been presented all night, so we made our own fun!

Happy New Year!

After almost a couple of hours under the disco ball we decided to go, given the DJ/bartender was now subjecting us to a bunch of music and videos of his own band. We wandered down the STILL empty streets, trying to find a more happening place, to no avail. We stopped in one more bar with decent music blaring, but again it was empty. We busted out a few more moves, and then gave up and called it a night. It was overall the weirdest New Years Eve we ever had, and could have also been the lamest if it wasn't for our own determination to make it fun, no matter what we did!

Fun for New Years Eve turned into a little sickness for New Years Day! Our last day in Mendoza is being spent watching typical hangover movies and recovering on the couch of our old hostel. Tonight we board a 10 hour bus to our next stop of Alta Gracia, leaving this bug infested city behind for some comfort - we are "splurging" on a nice place for the next couple of nights. Hopefully this will be the end of our "visits" from these little friends.

Happy New Year to all of our friends and family back home! I hope 2010 brings everything you desire, and more. Thank you for being a part of this journey with us...

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

They Like Us!

A week ago, as Pete was perusing the Lonely Planet website for tips on our next destination, he stumbled upon a section called Blogs We Like, in which Lonely Planet posts links from, well...blogs they like! These blogs appear on the pages of specific travel destinations and give readers the opportunity to get some travel advice beyond what the regular Lonely Planet authors provide. It also gives the writers a wider audience and a chance to earn some money for what they post.

Pete submitted this blog address to be considered as a blog they like, and whaddya know, they like us! We received an email yesterday saying: "CONGRATULATIONS! Your blog has been chosen for publication!"

I have no idea if this is actually a bit of an honour or if they give it to any monkey with a keyboard, but what the hell, it can't hurt, right? It isn't going to change where this blog is posted, they will just pull the content right from this page and post it on their site. The only thing that is going to change right now is that you will see Google Ads appearing on this page...the more people that click on them, the more we will get paid for our posts! So, if you have an extra minute in your day, give an Ad a quick click and maybe Pete and I will be able to afford a hostel without bedbugs... =)

Monday, December 28, 2009

Sunny with a chance of poop

Yes, we have had some glorious times on these travels! We have seen some of the most unforgettable sights in this world and experienced things that many people never will. We are having the times of our lives and are always anxious for what each day will bring.

However, there have also been some dark sides in these past four months that we have shielded you from so far. It has not been all sunshine and lollipops, especially as of late.

Examples are below, if you choose to read them and partake in our little bit of misery...

- I got pooped on today by a bird. Not once, but twice. And the problem with having a limited set of clothes is that I just have to endure it until the next laundry day.

- We have effin' bedbug bites. Not sure where we got them from - either from some friends that have them, or from our current hostel. Regardless, our hostel is currently fumagating our rooms and we've been diligently doing everything we are supposed to in order to get rid of them. We don't have them as bad as others we know, but it is still super annoying and I am now slightly paranoid of anything around me.

- Did you know that you can't flush toilet paper down the toilet in South America? For the first few weeks in Bolivia, we were quite concerned with this and even tried to time our bathroom visits around when we would be in a restaurant or elsewhere so that they could deal with our soiled paper instead of us. We now don't care. If our bathroom stinks from a basket full of used paper, then we live with the stink.

We are disgusting. Thankfully, we are going through this together so that we still have each other to love, because I don't think anyone else would have us right now!

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Packing it all into 2009!

For Christmas Eve we decided to partake in this regions most famous export - the wine! With Gill and her sister Ruth finally joining up with Pete, Aafke and I, we booked a winery tour through our hostel. The most common way to do it is via bicycle, there is a 14km stretch just outside of Mendoza that has 10 wineries lining it.

When we arrived at the bike rental location we were very disappointed to learn that of the 10 wineries on the strip, only 2 were open for the day, whereas our hostel had assured us that all would be open even though it was Christmas Eve (later, when complaining to our hostel, we received the option of a 50% discount or the chance to do it again for free....hmmmm....more free wine, please!) Slightly grouchy but still excited for the experience (and of course, the wine!), we picked up our bikes and were on our way.

This tour was not at all what I expected. I had visions of riding our bikes down quaint dirt roads, with olive trees hanging over one side and grape vines over the other. I expected soft Italian classical music to be playing in the background and cartoon birds flying just in front of us to guide us along. Not surprisingly, this perception of mine was shattered within the first few minutes.

We started out on a very busy open road through the town of Maipu. Large delivery trucks barreled past us, honking repeatedly to let us know they were coming (like we couldn't hear them). The traffic weakened a bit as we got further out of town, and we finally became able to escape the heat of the sun as we cycled under large trees that provided some shade on the road. Of course, 1 of the only 2 wineries open was the last one on the map, and so 45 minutes later we arrived at the Carinae bodega.

It was a quaint little family run winery, and after a quick tour we dove into the tasting. This area is known largely for their Malbecs, so we were surprised that we all fell in love with the only white on the menu - the Torrentes. We each loaded a bottle of it into our bike baskets and made our way to the second winery.

Pete, Aafke and Ruth taste testing!

Vina El Cerno
was much bigger and also served an optional lunch. We decided as a group to skip the tour and while our steaks were grilling we again dove right into the tasting! This time, even though the Malbec was tastier, we all also loved the sparkling white and Pete and I picked up another bottle. Finishing lunch at just after 3pm, we headed back to drop off the bikes and get back into Mendoza for the Christmas Eve dinner.

Lining them up at Vina El Cerno

Our wine tasting entourage

In Latin America (and I believe in most parts of Europe), Christmas Eve is a bigger deal then the actual Christmas Day - complete with the big family dinner, gift opening, and even fireworks! Our hostel combined forces with another to offer up a big family style dinner to all of their guests. It was an incredible array of food, all served up on the other hostel's large, beautiful outdoor patio. Cider was provided to cheers at midnight, and we took to the streets to try to see the fireworks that we could hear overhead. In our little group we talked about all the different traditions we would be partaking in if we were all at home, as well as several other topics of conversation that will remain unnamed for your sake (trust me on that one!)

Being the busy day that it was for Christmas Eve, we kept Christmas Day pretty low key. We spent the afternoon enjoying some similar traditions from home - baileys in our coffee and watching National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation! After a marathon Skype session with our families, we got ready for another dinner out with our adopted traveling family. While you all consumed turkey with all the trimmings, we downed enormous steaks, lamb, and even some shrimp. All with copious amounts of wine, of course!

Perhaps a smarter strategy would have been to save the copious amounts of wine for what came next....jumping off the side of a mountain on boxing day!

I have never considered myself a thrill-seeker. I know my limits, I don't even like going on rides at the fair. However, during our four months of travels, Pete and I have become harder to impress. Sights need to be bigger and more spectacular, and our activities need to push our limits just a little more. I felt pretty at ease with the zip-lining that I did just a few days before, so I thought I was ready to step it up one more notch. Pete, Aafke and I signed up for paragliding!

After we committed to booking it, I didn't want us to speak of it until we went. If I thought about it too much, I was sure that I would chicken out. I just wanted to get through the day, show up on the mountain late in the afternoon, and just ...jump!

At 3pm we were picked up from our hostel and taken to the jumping point. The drive was up a very windy and bumpy road on the side of the mountain and Pete and I rode in the open back of the truck. We clutched to the sides of the truck pretty intensely, wondering if it was possible for the actual jump to be as scary as the drive up there. We hoped not!

At the top there were at least a couple of dozen people waiting to jump with their guides. Wings (the parachute thingy that you glide with) were spread out all over the slope, and our driver told us that we would be going after the first round of people. What he didn't tell us was that we would be going after everyone went once, and then three of the guides would have to come back up the mountain to take us.
The gear

This added to the agony of the anticipation! One by one, everyone jumped off around us, as well as some single jumpers that had their own gear. We watched as one guy totally chickened out and refused to jump. We saw one girl get stopped at the edge with her guide as they didn't get the wing up high enough for take off. We waited, and waited.

Also during our wait, we saw one of the single jumpers falling from the sky. She had ridden some thermals so she was up quite high above us, and something must have gone wrong. Her emergency chute had deployed but it was on a weird angle with her wing, so she was falling. It was hard to tell from where we were how fast she was descending, but she was going straight down. Some of the guides that were still left on the mountain were trying to contact her via radio to no avail. Then, she disappeared behind a mountain and we never saw or heard what happened to her. It was a very disturbing thing to see, and of course added to the anxiety of our own impending jumps. But, the jumping continued as a few more people went off ahead of us and finally our three guides arrived to get us ready.

After a brief bit of instruction, Pete, Aafke and I were all geared up and ready for take-off. Again we had to wait a bit, the wind has to be coming in just the right way in order to make the jump. As we knew the time was getting close, the weirdest feeling came over me, I felt completely at peace. I was no longer scared, I just stared down at the edge and was ready to go. Pete and Aafke later said they had the exact same feeling. None of us really ever expected to feel that.

Aafke and Pete all geared up!

Pete went first, and I wish I would have been close enough to him that I could have videoed or even gotten a picture of him taking off. Immediately after taking off, the wing dipped down below the mountain and my heart skipped a little until the wind caught and I saw him lift back up above the mountain. Then Aafke went, and she immediately was caught by the thermals and ended up floating above all of us for most of the time.
Aafke after take-off

Then, it was my turn. "Run, run, run!" shouted the guide and all I could do was put my head down and start running towards the edge of the mountain. He ran behind me pulling at the strings of the wing to make it inflate, and when he turned around and ran with me, I knew that this was it. I ran until the land disappeared from underneath my feet, and we were off! I'm sure that my heart stopped for a few seconds and I was just overcome with what an amazing feeling it was. All I could hear was the rush of the wind, and it was actually very peaceful for the first minute or so.

We had taken off at a different edge then Pete and Aafke, so we turned around to join them. As we circled around the side of the mountain and among the 6 or so total jumpers out there, my nerves started to kick in. We at times got a little too close for comfort with the other jumpers, and a digital tool that the guide used was incessantly beeping. The intensity of the beeps would rise and fall randomly and repeatedly - I wanted to ask what the beeping was for, but I was too scared of the answer. After doing some research afterward I found out that it has to do with the strength of the wind, and nothing to do with the multitude of scary things that were running through my head - like the beeps being a warning that we were too close to the others or that we were too slanted and in danger of losing the air in the wing. I started to let these thoughts get the better of me, and with the memory of seeing that single jumper fall out of the sky, I started to get very nervous.

I also should have never looked directly down. Seeing my feet in perspective of the earth far below me was unnerving! Condors and eagles were also circling far below, which reminded me of how high we were.
That is a loooooong way down!

As nervous and scared as I was, I did manage to keep it together and get some pretty cool pictures as we went (don't forget to check out this link for more pictures: CLICK HERE )

Even though I was one of the last ones to take off, I was the first one on the ground about 20 minutes later. It felt pretty good to have ground under my feet again, and I got to watch (and video!) Aafke and Pete's landings.

I am pretty proud and happy to have done this, but that was IT FOR ME! I'm glad I did it, I did mostly enjoy it, but I won't ever do it again. I have found my extreme sporting limit, (which I am sure will make Mom and Dad very happy). Pete and Aafke however, are now addicted, and are making plans to go skydiving at our next location. I will happily watch from the ground...I am done my little bit of thrill-seeking for 2009 (and perhaps EVER!)

Friday, December 25, 2009

Our kind of Christmas!

A Christmas palm tree!!

I hope everyone is having a wonderful Christmas morning! xo

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

¡Feliz Navidad!

Two days until Navidad is here, and this holiday season is sure shaping up to be a lot different then any one we have had before! This became very apparent to me when I started perusing Facebook statuses of my friends today and had some flashbacks to Christmases past. Here are some examples of the crazy comparisons:

Shawna is FINALLY done wrapping presents!

Brett cold!!

Darby...gotta love Christmas! Gogogo!

and finally, my favourite:

...anyone know how to get Christmas tree scratches off your flat screen?

We have no presents to wrap or unwrap. It is the exact opposite of cold here - +35 degrees today! There is definitely no gogogo, in fact, we have been borderline lazy. And while there is a wee Christmas tree in our hostel, the equally tiny TV should be safe on the far other side of the lounge.

Our first few days in Mendoza were completely lazy, and we loved every minute of it. No need to rush to see sights or to get our next bus ticket. We have two weeks here and thus just enjoyed soaking up the youthful beat of the city for a couple of days. We've strolled through the beautiful streets under the shade of the enormous trees that line it, stopping for coffee or beer at one of the many outdoor cafes and doing some serious people watching. We did a bit of shopping, and even returned to the large city park to enjoy some more time by the lake. We've watched a couple of movies at our hostel and learned a new card game from an Aussie. All the while, we have been enjoying ample quantities of super cheap beer and wine and delicious food!

We also decided to save up some of the tourist activities for when our friends arrived and we could do it all together. Yesterday, our Dutch friend Aafke arrived and after introducing her to some of our favourite sights thus far, we procured tickets to a musical show later in the evening. It was called "Memorias de Navidad", and was comprised of three bands performing different Argentinian musical styles: folkloric, tango and salsa. Even some Christmas carols, but only one that we recognized (Little Drummer Boy). It wasn't quite what we expected (by the poster, I thought it was going to be more of a dance demonstration, I have a ways to go yet with my Spanish), but it was still very enjoyable and we were glad to be doing something somewhat "Christmasy"!

And then chalk today up to experiencing another holiday season activity that is likely different then anything you are doing - Aafke and I went ziplining! Pete decided not to go, declaring this outing a "girls day out"...that's a normal girls outing, right? Screw spa dates and movies, we decided to jump off a mountain and ride a cable for 500ms over a river!

Pete and I had done this once before in Costa Rica, but this was a totally different experience. Instead of flying over treetops in the rainforest, we went over bare hill tops and then back and forth over a large river. The longest cable was 500m (took about 45 seconds to traverse), and was 70m over the ground. It was kind of scary, but mostly just very exhilarating!


Tomorrow the fun will continue! Two more friends showed up today and we are hitting the winery circuit...via bicycle (I hope they have training wheels). And while you are all tucking the kids into bed before Santa comes or wrapping last minute gifts, we'll be partying! Tradition here dictates that Christmas Eve is a bigger deal then Christmas Day, so we will be partaking in our hostel's party that includes a huge buffet and wine to toast when the clock turns to midnight.

Wishing you all the happiest of Christmases!! We will be thinking of you as we eat our steaks instead of turkey and put on our shorts instead of toques...cheers to new traditions! =)

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The holidays during our holiday...

Our last couple of days in Bariloche were filled with chocolate, some more wonderful meals with our new friends, a hike (where we got caught in the rain - joy!), and then more chocolate. Seriously, there had to be at least a couple dozen chocolaterias in that small city, and we tested our fair share. After loading up our packs with even more tasty morsels for the road, we got prepared for another marathon trip, a 17 hour overnight bus ride to Mendoza.

Back onto Ruta 40 northbound we begrudgingly went, but this time it was a breeze. Big and comfy leather seats, Hollywood movies, dinner service consisted of delicious steak and rice, free wine, and even a game of bingo! Our seats were the front row on the top of the double decker bus which allowed us to see some unobstructed beautiful scenery as we drove. We both slept fairly well and when we woke at daybreak, we were ecstatic to find we were back in the land of magnificent palm trees!! Oh, how I missed thee!

Just before 8am yesterday we rolled into the Mendoza bus station and caught a cab to our hostel. We were pleased to even get a hostel (we waited too long to book and it's busy season!), and when I booked it I thought nothing of the fact that they told us all they had left was one room in the basement.

Then we saw it. We are staying in a dungeon, with two tiny little windows letting in very little light. There are two sets of twin bunkbeds which take up most of the room and the floor looks like it hasn't been washed in months. There are four available bathrooms throughout the building, and all of them are in need of a deep clean.

I wanted to cry - this is where we are going to spend Christmas? We checked if any other bedrooms had opened up, but the best they could do is move us into a double room upstairs on Christmas Day. We've tried other hostels to no avail - everything is booked. So, we are stuck.

Yesterday ended up being a pretty low day for Pete and I. We were both tired, bummed out at our living arrangements, and it is the first time in awhile that I have found myself a little homesick. Thankfully, Christmas down here is far different then it is at home - decorations are almost non-existent - if we were surrounded by constant reminders of it, the homesickness might have hit a little earlier and probably harder. But, I expected it to feel it in some form right now, and so there it was.

A good nights sleep allowed us to bounce back today and we had a really wonderful afternoon in this beautiful city! Keeping it low key, we packed a picnic lunch and walked an hour from our hostel until we came to a huge city park complete with many walkways and a lake. We plopped ourselves down in the shade under a massive fern type tree that had little flowers that smelled like lilacs. We laid there for hours - reading, napping and people watching while enjoying the thirty degree weather. This was just what I needed.

Entrance to Parque General San Martin

There is so much to do in this city that we will easily be keeping ourselves busy (and out of our dungeon of a room). We are in wine country after all, and there are over 100 wineries around here to keep us occupied. Friends will be arriving in the next couple of days and we are planning a big fancyish dinner for Christmas Day. We're looking into our options for theater, hiking, even zip lining! It may very well be our best Christmas yet...

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Dirty Dutch Curling

We have met a lot of very interesting people during our travels, and our new Dutch friends Roelof and Lisette are no exception! Together we are all survivors of the Ruta-40-road-trip-from-hell, and we've continued to bond this week over several dinners. Our conversations have ranged from whether Guns 'n' Roses are from Holland (NOT!!) and about the state of the German soccer team.

Curling has also been a regular topic of discussion. The sport is relatively new to the Dutch but is starting to gain some popularity. Roelof, being a TV sports journalist from his home province, did an investigatory report on how to play the sport, and of course - the video clip is available online! <---- Copy and paste this link into your browser and then click on 'Sjoch nei Boppeslach Kafee' in the middle of the page to launch the video. The curling portion starts about 1/2 way through the entire video.

The commentary is not in English, but it is definitely worth watching just for the hilarious music applied as well as some of the English titles. Oh! And the video also includes girls in bikinis playing. Enjoy!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Road Trippin'

We had two options when leaving the small mountain village of El Chalten on Monday for Bariloche: we either 1) backtrack a few hours by bus to the nearest airport and fly, or 2) take the "legendary" Route 40 road trip - 2 days on a bus on the ultimate unbeaten track.

Being the adventurers that we are, we signed up for the road trip. And now, in retrospect, after constantly questioning what the tour operators were thinking when they heralded it "legendary", I believe I have come up with the answer.

I think that the Route 40 trip as advertised is a "legendary joke" among Argentinians. How many gringos estupidos (I don't think you need me to translate that one) can we convince to take this gawd awful bus trip?

Day 1 saw us starting 45 minutes late. Then about an hour later the bus broke down and it took another 45 minutes to get it running again. A few more hours later and we got stuck in mud for 30 minutes. We somehow managed to lose another hour along the way so ended up being on that loud and uncomfortable bus for over 14 hours in total on day 1.

Stuck in mud!!

Day 2 saw us in a more comfortable bus and on mostly more comfortable tarmac. But we barralled down the road without much of a glimpse into some of the seemingly interesting towns that we passed. Another 12 hour day on the road until we finally escaped the bus and could begin to nurse our tired and sore bodies.

Two thirds of the total trip was on rocky dirt road. Only about one tenth of the trip had any kind of scenery worth looking at. Pete and I did not bring much food with us (thinking it would be available along the way!), and we were stuck with gas station empanadas and bananas to tide us over.

It's allllll a part of the grand adventure, right? Whatever. I would like those 2 days back. All over the place we see souvenirs advertising the "Legendary Ruta 40", and I am tempted to pick up a t-shirt and get it personally stenciled at the top with: I survived...

But, we did survive, and we are now in the beautiful Bariloche. Bariloche is almost directly over the Andes from our Chilean stops of Pucon and Puerto Varas, so I expected the same sort of setups and ambiance.

What a difference a big ole mountain range makes! Bariloche is a bustling city, and while it definitely has it's tourist sections, the city has more to offer then it's Chilean counterparts. It finally feels again like we are experiencing something new - it is more authentic, and not all wrapped up in a pretty tourist bow. There is much to enjoy here.

When we finally got checked into our hostel after the marathon bus trek, we joined up with a few fellow gringos estupidos and went for a late dinner (past 10pm!) of glorious wine, steak and veggies. A little late for such a meal, but we all felt like we had deserved it after the hell of the past two days.

Slept in as late as we could but made it down in time for the last 15 minutes of breakfast the next morning. Pete and I did not plan for an adventurous day, but instead ran a couple of errands (including buying tickets for our next bus trip - groan!) and hit one of the not-to-be-missed sights. A 15 minute bus ride out of town landed us at a chairlift to the top of a mountain overlooking the whole area. Wow!! Absolutely breathtaking views of the many islands that dot the large mountain lake the city is situated on.

A few more days to go here and Pete and I decided to enjoy a little pampering this morning. We are in an amazing hostel - not necessarily for its interior beauty - but for it's low cost and the many perks available that we have not gotten at other locations. After our yummy breakfast of crepes and scrambled eggs (included) we just each enjoyed an hour long massage (about $20 each), plus an hour in the jacuzzi just next to our room. And not to mention the view that we get out of our window...
Much more exploring to do before we get back on a bus Friday afternoon for the overnight trip to Mendoza. One of the things on our agenda I am most excited about is taste testing from the many chocolaterias in the area. We are apparently in the chocolate capital of Argentina! We have already visited a couple for the free samples, but have many more to test. It's a tough job, I know.....but, okay.....I'll do it!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Oops! And, welcome to Argentina!

Peter and Dalene, you are the last team to arrive. I'm sorry to tell you, but you have both been eliminated.

Had we actually been trekking as a part of The Amazing Race this morning, we most definitely would have been given the boot.
The day started out pretty perfect - clear blue skies that allowed for some amazing views of the mountain ranges around El Chalten - which is pretty rare for this area. Given the beautiful weather, we decided to trek to Laguna Torre. This lake, at the base of the peak Cerro Torre, is a relatively easy 22km hike round trip and is only worth it when done in clear weather - otherwise Cerro Torre is not visible through the usual dense clouds. We had a good breakfast, stopped at a local store to pick up some sandwiches to go, and we were off. Just outside the south end of town, we picked up a trail and started the hike.

Uphill, uphill, and more uphill for the first hour. Pete's watch showed we had already gained about 300m in elevation which seemed unusual as the map showed it should only be 250m for the entire hike. Ah, the map must be wrong...we thought. We continued.

More uphill and some flat spots for another hour. We thought that we were probably only another 30 minutes from our destination as we knew we were moving at a good pace and would definitely beat the 3 hour time frame suggested by the map. Finally we came to a small meadow and we could see that there was a sign post up ahead. Good! We must be getting close...we thought.

Imagine our surprise when we read the sign that said we were still 4.5 hours from our destination. How could that be, when we had already hiked so far? Then we looked a little closer at our map and it all became clear. While our intended destination was Laguna Torre, we absentmindedly followed the trail to Laguna Toro. We walked about 8-10 kms (round trip) the WRONG WAY!!

Realizing that there was no way we could finish the trail to Laguna Toro and be back before dark, we had no choice but to turn around and head back to town. It was an easy and fast trip down the mostly downhill trail, such that we finished the whole trek in under 3 hours. We were pretty disappointed with ourselves, but it was hard to stay grumpy about it when we got to enjoy such incredible views on the way down.

Knowing that the weather is supposed to turn such that any trek is likely not possible tomorrow, and being that it was only 1pm when we got back to town, Pete decided to continue on and pick up the REAL trail to Laguna Torre. I, however, know my limits, and 30+ kms of walking in one day is beyond them.

Thus, I am back in the hostel to update the blog! There are a few days to catch up on....

We were welcomed into Argentina on Monday with glorious sunshine! After having been deprived of it for so long in southern Chile, it felt good to kick of our hiking shoes and wear sandals once again. After a six hour bus ride over the border from Puerto Natales, we settled into El Calafate for three nights - a small, touristy mountain town similar to the many we visited in Chile.
After a few wrong turns from the bus station (this town apparently doesn't believe in street signs!), we finally found our way to our hostel. Never, in the couple of dozen hostels we have been to by now, have we ever had such amazing helpful and friendly hostel owners. A young couple, Belen and Dario, own and manage the small hostel, and they instantly made us feel at home and offered everything possible to make sure we were comfortable.

We enjoyed a quick nap in our room and then headed out to meet an old friend for dinner. We know Aafke from our stay in Sucre as we shared the same hostel and she also volunteered at √Ďanta. She happened to be in El Calafate at the same time, so it was nice to catch up and swap traveling stories. Turns out that we will likely be running into her again over the next couple of weeks, and she has since also decided to join us in Mendoza for Christmas! It is hard for us to be away from our families at this time of year, but it is nice that we are able to create our own little family in a foreign land.

The following morning we slept in and bummed around town until catching a bus at 2pm to our first Argentinian highlight - the Perito Moreno glacier! It is huge - 30 kms long, 5kms wide, and 60ms high. But what really sets this glacier apart from the many in the Southern Ice Field is that it is constantly advancing, up to 2m a day. It is remarkably accessible, with several kms of trails built so that we could see the glacier from many different angles. We had four hours at the park, and easily passed the time by just watching and listening to the glacier (you can actually hear it moving!) We saw several large ice chunks fall off into the water with amazing sounds accompanying each - from the small bang of a firecracker to large echoing booms. It was an incredibly beautiful afternoon.

We returned to El Calafate and sat down for a late dinner at 9pm, which is actually early by Argentina standards! I have no idea how people in this country stay thin. First of all, dinner is normally served around 10pm. In Chile, it was 8pm, so that took some getting used to - but I think that 10pm is just downright unhealthy! Second of all, MY LORD is the food goooood! They are of course known around the world for their beef, but with a large Italian population they are also quite proud of their pizza and pastas. Pete has decided that he is starting an "all-beef" diet, whereas I choose not to discriminate, and will sample all fares! Both our waist lines are in big trouble.

All that good food late in the evening meant a late rise the next morning. There is very little to do in El Calafate besides visit the glacier, but we had a day to kill and thus decided to spend the afternoon on bicycles exploring the surrounding area, stopping often along the laguna in order to see flamingos and other birds that frequent it. That evening we stayed in for dinner - taking up the offer of our hostel owners to cook for us! They have an operation similar to the one that Pete and I are considering opening should we ever find a good location and opportunity along our travels - Dario is an aspiring chef and wants to expand their hostel to include a small restaurant. We were happy to support them in this quest by eating dinner in. He cooked up an amazing steak (to accommodate Pete's strict new diet) with roasted vegetables - we were not disappointed!

The next morning we were up early for a 3 hour bus ride to our next destination, El Chalten. El Chalten is Argentina's newest town (constructed in 1985) and supports the thousands of visitors a year that come to trek the beautiful mountain range.
Before even getting into the town, our bus pulled in for a quick talk given at the Parque Nacional Center. A brilliant idea, we both thought, as all visitors are then forced to listen to the rules of the park and are also given maps, weather conditions and guidelines on where to go (apparently we should have listened to this part of the speech more!) One of the great things about this park also is that it is FREE to enter - no $75 hikes here! It was just 2pm after we checked in and had some lunch, so we decided to do a quick hike and warm our legs up for the following longer hike that *was* to be the following day. 2.5 hours later and we were up and down a small mountain that gave some great views of the town and surrounding peaks.

If the weather doesn't turn bad, we may try one more hike tomorrow, although we both are admittedly getting a little "outdoor-adventured-out". We could never tire of seeing all of this natural beauty around us, but we are getting tired of all the work it takes to see it! We are both ready to leave the mountaineering behind and dive into more cultural aspects of this country. On Monday we begin a 2 day bus trip to Bariloche, which is the last of these outdoorsy type destinations before we hit the city of Mendoza for Christmas.

Here is a map of Argentina, and a rough idea of our route and some of the major stops along the way: El Calafate, El Chalten (not shown), Bariloche, Mendoza, Cordoba, Salta, Iguazu Falls and Buenos Aries.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Wrapping up Chile!

Monday morning we received our third passport stamp of our South American tour as we crossed the border into Argentina!

We have high expectations of this large country. Most of the travelers that we have met on our journey list Argentina as one of their favourite countries visited. We plan on spending a lot of time covering this country - maybe even sitting still somewhere for awhile, just to enjoy...sitting still.

But, before we get to our plans for Argentina, we both felt that we need to wrap up our 38 day experience in Chile. What better way to do it then via top 5 lists?

Top 5 things we lovvvved about Chile
1. Desserts!! Seriously. While their food leaves a lot to be desired (see below in the top 5 things about Chile we did not love), they know how to cook some kick ass tortas (cakes). So many times, Pete and I were ready to forego dinner and head straight for the dessert menu.
2. The variety of scenery. This country is 2,600 miles long and thus it offers an everchanging array of things to see: tropical beaches, mountain ski resorts, volcanoes, desert, rainforest, glaciers, etc. It has it all!
3. Penguins! I know other countries have penguins, but it was our #1 favourite thing we saw in Chile so it had to make the list.
4. The island of Chiloe was easily our favourite spot in the whole country. Removed from the mainland, it held a culture all of it's own that was so enjoyable to explore.
5. The ease of which we traveled. Every bus was on time, every hostel was exactly what it said it would be. Never once did we feel stressed about our next step, never once did we feel uncomfortable or scared of the situation we were in. It is a very modern country that caters well to it's tourism industry.

Top 5 things we didn't like about Chile
1. The food. Coming from Bolivia where some of our favourite foods were scarce, we had big expectations. And big disappointments. Their food is so uninspired, our favourite meals where the ones that Pete cooked himself. Should have stuck with just eating desserts.
2. Chilean Spanish. Actually, one Chilean even told us this: "We don't speak Spanish, we speak Chileno." We both feel that our Spanish progressed very little, and perhaps even slipped backwards as we now have to get rid of the slangy Chilean we've picked up.
3. If you asked me right now,
what is significant about Chilean culture? , I couldn't answer. Nothing stands out as being uniquely Chilean. And almost everywhere we've been, we felt like we had been there before. The entire country felt just like North America in Spanish.
4. The weather. Okay, it's probably not appropriate to pin the blame for this on the actual country, but I'm going to anyways. South of Santiago, it's been almost nothing but rain, wind, and even some snow. We are only just across the border into Argentina and I have finally been able to wear my sandals again! Hallelujiah!
5. It's effin' expensive. Not expensive by North American or European standards, but still pretty pricey compared to the other countries down here.

All this being said, we did have some tremendous experiences in Chile, but we are so ready to dive into Argentina. As we crossed the border on Monday morning, the roads went from tarmac back to the dirt and gravel that we grew used to in Bolivia. For some ridiculous reason, this made me extremely happy. I took the dirt road as being symbolic for greater adventure as we move away from the clean and orderly Chile. We are ready to be wowed with all that this country has to offer: supposedly the best beef in the world (we'll be judging vs. Alberta!), wine country (where we'll be spending Christmas!) and learning to tango, baby!

As we were checking into our hostel yesterday, our exceptionally gracious hostess was commenting on how much we were going to love Argentina, and even added: "Especially for you guys, because we LOVE Canadians here!"

I can't even count the number of times we have heard that statement from people we have met from all over the world. I have never been more proud of my heritage as I have been in the past few months as people constantly tell us how extremely nice we are as a "people". This is a far cry from some other cultures that we have heard of who lie to hide their nationality unless it is absolutely necessary to divulge.

We are wearing the maple leaf sewn on our backpacks proudly. And we hope we are continuing to uphold the glorious perception the world has of our country!

Kinda cool!
Contestants for The Amazing Race 16 have recently been spotted racing around central Chile and Argentina. We missed them by only a few days at one of our spots in Chile, but one of our new friends caught up with them in Bariloche. She actually helped the "mom" team with one of the challenges (and also apparently tried to jump on the end mat)! We will be watching for her when the series airs!

Monday, December 7, 2009

Pete versus Torres Del Paine

Courtesy of Pete Heck

Ever since arriving in Patagonia, I have wanted to see the Torres Del Paine (known as "TDP" or the "Towers"). For those who have never heard of the Towers, they are part of a mountain range in southern Patagonia completely independent of the Andes. They were formed 12 million years ago when magma penetrated Magellan's basin and the rock gradually forced its way upwards. If you look closely enough you can even see granite in the towers. On our kayak trip we missed seeing them because of cloudy conditions. With one day left in Chile, this is something I was not going to miss.

Unfortunately, Dalene wasn't able to join me. She had come down with some bug that still is leaving her feeling exhausted and having no energy to exert herself. As much she wanted to go with me, she made the wise decision not to. (Editors note: I'm super bummed I missed this. D)

Early Sunday morning I was on 2 hour bus ride into the park. Deciding to do this hike was not cheap: park fees - CLP 15, 000, bus ride - CLP 15,000, Shuttle service CLP 5,000, equated to approximately $75CAD for me to go for a really long walk (16km approx.) and enjoy some scenery. I hoped it would not disappoint.

It was a pretty intense hike. The first leg is a 3km uphill trek which I was able to do no problem thanks to Albert's psycho cycle training program in Sucre. I reached the first camp in just over 1 hour when the map said I would take 2, so I had a nice break for lunch. I continued on hiking through many ups and downs until I reached a sign post that told me I was on the final ascent - a half hour scramble over boulders to the top. Although the scenery on the way to the Towers was spectacular, I was getting excited for being so close to what I came for.

On the way to the Towers

When I reached the Mirador my reaction said it all: "Holy F*ck!!" as I stood in amazement. I had not realized that an Aussie family was standing right beside me (no kids, just a Mom and Dad visiting with their daughter who went to Uni in Santiago). I apologized. They had a laugh and told me they actually had said the same thing. It was truly breathtaking.

The Towers are the three pointed structures behind me.

Although my photos turned out really well, they are nowhere near the experience of witnessing it in person.
So for the next 45 minutes I found an empty rock, away from the bustle of tourists, took some snaps, and just sat and reflected. What a place to sit and think. Although many thoughts came and went through my head, the 2 main things that stood out were:

1. How glad I am that Dade and I are doing this - nothing can compare to everything we are doing and experiencing and;

2. How lucky I am and how much I love the person I am sharing all these experiences with (even though she happened to miss this particular outing!)

Not wanting to leave, but having to in order to catch the bus back, is finally what tore me apart from the Mirador at TDP. I started my descent back down. All in all, an amazing day. The beauty and magic the park possesses is inspiring. Sure it may have been the most expensive hike I have taken, but the experience and memories made it easily worth it.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Drifting in Patagonia

Pete and I went into our three day/two night kayak trip with two wishes: to stay dry (by staying in the kayak!) and to not get snowed on.

As we started our trip with an hour drive to the Rio Serrano, one of our wishes was flying out the window in the form of big white fluffy snowflakes! We arrived at our destination and unloaded the kayaks and gear in snow blowing with a strong, cold wind. Layers of thermal underwear, wetsuits and windbreakers did not stop the cold from breaking through, so we decided to wait in the warm vehicle before embarking on the river. A half hour later the snow still fell, but the wind had stopped, so we finally decided to start our trip.

Here was our payback, we decided. For every Facebook status and blog we've posted bragging about warm weather while our Canadian friends have suffered some nasty storms, perhaps we deserved this one. Lesson learned? Maybe. =)

We were on the river for two and a half hours before stopping for lunch, and went through cycles of snow/sun the whole time. When the sun was out we were able to enjoy the brilliant scenery around us, but during the snow storms we kept our heads down and looked up only long enough to be sure that we were still following the red kayak of one of our guides ahead of us.

Our lunch stop also included having to portage the four heavy kayaks one at a time around a small waterfall for 200 meters, through clouds of large, heavy snowflakes. After the last kayak was moved, of course the snow stopped, and thankfully that was the last of the heavy stuff for the rest of the day.

After lunch we were back on the river for only a couple more hours, paddling and drifting along the mostly calm river until we made it to our campsite for the first night. With the calmer weather we were able to enjoy so much more of the incredible scenery around us, and were reminded why we had chosen this trip - besides the odd motor boat with handfuls of tourists passing us, we were exploring this amazingly beautiful part of the world in a unique way, having almost the entire park to ourselves. The beauty of our itinerary was the flexibility in it to enjoy what we wanted - drifting in our kayaks, taking it all in at our leisure, snapping hundreds of pictures as we went!

Me - drifting in the cold!

Our first campsite was on private land, in view of the magnificent Tyndall glacier. The pattern of snow/sun continued, but we were finally able to warm up around a fire while our guides Rodrigo and Jillian set up camp and made us dinner. On one hand, we were totally roughing it more than we ever have before - camping in snow, sleeping on nearly bare ground and without any of the facilities we have become accustomed to camping with. Yet, we were quite spoiled by Ro and Jill who took very good care of us and wouldn't let us lift a finger!

At our first campsite, in view of the Tyndall glacier

That night was pretty cold, despite our many layers of clothes. After the first miserable hour of shivering and trying to find a comfortable position on the slanted ground, sleep finally took over and I was out pretty heavily until we were wakened for breakfast the next morning. Thankfully, the sun seemed to be winning out, and we set off on our second day much more comfortably then our first.

The river was fairly calm for most of the day, with the exception of one section that got my heart rate going! Around one bend of the river we encountered a series of whirlpools in the water created by the conflicting currents. Ro had told us that there was nothing really to be scared of, but just to enjoy the ride of where the river would take us. What he failed to mention was that we should still keep paddling forward throughout, and thus I placed my paddle across my lap and just waited to float with the twists and turns. Instead, I got stuck in the middle of one of the bigger whirlpools, and when I tried to fight it, it grabbed my paddle and almost tipped me over. Finally, Ro fought his way back to help talk me through it, while Pete and Jill waited on the other side of the section and watched me battle the currents. Thankfully, I managed to stay out of the freezing cold water, and probably even warmed up a little bit thanks to a big adrenaline rush!

Not long after that the river lead us into a choppier fjord, and we pulled over to have lunch and set up camp at where we would be spending our second night, just a few hundred meters from a lagoon at the base of the spectacular Serrano glacier. We were excited to learn that we had two choices of paddling after lunch - either in that lagoon among the icebergs, or back into the fjord to see another glacier further up the water. With the wind almost non-existent after lunch, we decided it was the best time to try the fjord and leave the more sheltered lagoon for the following morning.

The water was absolutely still and we created the only waves in the water as we headed away from camp - my favourite time to paddle! We had some incredible views of the Serrano glacier and ice caps at the top of the mountain so we took our time to get to the corner that we would turn in order to see the Balmaceda glacier. Perhaps we took a little too much time because as we neared the corner, the wind picked up and the waves became pretty heavy in the water. We ventured ahead a little bit before I finally decided that I had had enough - wind gusts coming from different directions were grabbing at my paddle, threatening to tip me over, and we were still an hour from our destination. I felt kind of wimpy in turning us around, but also completely uncomfortable which I knew would effect my reactions should something actually happen.

The winds followed us back into what once was the calmer waters surrounding our camp. On the way back, Pete and Ro actually saw some wind devils on the water - perhaps my decision to turn us around was a good one after all! We pulled into camp at just about 6pm, and while Ro and Jill set out some snacks for us, we headed back to the lagoon and picked up some glacier ice for our drinks.

Staying in that campsite so near the glacier was one of the coolest things we've done. We could actually hear the frequent avalanches on the glacier from camp, and while Pete and I were on a quick hike to the glacier before dinner, we actually saw one happen at the top! We patiently waited to see if anything would happen to send some ice crashing to the water, but no such luck.

At the base of the Serrano glacier

Pete, Ro and I at the Serrano glacier

The following morning we had a couple of hours in the lagoon at the base of the glacier before we had to start our voyage back to town. Again, the wind was not our friend, and there was one instance where I was scarily pushed around by the waves. After that, the four of us came together in our kayaks to form a "raft" and just wait out the wind. Once it died down we drifted around a bit more (saw one more avalanche!) and paddled around the many small icebergs in the water. At 11 we were at the end of our kayaking time, and we headed back to camp to pack ourselves onto the tour boat that stopped by to pick us up. 3 hours on the boat and a stop for lunch before we were back in town and at the end of our Patagonian adventure.

Overall, an AMAZING experience, but Pete and I were still pretty happy to have a shower and be in a warm bed last night. It is currently 1pm and I am still in my pj's, having emerged from under the piles of blankets only for breakfast! After one day of recovery we are going to venture out again tomorrow for a long one day hike before we begin our trek north into Argentina. Looking forward to Christmas in Mendoza where temperatures are 30 degrees while the rest of you suckers are stuck in snow in Canada.

Lesson learned? I guess not! =)