Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Punta Arenas, Chile (3 days)

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Ushuaia, Argentina (Fin del Mundo) (5 days)

Ushuaia rocks. Argentinians claim that Ushuaia is the most southern- most town in the world, when in fact there is one in Chile that is slightly farther south. We heard from people to skip it as it is just like Vancouver, but it absolutely is not. It´s cold, very windy, very hilly, wonderfully close to wild places and to the always-whitecapped Beagle Channel. The best part of Ushuaia was actually a temporal experience which you can never count on- meeting one great person after the next at the hostel there. Highlight was three guys from Buenos Aires who were travelling around their country. First meeting was them making some extra cash by painting the doors in the hostel´s outdoor courtyard. They rigged up the speakers to be outside and were dancing and singing and not working very hard at all. We had a fun Spanglish sesh getting to know them and were able to communicate a hostel party meeting later that night. Well, they were musicians. Couple hours later, there we were, banging pots and pans in time to their guitar, bongos, someone used the wooden table as rhythm, and another a post-box! People were dancing, it was a really great time.

Ushuaia was also our only experience of Carnival to this point. For three nights there was music, dancing and costumes down in a square by the bay which we could hear from all over town. While we did not find time to go, we did happen to hear some very loud music close by on a walk back to the hostel on the hill. An investigation produced a group of local teens with large drums and whistles practicing for their upcoming performance. The highlight were the women in flashy costumes, also little girls (so cute), who made a point to come out and say hi to our curious faces, and encourage us to go watch and dance with them. We did not, but wondered at how on earth they were going to be warm enough to perform down by the water! Carnival is a universal celebration down here, but the costumes definitely need to be modified for those celebrations away from hot Rio! Fun.

In Ushuaia, we went for a day hike in the national park where we saw an elaborate beaver dam, and lots of Lenga forest. Also saw the famous local woodpeckers, male and female stick together, one with a bright red head, the other black. The hike was beautiful with some grassy knolls covered in clover, hmmm did it smell good. Next day we went for a 5 hour boat cruise down the Beagle Channel to see a funny colony of penguins. On the way we saw lighthouse, albatross, and lots of beautiful mountains complete with sunset. Day after that we hiked up to a glacier which is just up from the town.

Ushuaia must be to Argentinians what Alaska is to Americans- the far reaches of civilization. Working in the hostel was Emilio, a very kind 40ish man. We would later discover that he was a lawyer for several years but decided to give it up to come work in a hostel at the end of the world. He was clearly very happy and excited about his decision, but we joked with him that he had not yet lived through a winter in Ushuaia (guessing somewhat desolate)! In Ushuaia we met a lot of inspirational older couples who told us that travelling and hiking is what has kept them together for so long. Aaahhh...

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Iguazu Falls (Agentina-Brazil border) (5 days)

Iguazu Falls will likely be one of the highlights of the trip for us. Couldn´t say enough great things about it, or even begin to try to describe it in words- impossible. Basically on the border between Brazil and Argentina is a place where a 2km. wide river delta (basically looks like a large shallow lake) drops off to a river below. Instead of at one point though (a la Niagara Falls), this happens over a large area along the river´s edges and creates many different waterfalls.

The whole town of Puerto Iguazu was a refreshing break from the hot dustyness experienced elsewhere in northern Argentina. We arrived at 6:30 in the morning to a freshly-rained on town. The sunrise on the early morning jungle clouds was fresh air in our lungs after a long night bus ride. We made our way to the Hostel-Inn, sort of like a resort for backpackers in the jungle, very great. Huge pool, met lots of fun people. This would be our home for the next 4 days. First day we took a local bus into town and back. On the way back, saw a huge full moon rising over the jungle and I said to Ali "can you imagine seeing the falls under this moonlight??". Back at the hostel, discovered that this could be done- so at 9pm, got ride to Iguazu park. Took an open-air train in dark to a 2 km. long boardwalk which we walked down under the full moon. All our senses were being used with the jungle smelling amazing, and everything lit up with the moonlight. Would all be very romantic if was with hot latino, but hey, was nice to share with Alison! Amazing, amazing way to first see this inredible force of nature. Next day saw it in sunlight, just as awesome.

Puerto Iguazu (the town) is located in a place with red soil, so that all the roads are red, and all the houses are built with a red brick. That along with the lush greens of the plants, and the occasional tropical rainfall made Iguazu dripping with colour and life. Highly recommend it.

Corrientes, Argentina (5 hours!)

Corrientes was a brief stop on our long bus voyage north, so a grateful stop. Tried to get dinner, but as all restaurants are closed until around 8pm of course (!), remain famished during day. Think casino will be different and provide food, but alas no, not until 9pm. Explore wonderful waterfront and main strip. Main road becomes very, very busy during evening, as we discover always happens in town in Argentina. Evening is social hour, and even if you have no business out in town, people go out to look around and people watch. This happens over and over again. Siesta ends and people surface in large quantities. Love it. Since we can´t get food, make great decision of getting milk and cereal, some raw veggies, yoghurt of course, and heading early to the bus stop. Bus station in every town always very busy, not sure why, as people seem to be hanging out longer than would necessitate a wait for a bus. As we fill our bowls with cereal and sit on the station bench, surrounded by locals, guy next to me says ¨where are you from in Canada¨, thus we meet Jeff, from Calgary. Great talk with him for our hour wait for bus. As he has made smart move of Spanish lessons in Buenos Aires, helps us out with our spanish. The bus. We keep hearing these stories about these luxurious buses that feel essentially like ¨lazy-boys on wheels¨ with serving hot meals (¨oh it´s so great¨)... have yet to find one of these buses. After our local bus ride from Colon to here, we find that the first bus leaving Corrientes to Iguazu is a small bus company. ¨Oh, it will be fine¨... famous last words. After Jeff´s flashy shiny double decker bus arrives to pick him up, our small dodgy one arrives. We are given an unrecognisable meat sandwich meal (straight to bin). Seats most uncomfortable for night bus ride to Iguazu. Time 10:00pm, arrival time in Iguazu 6:30am. Sweet dreams! (spanish- Dulce swenya!)

Monday, February 13, 2006

Colon, Argentina (3 days)

Away from all tourists, we find a town truly Arentinian and a real treat- Colon. Colon is where people from Buenos Aires go to on weekends as a summer town. Truly a siesta latin town, with no one about during 1pm to 6pm ish, we find a town where Argentinians shop in their bikinis, and they all come up with their friends on weekends. Once a year there is a big festival called ARTESANIA 2006 (on now) (cue dramatic music), where all kinds of craftspeople from all over Argentina come and they set up stalls. Each stall says where they are from, so it was really a lot of fun talking to people and asking about their home areas. However, we set off to this famous affair at 2pm, a respectable time to arrive in Vancouver, only to discover it opened at 7pm, with the main show coming on at 10pm! Again, the latin siesta thing throws us off... Alison and I buy a fair amount of jewelry- local bone pendants and ring, silver bracelets, a purse. Everyone very friendly. Again though, we seem to get a lot of looks as being not Argentinian. Because the youth hostel was full at this busy time of year, and because we would like a break from the youth hostels from our experience in Buenos Aires, we decide to check into hotels in Colon. This proves to be a great decision, very comfortable, one even has a spa with massages and facials... Some of the houses in Colon are fancy with lots of wood used in the detailing, others are more shack-ish. However, most of the cars we see driving around are quite shiny and this provides proof that it is a summer town which the affluent of Buenos Aires can afford, even though the dirt roads and laid-backness of it would questions otherwise- again, likely due to the recent economic crash. After 2 very enjoyable days, we head north to Corrientes, another 100% Argentinian town (no tourists).

Uruguay (2 days)

We decided to go to Uruguay. This involved a ferry ride from Buenos Aires- most everyone had small day packs for their afternoon over at quaint Colonia del Sacramento. Since we decided to head north from this point, we had a lot of gear with us (our full packs) and were pretty obvious! Once there, found a hostel and bought tickets for the next day´s bus ride. We were soon to discover that the buses in South America leave between 5 and 6am typically- yikes. Colonia wonderful- a UNESCO preserved site, a treat for photographers, quiet, clean, opposite of Buenos Aires, got to clean out our lungs here. Spent afternoon wandering around cute little cobblestone streets and exploring little shops.

Next day, we get on bus to head north through Uruguay... Go through lots of small towns, witness much Mate being drunk. Yerba mate involves a small gourd-like cup with silver straw sticking out in one hand and a thermos under one arm to refill Mate cup over and over again. See Mate on scooters (and people complain about cell phone in cars at home!), Mate in meat deli section of supermarcados, Mate with border guards, Mate with women on their front lawns... absolutely everywhere-fanatical about it! Everyone has Mate and a thermos, everyone! National obsession. As Uruguay even less financially well-off than Argentina, we seem to get lots of looks from locals- guess just curiousity. Final stop Paysandu, where we get lunch. Now getting quite tired of food in South America- involves ham and cheese between two slices of bread, or salty quiche, or (for lunch anyway)... hate to diss it, but having a hard time finding easily accessible and tasty food down here. Absolutely wonderful cemetary close to the bus terminal, quite a refreshing surprise on our wait for the bus. Palm trees, calm atmosphere, friendly worker in cementary, beautiful mausoleums. Wish had more time in Uruguay, have heard great things about Punta Del Diablo, but decide against long bus ride there in favour of heading north to our Iguazu Falls destination, next to Brazil.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Buenos Aires, Argentina (1 week)

Hola! Que tal!

Buenos Aires is simply too big to explore in anything less than a month. In 1 week, this is what we found- B.A. is made up of different barrios (neighbourhoods) which all have their own character. The general feel of the whole place is of huge jacaranda trees reaching halfway up the expanse of apartments that rise vertically from the sidewalk everywhere. In B.A. everyone seems to live in an apartment. With the humidity, air con is a must, so the experience of walking along the street is that you are often dripped on by these air cons from above. Also, since Argentina is recovering economically, everywhere there is broken sidewalk. Each shop seems to have a different paver in front, usually a decorative embossed kind. Unless you look where you are going, you are always stumbling over uneven and cracked sidewalk.

With our base at a backpackers in Palermo run by young Argentine guys, we learn some rudimentary spanish and set out to try to get to know the place. First, shopping in the very cool and funky Palermo Soho, where we would have spent loads of money if it weren´t for having to carry whatever we get on our backs for the next 4 months! Here you see the professional dog walkers, fit men who can have more than 20 large dogs (not Kits sized) on leashes being exercised around the city. Our Australian friend Georgi cleaned up here since this was her last stop before home- for 3 days she shopped. The price tags are what you would expect at home, but since there are 3 pesos to $1 US, everything´s really cheap. Cute restaurants and shops everywhere. One night we went out for Parilla (Argentine meat dinner) and since that ended at about 12, we decided to go to the bar to dance. In Palermo Soho there is a round plaza surrounded by bars and clubs. By 2 the place started to get quite busy, but not until 3am did people start to dance! We haven´t adjusted to the latin way of life, where dinner is at around 10pm, and dancing much later. Shops all shut in the middle of the day when you would normally want to go shopping, and forget about getting anything to eat before 9pm. This has proved quite an adjustment. You will see entire families (kids and all) heading out for dinner as late as 1pm in Argentina.

B. A. is laid out with large monumental plazas featuring statues of big men on horses (usually called Plaza San Martin!) connected with large wide streets. Though there are lanes, these seem to be mere suggestions as, from the window of various taxis we took, we would watch 8 lanes of traffic seem to float between lanes for no apparent reason. We would straddle the dividing line for long stretches, and no one uses blinkers. It all seems to be a large merging game, and it´s a wonder the cars aren´t more banged up. At the center of it all is a huge obelisk that all the traffic seems to orbit around.

We found some calm in the Recoleta cemetary, where Evita, among many famous Argentine war heroes and some sports heroes, are laid to rest. Very cool with every private mausauleum burial different from the next architecturally. What was nice about this area is that it is also the rich part of town, so there is some fancy shopping and cleaner streets. Some astronomically huge ficus trees in this part of town also.

On night #3, I started to get sick, but went out anyway, to a tango bar in San Telmo. You can´t go to B.A. without seeing what they are most proud of, and it was rightly a good show. However, next day, I was down for the count for two solid days- Alison was to follow for two days after me. Worst timing ever because I had a ticket to a La Boca Juniors soccer game in the La Boca stadium that I had to give up (a pretty big deal for me- I love soccer). Georgi was kind enough to show me some video clips on her digital camera when she got back- imagine a whole section of the stadium standing room only and caged off, and the mass pulsating as they all jump up and down together. The crowd was chanting the whole time with everyone wearing the team colours and with banners spanning huge sections of the stadium and there were little pieces of paper flying everywhere... what a rush!!

So back to the sick part- a word of warning to anyone from Vancouver- there is a lot of air pollution in B.A.! And people smoke inside everywhere. When buses take off at an intersection, they leave behind a plume of very black smoke for our fresh lungs to ingest. Expect to get sick on around day 4. Today is now the 12th and Alison and I are both still hacking up whatever gunk got inside our lungs in Buenos Aires.

What else? B.A. is definitely a people watching kind of place with sexy latin women strutting around and the men grateful with long looks. It's all very innocent though and even flattering. The pace of people walking around seems slower than Vancouver. People are out on the street to hang out, with no apparent rush or destination. We were able to partake some Mate, which we would discover is a national obsession. It's a leafy drink drunk in a special gourd cup and through a silver straw. The first person fills up the cup with hot water and finishes it, then fills up the cup and passes it to the next person, and so on. It tastes ok, the taste probably grows on you. Buenos Aires is very loud. We were apparently in the quiet part of town, but you'd never guess it with needing to wear ear plugs to sleep at night.

Last day, I headed out with Georgi to check out the run down botanical garden, complete with a statue of famous B.A. landscape architect Charles Thays. Mostly what we found were tons and tons of wild mangey cats, they were everywhere. On to the MALBA modern art museum, of course closed on Tuesdays (that day). Then on to Barrio Parque, the most expensive neighbourhood in B.A., also laid out by Thays. We spoke to one man who was renting a house for $4000 US a month. He said the houses cost about 1 million dollars US, hard to imagine that cheap compared to Vancouver where 1 million doesn't go very far. Can't remember the costs of apartments in Palermo, but they were very cheap. Finally, I headed to the Teatro Colon, Argentina's famous opera house which was very ornate. The place is ringed with 6 balconies, the first 3 of which are made up of box seats, each one seating 6. Cool to imagine how opulent it must have been when first opened. Now, the boxes for a whole season go for a very cheap price for us, for the Argentinians it is expensive. Below the theatre they have developed practice rooms and costume making rooms, and they store tens of thousands of costumes here year round.

I could have stayed in Buenos Aires for another couple of weeks, but Alison is not a city girl and we did have places to go and things to do. So after about 6 days, we decided to head over the river to Uruguay. We were craning our necks out the taxi window at the vast expanses of unexplored Buenos Aires that we were leaving behind on our ride to the ferry. So I recommend to come, rent an apartment in Palermo for a month, and get to know the city. It's very cool.