31 January 2010

Sometimes I Try to Break Myself

Friday night, while walking to a cafe to get internet with a side of generic food, I found a steel spike in the ground. I found it with my toe. Then I inspected the ground with my knees, my forearms, and then my face. In one strangely fluid, slow motion, I toppled over like Gulliver, tripped by an imperceptible force of mine people.

I lay flat. Kristin waiting for me to move. I didn't say my usual mocking "I'm OK." I mentally scanned my body, but I wasn't sure how hard I hit the ground. It seemed slow, but was it? I had my pack on, loaded with food and books. Surely the added weight didn't help. Upon visual inspection, I found my pants were torn, but my jacket and arms were dirty but otherwise unharmed, the area between my lip and chin was already puffy and bleeding, and my left foot felt like an elephant stepped on it.

My toe didn't feel broken, so we went to the cafe. I slyly elevated it under the table while we charged our computer, checked email, and played more rummikub. At 11pm, we walked a few blocks to the train station where we caught our overnight bus to Neuquen. I couldn't sleep all night because of the throbbing, even after Tylenol Extra Strength and Tylenol PM.

Upon arriving at Neuquen, we went to the central hospital. While it certainly didn't inspire confidence with it's aged facade and crumbling walls, I was well taken care of. A female doctor checked out my toe, a female nurse poked me in the butt with some pain killer, then I got some x-rays taken, and the doctor consulted with me again. Nothing was broken, but she prescribed anti-inflammation meds, rest, elevation, ice, and compression. This all cost me exactly zero pesos. Converted to dollars, that's zero dollars. I went to the pharmacy to fill my prescription. Within 10 minutes, I had consulted with the pharmacist about which med to take (name-brand or generic), paid, and was out the door. Total cost? $10 pesos - about $2.50 US.

(Feigning a smile while waiting at the emergency room)

I'm so glad that universal healthcare has been derailed. It would be horrible if our family and friends had to worry about shelling out this kind of money for healthcare. Only rich countries like Argentina, Uruguay, Peru, Mexico, Venezuela, Chile, Colombia and Brazil can afford such extravagance.

Well, our day in Neuquen was nice. I hung out a park reading War and Peace while Kristin brought me food and treats. She is the best!

Yesterday we took another overnight bus to Mendoza. We are now going out to a vegetarian buffet, which there are several to chose from in this great city.

Tonight we are on yet a third overnight bus to Córdoba, to visit our friend Carmela.

Using a public park in Mendoza to eat breakfast, brush our teeth and repack. Hurrah for the vagabond lifestyle.

29 January 2010

Hike. Eat. Repeat.

The theme continues: great hiking, returning to civilization for refueling on good food, then more great hiking. A few pictures from the last two weeks as they tell the story better than me mincing words.

Our first backpacking trip outside of Bariloche. This was only a few hours trek from where public transport dropped us off. How can you beat that for a good start?

Coming over the saddle, we find our trail through the valley on the left. We eat pb&j and take in the views for as long as we can.

We set up camp on the right side of the lake. We also couldn't complain about that. Or the fact that camping is free. And there is no park entry fee. Or the great weather. Or anything really.

The walk home. Still spectacular.

Didn't make it back to town as we got sidetracked in the beautiful municipal park. We stealth camped in a bamboo thicket by this lake.

While I don't generally eat meat, I can't pass up the opportunity for the world's best beef. And at only $1.50 for a 10oz steak at the butchers shop, it's probably the cheaper than cheese or chocolate.

Back to camping. Mt. Tranador is 1,000 meters higher than everything else around it, leading to probably the most spectacular campsite and sunset that I've ever witnessed.

Don't adjust your monitor, these colors are accurate.

Adjacent to another campsite. Within an hours walk were "thermal pools", except that nobody bothered to build any pools around the springs. So, Mia may have enjoyed the dip, but the water was only ankle deep. Disappointing, but not surprising. Luckily we had a great hike along the way, lots of good conversations, and we hitched a ride back to town with two college girls and their dog. Hitching rides has so far proved to be the best way to meet cool people :)

22 January 2010

Where We Are Happiest

It should come as no surprise that when traveling, Kristin and I head for the hills. We feel at home in the mountains. Thus, we´ve tailered our travel itinerary to give us the best opportunities to trek.

We have found two towns that we really like and they are both in Northern Patagonia. The first town is El Bolsón, where we stayed for three days after camping for a week and hiking over the border. It has a artesian´s market three times a week, is well known for growing berries and organic crops, and is in a beautiful valley. It could only be better if it had a university. I know, it´ll be hard to find another Davis

The view to the east. Taken on our first night at the hostel.

One of the many sculptures in the large central park, this one looks like steampunk. The park also houses a lake, the artesian´s fair, lots of concerts, and soft grass for playing guitar and sharing mate.

The second place is less than 200km north of El Bolsón and it is where we are staying now - Bariloche. We have heard about this city ever since we started our travels in Guatemala. Bariloche is in a National Park, has some of South America´s best ski resorts nearby, and is renown for it´s chocolate. While the chocolate isn´t actually the best, it does win points for the availability of good fruits, veggies and meat, plus accessibility to hiking and skiing.

For the last few days, we´ve been taking it easy here. We found a really good natural foods store. Our hostel has absolutely stunning views from every dorm room. Kristin is able to program a bit while I do some research and planning for the next few months of traveling. Overall, it´s probably our favorite place and our favorite non-backcountry time.

The view from our room. The bathroom look out onto the lake and the common room looks to more mountains in the east.

A Russian-themed chocolate shop. Yay!

20 January 2010

Crossing Borders, Pt. 2

Follow up to my earlier blog on Cochamó Valley:
Last week Kristin and I hiked from Chile to Argentina. We had enough food for 7+ days and all of our stuff for the next 6 months. The packs were relatively heavy, but still half the size of anybody else's. With the heavy rains, no trail markings, and horribly planned trail, we spent a few days hanging out in the Valley hoping for a break in the weather.

(Somewhere under that mud is my shoe)

The day we left, the Valley was cloudy and only slightly rainy. Still, that was better than the downpours of the prior week. Beyond the mud, we were also slowed by the complete lack of trail markings. At one point, I followed a trail that a prior hiker had hacked through a bamboo forest. It was the most promising trail we had found, but after two hours of forging ahead, we returned to our lunch spot to find the proper trail. At other times, the trail was up a river slot that had walls 2-3 meters deep. I asked Kristin if she thought the river or the trail came first. Her reply? She hoped the trail came first, for her sanity's sake. Who would put a trail up a muddy river slots? By the end of the trip, our clothes and packs and shoes were mere molecules held together by dirt. But we made it.

View from our campsite on a rare clear afternoon.

Same mountain on a more typical day.

Yes, we made it to the border crossing. Which leads me to a follow up of another blog post:
In my last border crossing, I was nearly held hostage for carrying millet, a benign edible seed. In walking accross the border this time, I was hopeful that it wouldn´t be as bad. Going into Argentina never has been.

However, getting out of Chile was really just a continuation of last month´s border fiasco. It seems that in the hours long argument, red tape, and quadruplicate citiation, they forget to take one of the copies of my immigration form. At this latest border crossing, which was a house in the middle of nowhere and 3km from the actual border, my friendly border crossing agent was perplexed as to why I had this extra sheet. He scolded me for having an extra sheet and he didn´t know what to do about it. Now, had I "lost" this sheet in a trashcan, everything would have been OK. But somehow having it was criminal. After using my best broken spanish to argue our case, he eventually let us through. However, he first gave me a 10 minute diatribe on being careful with this very important official paperwork.

After an hour of hiking we made it to the Argentinian border. Upon inspection, the Argentinian border guard inquired as to why my passport wasn´t stamped by the Chilean agent. Wait, what? After all that talk, the agent didn´t actually stamp my passport. Seriously? Mr. Argentina told me I´d have to hike back to get it stamped. I argued more, told him it wasn´t my fault and that it shouldn´t matter to Argentina. It´s obvious I just came from Chile AND I had the proper amount of paperwork. I told him to go call Mr. Chile and verify it. The not-so-happy agent eventually left the office. Five minutes later, without any explanation, he stamped my passport. We were legally in Argentina. I don´t know what will happen when I try to go back to Chile next time. More fun, I suppose. Can´t wait!

Now that we´re in Argentina, we had 50-60km to the nearest town and apparently no shuttle or legal way to get there. So we started hiking. Traffic was very sparse. So limited, in fact, that we seriously discussed stealing cows or horses and riding to town. Eventually a pickup truck stopped. It was 4 twenty-somethings from Buenos Aires. They could squeeze us in and take us to a nearby camp.

During that ride, we became friends. We shared crackers and Yerba Mate and jokes and advice on where to travel. This led them to invite us to ride with them to El Bolsón, which is where we wanted to go anyway. Hours later, we arrived at our destination with four new friends and four places to stay in Buenos Aires.

Using ropes to help us on a steep, exposed, slippery slab during a day hike.

Playing around on Pared Saco (literally Dry Wall) at the end of the day.

Super sketchy stream crossings. At least it cleaned the mud off!

Along the hike we found our dream cabin.

Yes, that is the actual trail.

As we approached the border, we found a few hardy folk who were willing to brave the isolation and frigid winters. They are certainly rewarded with excellent summers. I think that these people were given land in exchange for working the land. This has more to do with Chile wanting to secure this land against Argentina. Sharing a 4000km border, there are bound to be disputes and it is only within the last two decades that the border has become more or less agreed upon.

On a bridge, looking into Argentina. We´re almost there . . .

18 January 2010

Bonus Time

Our friends from Davis, Pat and Naomi, introduced us to the concept of Bonus Time. When you have already had a full day, yet you still have more of the day left, then you have achieved Bonus Time. Everything that happens thereafter is just desserts.

Last April, the four of us went to Kirkwood. We had season passes and had gotten a ton of use all season, but we still wanted to get in one more day. It was a nice sunny day with good spring corn. We were able to continue our traditional undie run at the end of the day. We returned to the car, happy and tired. Back in Davis we made plans to have dinner that same night. Kristin and I brought some salad makings and dessert, while Naomi and Pat provided the pasta and moose-meat sauce, straight from Alaska. By the time we arrived at their house that night, we already felt like we had done so much that day. They agreed and told us that we were experiencing Bonus Time.

Ever since then, Kristin and I have celebrated a day that just overflows with good times. Today is one of those days already. Kristin and I woke up early to break down our camp and catch the early bus to town. We spent several hours "working": emailing, researching, and reading. We walked around the city, scored some free chocolate, found good empanadas and great chocolate cake. Now we´re back at the hostel, devouring our first guacamole since Guatemala. I´m heading out later to pick up ingredients for dinner and a bottle of Mendoza´s good Malbec. Today is exactly 5 months since we got married Also, it is my sister-in-laws birthday (not that we need the excuse to eat chocolate cake everyday). I can already tell that we´re heading into Bonus Time soon. I hope you too find some days that are just exceptional and that you enjoy some Bonus Time.

15 January 2010

Cochamó - Thorougly Soaked

Last week we had the brilliant idea to hike from Chile through the Andes to Argentina. Dire warnings about "bad weather" weren't going to stop us. We're in Patagonia after all. In ways, the weather defines the experience. But sometimes, the only way to enjoy the experience is to ignore the weather and to keep on trekking. It is said that only tourists talk of the weather here.

Well, that was before this summer. While Cochamó Valley saw the sun about half of the days last summer, we were in a spell of at least 26 rainy days out of 31, according to local climbers. It has been the rainiest season in history. Who knows how far back local history (read: memory) dates? Regardless, it was bad. On most days the clouds impeded the views of soaring granite cliffs and precipitous waterfalls. However, in the rare moments of spacial clarity, we were stunned with what we saw: a Yosemite virtually unbeknown to North America. There are no roads here. There are three buildings: one is an extremely basic hut used by campers for cooking, one is a caretaker's house, and one is a simple, rustic refugio where you can stay in a bunk for the night. During the summer the valley is temporarily populated by hopeful climbers and a few curious backpackers. Trails are muddy and steep, the routes are heavily vegetated, the weather is foul, and even the hike into the valley is difficult. However, at the end of this arduous trail of climbers love and perseverance is the chance to put up a new route on a big wall. Where else in the world can a climber do that?

I did notice a high proportion of climbers from Boulder Colorado. I also heard a few comments of "it's the Yosemite of South America" or "it's like Yosemite without all the tourists." While this are both true, there is already a Yosemite, and it's in California. I didn't find any other Californians wondering the globe for another Yosemite.

Kristin and I thoroughly enjoyed the hike, even if we didn't fully embrace the rain. At the end of the week, we made it Argentina. Mold was growing on certain textiles, but we were able to keep dry our precious things: books, computer, and sleeping bag. Yes, we were able to hike with 7+ days worth of food plus everything we need for the rest of South America.

Big Walls

Big Trees

Deep Muddy Trails

I'll write more about the Valley (as will Kristin), post more pics, and tell two more tales of border crossings (yes, two more!). But now, you must let me enjoy some hard-earned Argentinean sunshine and chocolate. Ciao!

07 January 2010

Crossing Borders

It may sound ridiculous, but we have gone over the Chile/Argentina border 8 times in less than two months. It's always a fun event but the most recent crossing was also the most spectacular so far.

Kristin's family visited us for the holidays. As you've read, we spent Christmas in Mendoza and Uspallata, Argentina. On the already-long bus ride from Uspallata to Valparaiso, Chile, we had the bonus opportunity to wait on the bus for 2 hours. This was just before the border and we couldn't get off of the bus. Eventually we were able to check out of Argentina, then check into Chile, and then go through Chilean customs. They are atypically stringent on the Chilean side. I didn't think I had anything to declare, but they check out bags regardless. I had fun trying to describe why I had so much muesli, oatmeal, 10-grain cereal, and Clif Bars. I maintained that I was vegetarian and it was hard to find these foods in Chile (not so true, except for Clif Bars, which are non-existent in South America). The customs agent also found a bag of millet, which I argued was like oatmeal even though I didn't know the Spanish word for millet. Twenty minutes and much discussion later, they had determined that millet is a seed, that I did not declare that I had seeds, and I had therefore lied on my official entry documents. Fuuuuuudge. Another ten minutes of argueing (still in my broken Spanish) and I found myself in a backroom office, no windows, trying to further explain my way out of this situation. Kristin didn't know why I was taken away, nor where I was going.

The first agent filled out four very official looking documents, all in triplicate, which needed my signature to certify that my contraband was: brought in by me, taken by the authorities, and then destroyed. After the fun was over, my new friend left the office. A few minutes later I made a new acquaintance. This agent was going to fill out the paperwork for my citation and fine. When we got to the part about why I brought seeds and didn't declare them, I tried to explain my desire (need?) for a special diet. Eventually it was easiest to say that I am diabetic. The agent perked up a bit when I told him that. He added that tidbit to my confession, then went to see el jefe (the boss). Some more waiting. Finally, he returned and said that I would only get a citation  and no fine. Yay for diabetes! My brother Neil worked for the American Diabetes Association for three years. He'd be proud that I am still raising awareness around the world.

Anyways, more paperwork, my waiting, more signature, copies made, red tape, and finally I was released. Only an hour gone and I was back on the bus, which had been waiting for ME this whole time. The bus passengers applauded when I finally boarded. The bus driver was gunning it before I even got to my seat.

Lesson learned: don't eat seeds.

Second lesson learned: Argentina is better than Chile

Third lesson learned: don't cross borders with other people, it just complicates things. So, to ensure this doesn't happen again, Kristin and I are taking a bus to Cochamo Valley (2 hrs east of here) and then hiking for an estimated 6 days across the border into Argentina. This is totally legit as there are no roads leading through this section of the Andes. We'll see how it goes. We are in Patagonia and the weather is supposed to be fantastically wet. If all works well, we'll end up in the hippie town of El Bolson. Then north to Bariloche for more hiking and chocolate.

Stuffing my pockets as I run from the authorities.

06 January 2010

They Say Pucon is Beautiful

Sometimes you arrive in the right place at the wrong time. Do you wait for things to improve? Or do you move on, knowing that you're missing something great? 

Such was the case with Pucon - the so-called adventure capital of Chile. Within an hour of town there are numerous lakes, mountains, hot springs, volcanoes and Class III and IV rivers. A day before we arrived, the most prominent and famous volcano Villarrica had an avalanche. [avy-nerds: 60cm deep wet slide on top of an early-season ice layer, D1, R2, NW slope, 1 party of 9 caught, 1 injury - broken leg] While the climb is not that intense, the views from the top of the volcano are supposed to be fantastic. The volcano is active and has a lava-filled crater lake in the middle, spewing up plumes of smoke. Anyways, the park service shut down access to the mountain. The rest of the park was already closed due to snow, so we couldn't even hike around it. The mountain biking was all on roads instead of trails. The other big park nearby limits camping to refugios (the "improved campsites" that we despise). The weather was in a funk of fog, clouds and rain. Two days of hanging around and we weren't having fun. So, despite the fact that we didn't see any of the natural wonders around Pucon, we left.

We didn't have to go far to feel better. The less touristy town of Villarrica, also on a lake, offered us good respite. We found an excellent shop and ate cake for dinner. There is an amazing hostel there. The owners are Swiss and traveled half-way around the world by bike, before ending up in Villarrica and starting the hostel. The walls were absolutely covered with pictures and postcards from all over the world, mostly of cyclists. It was really inspiring. We even got homemade bread, jam and yogurt for breakfast, in addition to coffee/tea, oatmeal and fruits. It was a real departure from most of our homestays and hostels. Simply put, it just felt right.

Sorry Pucon - we never got to see your true beauty. But there are a lot of mountains and lakes and volcanoes in our future, so don't feel like you're the only one. 

Well, we're on the road again to a college-town that was mostly founded by Germans in the 1850s. Kristin is reading Motorcycle Diaries, which I really liked. It has all the fun and whimsy of Steinbeck's Tortilla Flats, plus it gives you a keen insight into the development of Che's passions, social and political views. I am starting on War and Peace, which doubles the weight of my backpack. Thanks Alisa for the excellent, if hefty, Christmas present. I certainly have the time to read it! 

Taking a breath, taking in the views: above the town of Pucon, looking out onto Lago Villarrica.

03 January 2010

Homecoming and Going

After two weeks of traveling with the family, K. and I returned to our adopted home in Santiago. This is the third time we've visited our friend Carlos. Each time his family welcomes us with open arms and sincere generosity. Having a "home base" really helps to make our travels a little more manageable, personable, and educational. 

But, we are not ones to sit still. After two days we are on the road again. We are heading south to the Lakes District. We'll start off in Chilean and make our way over the Andes to the Argentinian side by next week. Both areas are blessed with many lakes, mountains, volcanoes and, hence, many parks. Just what we're looking for!

Having a typically late-night dinner with Carlos and his family.

Enjoying the views of Santiago and the Andes from the top of a smaller mountain.

The Art of Valparaiso

Walking is our favorite way to experience a city. But a quick ramble through Valparaiso's twisted, hilly streets and you'll appreciate what sets this town apart from any other that we have visited. Glass and ceramic murals adorn sidewalks, entry ways and windows. Walls are blank canvases for local artists. Telephone poles and benches are transformed into public displays. Not only is the art everywhere, but it's also really good. It beautifies the city without seeming contrived.

In the spirit of Valparaiso, I've taken a number of photos to illustrate the abundance of art. This is just a smattering of what we saw, but I am certain that you get the idea. Enjoy!

01 January 2010

New Year's Eve

We have been successful at avoiding crowds up until now. However, going to the most popular place in Chile to celebrate New Years proved to be a superb idea.

When Mark G. and Catalina M recommended the coastal town of Valparaiso, I thought it would be a ritzy beach town with no character and a lot of tourists. That describes the neighboring town of Vina del Mar. Valparaiso left us wanting for nothing. It's a hilly port town with normal blue and white-collar workers. There is a culture of street art (ie elegant graffiti) and colorful houses. We found excellent vegetarian restaurants and good fresh seafood. It was easily our favorite city for food. The street are relatively pedestrian-friendly and by far the best way to see the city is on foot. So, as far as cities go, this is definitely my favorite! (Mendoza is a close second).

Valparaiso is probably fun year-round, but being there for New Year's Eve amped up the fiesta exponentially. Before heading out for the night, we whipped up a great pasta dinner at our hostel. Three bottles of wine helped wash it all down. At 11pm, we made our way to the waterfront for "artificial fire" (fireworks). The main street was closed for 15 blocks. There were no less than seven visible, synchronated firework displays lasting over twenty minutes. I've never seen such a spectacular spectacular in my life.

We were back at the hostel by 1am. We could hear the distant pulse of dance music as people partied their way into morning. We could still hear the music at 9am as we ate breakfast. Partying until morning seems fairly standard for Chile and Argentina. I don't know how they do it!

K. and I are now back in Santiago. Her family left today and we are sad to see them go. It was such incredible fun traveling with them. We are faced with some difficult decisions to make on where to travel next, how long, what flights and visas are needed, etc. Plus, we're looking at an uncertain future of when we'll see our families next. Boo.

Our Favorite Dessert. Oh wait, we licked the plate clean before a photo could be taken.

How could you not like a farmer's market like this?

Celebrating the first few minutes of 2010!