Saturday, April 29, 2006

Cusco, Peru (5 days)

Mendoza, Argentina (3 days)

Taking a night bus to Mendoza proved to be a very bad idea since we had to go through customs at 2am. The dark landscape teased us with tall snow-capped mountains under a clear starry sky, the full moon lighting the snow. The highest peak in South America, Aconcagua at 6960m (1000m higher than Kilimanjaro), is within these mountains, so you can just imagine the drama of the mountainscape in this area. The customs building was a strange dome that was very cold due to its isolated location- seemed straight out of a James Bond flick.

Arrived in Mendoza at a most ridiculous time of 5am. We got a cab to take us to the hostel where we had a reservation for the next night- of course they weren´t welcoming. The night guy let us in, but had no free beds (we already knew before arriving in Mendoza that it was fully booked for the Easter long weekend). We sat in a smoky front room with him for a while before I moved to a padded bench that was in a tiny outdoor courtyard in the middle of the hostel. Some guy offered Ali his bed since he wasn´t using it. I woke up once feeling light rain on my face (oh the joys of backpacking!), then snuggled back into my sleeping bag, exhausted. A tap on the shoulder a while later was Byron, our fellow British Columbian friend from Kelowna who we first met in Ushuaia and later in El Calafate. Ali got up and we all cooked breakfast together- crepes with fruit, sugar, fresh squeezed lemon juice and yoghurt. It was really delicious.

Byron had plans to go shopping at a mall, so we joined him (our first mall of the trip). We had ´real´coffee and were generally dazzled by the size, poscheness and vague familiarity of being in a mall. Outside reality set in quickly as young boys tried to help escort us to cabs for change. We went back to the hostel and walked to Byron`s preferred hostel, partly owned by a Canadian, where we had a reservation for the following night. We signed up for an asado there that night, which is an Argentinian institution- the big meat cook-up over an open fire. Went to an internet cafe and quickly emailed Sylvia from Madrid and Mary and Brian from L.A. (but really from Calgary), who I knew were all in town, but didn´t expect they`d show on such short couple-hour notice via email. They all did! Was fun reunion. First we drank in the bar, then had a wine tasting, and then the asado with a large amount of backpackers at a big long table. Was lots of fun. We all decided to try to go for a day hike out of town the next day even though we had no planned desination. Agreed to meet at a plaza at 10am. This night I went to bed while Ali went out with Byron and others to drink and dance some more. She came home very late sans camera which went missing on the dance floor to her great dismay.

Next morning, I packed up in preparation to move hostels, and Sylvia showed up before 10am. We walked over to the plaza together- she knew of a place we could hike but we needed to catch a bus at 10:15am. Would work as long as others show on time. They are 10min. late (got mixed up with plazas). Next bus didn´t leave until 12:45pm. Decided still enough time, so decided to grab breakfast and coffee at outdoor cafe. Had tostados, which are similar to toast, and a cafe con leche, which is coffee with milk. Missed next bus due to mix-up with Al, so gave up on hiking idea. Spent couple hours relaxing in hostel courtyard eating hung-over breakfast cook-up. In the afternoon, Ali headed to the police station to file report on her camera. Sylvia offered to join her since she speaks really good spanish- very nice of her. Mary and I decided to take in some of the classical music festival on at the moment so we headed to one of the historical areas of Mendoza- Fundacion. When we got there, turned out to be a local dance group who danced one song to Sting, really had nothing to do with classical music whatsoever! A large fountain at the center of the square puzzled us as the water was tinted red. At first not sure if it was supposed to be blood of Christ?? (it is Easter weekend after all), but find out it was for the wine festival on at the moment. We also checked out a local museum here about the history of Mendoza and wine in the area. Walked back through town checking out the paving design and planting along Avenida San Martin. Back out our hostel, Ali, Byron, Sylvia and isreali Ido of all people from Torres hike (we rain into him on the street) and I all make a huge and delicious chicken salad.

Next morning Ali and I got picked up for our fabulous day of wine tasting on bikes. Our ´bikes and wine´tour was an hour late when a taxi picks us up. Took us out of town and dropped us at a small shop on side of very busy street. Owner apologized saying car broke down. We were with one spanish guy, Marcus. Marcus felt free to complain and get us some discounts and freebies, great! We set off on our bikes. First stop was a wine museum which was very good. We got to see all kinds of old equipment used in the early days of wine production. Second was a boutique chocolate and liqueur shop. Lunch was fantastic, at a famous little place called Almacen del Sur, which is a family run operation. Almacen del Sur is an exclusive delicatessen which produces all of their natural ingredients for their products on this farm. Got a tour of the place, got to see how they make their own food and jams and all sorts for distribution, even how they sun dry tomatoes. In the afternoon, went to our favourite winery of the day, Tempus Alba. It was all fancy sparkling new with a great outdoor deck perfect to take in the evening's sunset. All in all, a wonderful day- biked 20km. and didn't get killed on the narrow road full of cracks and potholes while many vehicles, including B-train trucks loaded with grapes, whizzed beside us.

Back at the hostel, met Mary and Brian and went for vegetarian food buffet (hard to find in meat-eating Argentina!) with Sylvia. Walked Sylvia back to her hostel, she was all sketched out after having had a few rough incidents recently. Stayed up late writing postcards and watching movie in hostel. Said bye to Byron- he was on his way home to Canada the next day.

Next day we did the bus ride back to Santiago in the daylight and it was breathtaking. Since this bus goes over the Andes, at one point the highway is at an altitude of 3100m and it drops via something like 30 switchbacks down to the valley floor. Ali couldn't look out the window because when the bus would round the corner, it was hard to believe that we weren't going to take a nose-dive off the road.

Santiago, Chile (2 days)

Santiago was a bit of a shock to the system after being in small towns for so long. Arrived into the bus station and bought several bus tickets that we would need for the next week. Long line at the ticket counter due to ´Semana Santa´ which is Easter weekend and a huge deal down here- many people head home for the weekend (the next day).

Taxi to Barrio BellaVista, check into Hostel BellaVista. Immediately set off to resolve Ali`s flea problem, but all of the lavanderia´s are completely full since everyone is getting their laundry done for the long weekend and they are shut the next day with Good Friday. Pass a pet store on the walk back to the hostel, and head in to ask their advice! Since our spanish sucks, owner puts me on the phone to his colleague who speaks french. In french I say ¨my friend has a flea problem¨ and he says, ¨is your friend a cat or a dog?¨ I say, ¨she´s a woman¨, and he says, ¨well, you´re in the wrong place, you have to go to a pharmacy!¨ It was extremely funny at the time...

So back at the hostel, I called the chilean guide from my hike at the Puyuhuapi Thermal Spa, Cristiàn, who I knew was in Santiago at the moment. He comes over and the three of us go for an Arabic dinner, with hummus and lots of yummy foods that we haven´t had in ages. Cristiàn is trying to network this evening in order to establish himself as a photographer. He has a ticket to a local event where a chilean `70`s band called Los Haivas is doing a special evening where the aged members of the band will play some music. All of their music albums had a distinct artwork on their covers by one man, and this artist will be at the event, talking about his art. We decide to take in some local culture, so join. Many dedicated fans are in the room. After answering questions, the band starts to play and the artist starts to paint on a large canvas at the front of the room, a picture of a native guy looming over some mountains and in front of the sun- think they must have done fair share of drugs in the `70`s! Was interesting. Afterwards, we head to a bar with some of his friends for some drinks.

Next morning in Good Friday. Wake up to a very clear blue sky day and a quiet city with the holiday- not at all what I expected in smoggy Santiago. Ali and I decide to spend the day separately, some needed time apart. I head up to Cerro San Cristobal, which is a large hill in Santiago with what looks like some of the only green space in the city. Take a funicular up to the top. Walk up to a massive statue of the Virgin Mary which is on the highest point of the hill. Is very busy with today being Good Friday and all. Go for walk on road that snakes up hill- is similar to Vancouver´s seawall in that this is where people that live in Santiago go for their bike riding and running exercise. Is busy. Take gondola across hill (much bigger hill than I had first thought) to the botanic garden, which totally sucked and was big disapointment.

Return to bottom of hill and call Cristiàn. We meet at Pablo Neruda´s house (one of three in Chile). For anyone who doesn´t know, Pablo Nerudo was a very famous chilean- an eccentric poet/politician. He had all of his houses designed to look like ships, and he collected everything from the wooden figures that used to adorn the front of tallships, to shoes and store signs and artwork of watermelons, all to be displayed in his cluttered houses. Got a great guided tour of his house. Cristiàn was interested since Pablo grew up in a town south of Santiago called Temuco, which is where he is from. Spend the afternoon walking around the barrio with Cristiàn and then dinner. Share a bottle of wine with Ali before heading to the bus station for our night bus back to Argentina (how many times have we crossed this border?!) to spend the weekend in the wine capital of Argentina, Mendoza.

After weekend in Mendoza, return to Santiago for one day. Decide to check out a different area of town, so stay at the Plaza de Armas Hostel, which is on the sixth floor of what feels like a very old office building, and looks out over the Plaza de Armas- the very heart of Santiago. Since we are downtown, find a sushi restaurant (how long has it been?) and devour some yummy sushi. Take the subte (subway) back to barrio BellaVista to try and sell our guidebooks to our previous hostel since we will soon be in Peru. Meet up with Cristiàn again and go to visit his grandmother briefly who lives in a different barrio, a more posche one. Have some drinks with Cristiàn this evening and try to psych myself up for what awaits the next morning- a 27hr. bus ride through the north half of Chile, from Santiago to Arica, which is at Peru´s border.

Since we had to book the Inca Trail for an earlier date than planned, we now have no time to explore the entire north half of Chile. There´s too much to see! Not enough time! Doesn´t bother me since we got to do so much hiking in the beautiful bottom half. On our bus journey north, we see some gorgeous beaches that we wished we could stop at, and much dry rock and sand dunes. The northern part of Chile is supposedly drier than the Sahara desert- there is no definitely no sign of plant life. The bus ride wasn´t too too bad- they serve you meals on board and play movies (in spanish of course) and the seats recline a long way. We are finally on one of the famed ´Cama´ buses, which we had heard so much about but not gotten to enjoy until now. Buses down here are definitely light years ahead of our smelly and slow Greyhound buses at home.

Pichilemu, Chile (2 days)

Pichilemu is a surf town about 3 hours south of Santiago. Ali and I don´t surf but we like to visit surf towns because there are usually chilled out surfers and a cool vibe about them. Plus, they´re on the ocean, so throw in beautiful sunsets and a sea salt smell. So that pretty much sums up what we found in Pichilemu, Chile. It´s fame is one of the most consistent left breaks around, as waves break out at the point and gently roll in forever towards the town.

Travelling in two is a constant matter of compromise- where will we eat, what we will do, who we will do it with. So sometimes we do our own thing, naturally. With the buses in South America, Ali is always looking for comfort and I am always looking to save money. So we decided to take separate buses from Pucon to Rancagua, the town that we need to connect through to Pichilemu. We were on night buses, so arrived at an obscenely early time of 5 and 6am into the bus station. An hour later we were on a slow local bus out to Pichi, which was interesting since at that time everyone was on their way to work. On the way, we passed through the wine region of Santa Cruz, and were treated to a landscape of vineyards for our eyes to feast upon.

Once in Pichi, we head straight for a hotel that someone had recommended, the Hotel Chile-Espana. It´s a great place, with large glass picture windows, lots of wood- hardwood floors throughout, and a lush courtyard. In the summer, there is a restaurant on the first floor in the courtyard, but now in the off-season, it´s shut. However, they let the guests use the kitchen, so we had a well-stocked and shiny stainless steel kitchen in which to cook. The rooms are connected by a generous hall, hardwood floor and large windows into the courtyard. Outside the rooms, surfboards line the hallway. One morning, I had to walk around a surfer doing yoga in the hall. All this and the place costs just $14 US a night. Since it is not summer, the hotel is rather quiet with just a handful of weathered-looking surfers who are staying long-term here, and a few short-term surfers. We are the only non-surfer gringos.

Meet two blonde girls from Oregon, Jessica and her sister. They had started their South American trip with a spanish school in Pichi (note to anyone wanting to study spanish, this would be the place to do it), and loved it so much that they stayed for 2 months. Now, they have travelled around a little, but have come back to their beloved Pichi to surf some more. Needless to say, our 2 days weren´t nearly enough time and I seriously wished we could have stayed at least a week here.

Once settled in, we headed for the beach of course. Sat out at the point for several hours, watching surfers come and go and do stretching exercises before getting in the water. Surfers are very fit and strong individuals! Sat until the sun set, and then went for a walk, visiting an old hotel that has gotten somewhat delapitated, and a park of huge palm trees. Back at the hotel, cook dinner and eat with a dutch couple and an aussie. The dutch couple are on a unique one year around-the-world trip of visiting only surf destinations, how cool! So they tell us stories of exotic beaches and we look at their Easter Island (Rapanui) photos on their camera.

Next day, Ali has had enough of her flea problem. Somewhere along the way, Ali picked up some friends of the small black and biting variety. She thinks it was from these two Argentinian hippy guys (Marino and Adriano) that we befriended in Bariloche, from their dog, Caprichosi, who liked to jump up on us. So now it is day 4 or 5 of the fleas and because of our constant travelling, she has been unable to properly wash all of her clothes. This morning, we actually see a flea in her bed. She wants to head straight for Santiago this day for laundry services with a dryer, but I convince her to wait one day as planned since it is so so so nice in Pichi. We have a similar day to the previous, hanging out at the beach and cooking in the hotel. This night the sunset is gorgeous. Next morning, catch early bus to Santiago, the big smoke!

Pucon, Chile (3 days)

Crossing back into Chile once again, we head to the town that is built at the bottom of a volcano, Pucon. On the way we pass through Parcque Nacional Lanin, which also has a volcano. Volcan Lanin comes into view just as the sun is rising, colouring its snow-capped peak a brilliant rose colour. The landscape consists of mature monkey puzzle trees, latin name Araucaria, which you might recognize from 1970´s popular landscape fame in North America. I have never seen anything like these trees though, as they are hundreds of years old and covered in lichen. When mature, all of the lower branches fall off and there is only a rounded canopy high up on the tree of which the branches really do look exactly like the tails of monkeys.

Dumped off at the bus terminal, we make quick friends with two danish guys, and all head to a hostel together. Always looking for the cheapest option, we end up in a house a little walk outside of town. The four of us grab lunch in town with Pisco Sour drinks (which the Chileans and Peruvians both claim is ´their´ national drink). In the evening we cook a stir fry together in the hostel. This night Alison and I are tired and opt for an early night where they head out on the town. Just before we hit the sack, the hostel owner tells us not to open up the windows, as it will set off the alarm system. Just an hour later, a german couple upstairs unknowingly opens up a window and the whole neighbourhood is woken up to a piercing alarm. It gets shut off. At 5am, the danish guys return with no key, and knock on our window wanting in. Ali, fast asleep, opens up the window and thus the whole neighbourhood is woken up again! The hostel owners think it was the danish guys both times and they are promptly kicked out the next morning.

Next day, Ali and I head off early to catch a bus to Parcque Nacional Huerquehue, which has several lakes and many monkey puzzle trees. At the terminal we meet our german couple friends, Helene and boyfriend, from our hike at Paso de los Nubes. We catch up on the bus ride to the park. At the base of Cerro San Sebastian, we go for a day hike in the sunshine and forest. We meet Jessica and Shaw, med. students in Texas, who are doing a practicum outside of Santiago. The four of us have lunch at Lago Verde under a blue, blue sky. There are dragonflies buzzing amongst the reed grass that edge the lake. Green lizards are sunning themselves on the rocks. Monkey puzzle trees dot the landscape around the lake and high up on the hills. The trunks of the middle-aged ones look exactly like an embossed puzzle. Covered in lichen, the light lime green colour of their trunks stand out as vertical elements in the landscape, particularly in the setting sun. In the afternoon, we sun ourselves at another lake, Lago Toro, where four local guys are fishing. They offer us beer and we find out that they are in the area for a weekend wedding. They are either very poor fishermen or this is not a lake for fishing- no fish are caught. They want to offer us ride back to town etc., but we gracefully decline.

The thing to do in the town of Pucon is to climb the volcano, Volcan Villarica. Ali wants a rest day, but I sign up to head off for an ascent the following day. When I show up the next morning, the group is quite familiar- there are the two danish guys, the two guys from Quebec first met in San Martin de los Andes, and three guys that I had met at the Lago Toro the day previous, from South Africa, Australia, and Brazil. So we all head off on a bumpy bus ride to the volcano. The hike itself leaves something to be desired as we hike so slowly, in true tour goup style. We are add kitted out in boots, crampons, ice axe, waterproof suit and helmet, oh and not to forget, gas masks for the top! The best part of the hike was the views afforded out over the landscape, as we were on top of the clouds. On top, the volcano was somewhat anti-climatic with no lava shooting out the top or even a red glow. Instead, there was a burn-your-throat cloud of sulfuric acid that emanated from the large crater hole in the top. Once we headed down, the weather changed and there were wispy clouds shooting past us, so so so cool. On our trip we have seen many peaks which have clouds whipping past their summits, and now here we get to experience what it is like to be in them. Highlight for most people is the journey down the volcano. We jump into long ´luge´looking runs where we slide down the snow on our bottoms. With ice axe for control and stopping power, we whiz down the mountainside. Ali and I grab a drink with the S.A., Ozzie and Brazilian trio before jumping on an 8:00pm night bus to Pichilemu.

San Martin de los Andes, Argentina (1 day)

San Martin de los Andes is a small town all built of timber in the Argentinian Lakes District. To get there is via a 2 hour dirt road called the ´7 Lakes Drive´ and is touted as a drive through lakes, mountains, the best landscapes of the area. We bought our bus tickets a day before and were a half hour early for our journey. We sat in front of all the buses waiting for ours to arrive, but no sign. Close to our 11:30am departure time, got nervous and started asking buses with different destinations if they were ours, but no. 10 or 15 minutes after the departure time, went to the office to ask what was up and they looked at us and said ´c´est fue!´ Apparently we missed our bus because it was a different company´s bus, not our Via-Bariloche-looking bus... Pay another 25 pesos for the next one that is to leave at 7:30pm. When finally we are on it, we are given gorgeous views of Bariloche, Lago Nahuel Huapi, and outline of peaks of Cerro Catedral in setting sun. However, then it is promptly dark and we miss the entire 2 hour ´7 lakes drive´and are teased with moon-lit lakes and mountain silhouettes for the whole drive. Unbelievably frustrating!

En route, pass Villa la Angustura, a gorgeous little ski village, also all made of timber. Want to return to this town one day. Upon arrival in San Martin, we are greated by the owner of the hostel who drives us there. Met two great guys from Quebec in hostel, Jeremy and Justin, who we will again meet on our travels. The second night, prepare dinner in the hostel kitchen with them, a yummy curry, and get to know one another over bottle of wine. In this hostel we also run into the fabulous french couple Nadia and Romain, our friends from our experience at the Puyuhuapi Spa Lodge together.

Travelling around South America, certain names recur over and over and over again in the named plazas and streets of the towns. Avenida 9 de Julio, Avenida 20 de Mayo, Avenida General O´Higgins, Avenida Mendez...In Argentina, it seems as though every single town, whether it be the huge Buenos Aires or the tiny Los Antiguos, always pay homage to San Martin. Either the main street is called Avenida San Martin, or at their center is Plaza San Martin, which consists of some kind of plaza square with a representation of Mr. San Martin in the middle. Sometimes he is riding his horse, sometimes he is simply standing in glory in the center. So when we arrived in the town of San Martin de los Andes itself, we expected a Plaza San Martin. Of course we found it right away. So who is this famous Jose de San Martin? Known as Argentina´s ´Liberator´ and the ´Knight of the Andes´, he is credited with freeing South America from Spanish rule. Argentinians are crazy about him. The town of San Martin is very cute. We spent most of our day here catching up on some internet, and people watching as loads of locals move up and down the main street.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Paso de las Nubes trek, Bariloche, Argentina (3 days)

Paso de los Nubes means ´Pass of the Clouds´ in spanish. It is a 3-day hike that I had read about in my trekking books before leaving Vancouver. Add an extra couple of days to the end of the hike and it is called the ´Trans-Andean Trek´because you cross from Argentina into Chile over the Andes.

We caught a beautiful 2-hour early morning van ride from Bariloche to a small town called Pampa Linda, on a forest dirt road, stopping at blue lakes to take it all in. Arriving at Pampa Linda, we caught our first view of Monte Tronador, a very large snow-capped peak. Two guys in our van are from New Zealand and Columbia, and have ropes and heavy packs in preparation to summit Tronador. They have 5 days to wait out bad weather. No sign of such weather today as clear blue sky dominates. The others in the van have the same plan as us- an American lawyer named David and the nicest german couple that I have ever met, Helene and boyfriend, who we will run into again on our travels.

After eating our lunch, Ali and I set off in our true style, last. We always seem to have the latest start over anyone else. Hike along forested valley on wide dirt road in sunshine. Trail then heads up for 9 km., switchbacks for a long while under cover of bamboo and tall, tall trees. Towards top of mountain, Lenga trees turn to Lenga scrub and is brilliant shades of red and orange. Catch up to other hikers at mirador of waterfalls that fall down tall cliff face from Glaciar Castano Overo, Tronador´s glacier. Monte Tronador´s name means ´the thunderer´, and refers to the noise that we hear all the way as we hike up the mountain. Chunks of glacier break and fall a great distance down high cliff faces to the valley below and create awesome thunderous noise.

Once on top, it is an easy hike up through the end of the vegetation to scree and rock. Up a few hundred more meters and we reach our destination, Refugio Otto Meiling. Refugio stands at an altitude of 2000m, as short way below the permanent snow line. Its location offers a superb panorama taking in what seems like all of the Andes mountains of Argentina and Chile. We can see the Paso de las Nubes pass that we will cross the following day, as well as Cerro Catedral, where we had hiked several days prior. Monte Tronador itself has 3 peaks, Piko Argentina, Piko Chile, and Piko International, where the border of the two countries actually splits the highest peak in half.

We set up tent in mountainscape of what would be the best advertisement possible for a tent company. Want to send photo to MEC for their catalogue, but realize MEC does not sell this brand of tent. German couple and David set up also. We all discuss option of hiring mountain guide to take us across glacier with ropes and crampons the following day in an effort to avoid hiking back down way we came to valley and then up long valley and up and over pass... essentially a major shortcut. However, by the time we band together for reasonable guide rate, another couple has snaked the guide for an ascent of Piko Argentina- ggrrr.... frustration all around.

Spend evening watching sun setting over endless sea of mountain peaks. Also watch Argentinian military up on glacier practicing for an upcoming training session in the Antarctic. Head inside cozy refugio and for once, pay fee (7 pesos each) to use their kitchen to prepare our meal. Alison prepares amazing stew. This refugio has great ambience, with 4 employees working in the kitchen/bar, which actually has some stainless steel appliances, much more swish than any other refugio we´ve seen yet. Large picture windows surround the common room and allow breathtaking views of sun setting on Tronador and glacier. Am inspired by two Argentinian families staying in the refugio who have come up with their three kids, one a baby not more than 6 months old- very cool.

Next morning wake at sunrise to take in the sun lighting up first the highest peaks of the Andes including our Tronador. Breakfast in the refugio. Rock outcrop outside the refugio affords view down valley under glacier. Condors, huge huge condors, fly around first at eye level, and then below us, circling in and out of the glacier valley. Amazing, and very hard to tear ourselves away from. But alas, we have a long hiking day before us since we were not able to get the guide for the glacier shortcut.

Day 2, hike back down switchbacks to valley bottom. Hike along Rio Alerce valley. Lunch stop along banks of river in sunshine. At one point, have to fjord river with no bridge- thanks to David for giving us a hand with figuring best spot to cross. Weather starts to turn as we hit bottom of Paso incline. By the time we get to top of pass, it starts to rain a lot. We get quite seriously soaking. My hiking book described the view from the top of the pass as one of the best the author has ever seen, but we are socked in with cloud and see nada. Steep descent down other side in rain. Near bottom, finally catch a glimpse of Glaciar Frias, a tall `icefall`sprawling down from the eastern side of Monte Tronador. Glacier feeds a surging waterfall and numerous other smaller cascades that form the Rio Frias. This glacier also drops large chunks of ice over a high cliff face. Our camp is at the bottom of the pass, opposite this series of waterfalls. Rain stops pretty much as soon as we reach camp. No time wasted, we set up tent and duck inside, not to resurface all evening. Warm up with dry clothes and cook dinner in the vestibule of the tent. This night we do not get a very good sleep as some mice decide to keep us company all night, crawling over our packs and getting into some of Ali´s food. At 2:00am, move packs into the tent, but then worry that mice will chew through tent. Next morning, poor David tells us he had mice chew through his tent and crawl over him during the night... he is tired also.

Day 3 is described in my book as a ´character builder´, as we are to hike along the Rio Frias valley in thick bamboo forest and over many wet fallen trees. It feels essentially like an army obstacle course, or like we are in an adventure race. This is because we hike the whole day at a very fast pace, trying to make sure we catch our 3:00pm boat ride at the end of the hike. In fact, the hike is quite fun and not too tough at all. Hike a lot of the way with David. Arrive at Puerto Frias, on the Laguna Frias, in record time and take all of our wet gear out of our packs, and lay it out to dry. Spend afternoon catching series of tourist boats and buses all the way back to Bariloche. After our difficult hike, we find it quite funny when the boat stops at a dock in the middle of the forest and lets off all of the tourists to walk up a series of boardwalks to see a waterfall and lake. It is a joke after what we have just hiked. View from top deck of boat back along the Lago Nahuel Huapi breathtaking in the setting sun. Love Bariloche!

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Nahuel Huapi Traverse, Bariloche, Argentina (4 days)

If I were Argentinian, I would live in Bariloche. Though very touristy, it´s a good-sized town on a big lake in the beautiful Argentine Lakes District. Bariloche is surrounded by steep mountains, many very blue lakes, and lots of picturesque forest. In the winter it´s close to several ski resorts, and in the summer, to endless hiking. We were there at the start of their fall, and the weather was fabulous. In the area for 9 days, there was clear blue sky for pretty much every single one. Even better, we missed the swarms of horseflies that characterize the hiking in the area in the middle of the summer.

The Nahuel Huapi Traverse is a hike that starts at a ski resort just outside of Bariloche called Catedral. The hike is properly a 5 day hike and is quite demanding. We heard many stories about the difficult middle day where you go over two mountain passes. Some people said there was ice on it at this time of year, others that you need a guide because the route is not obvious. Therefore, reluctantly, we decided to do a shorter version of the hike where we hiked out down a long valley on the third day. However, since we had brought enough food for 5 days, we opted to stay an extra day at the second camp to enjoy the sunshine at a high mountain lake at the base of a glacier.

We started the hike on a chairlift from the ski village Villa Catedral, not very heroically! So we gained a lot of elevation the easy way. Once on top, we traversed along the edge of the mountain by climbing over large rocks- the going was slow. Ali had a hard time with the steep angle of the mountainside that fell away to the valley below, a little taste of vertigo. We then hiked down into a valley where Refugio Frey sits on the edge of a lake. There were a few rock climbers there, climbing the steep granite faces of Catedral. Met british Dan at camp and later gazed at the incredibly starry night for a long time, until it got too cold to bear to be outside.

Next morning, woke early to watch sunrise on peaks of Cerro Catedral. Reflection in lake very impressive. Long hike day involved climbing back up and out of the valley, then down the other side on a huge scree slope. Here, it was a different sort of motion, where you would place one foot and it would slide a ways, then the other and slide on it, and so on and so forth. Ali found with her low boots that rocks were constantly needing to be shaken out. Down on the valley floor, we hiked along the edge of the lenga forest with views out to the lenga scrub in the valley. Being fall, the leaves were all changing colours to red and yellow. Hiked up other side of valley to pass where we got incredible view of mountain peaks as far as the eye could see. My favourite view of the trip yet, partly because it was well earned. Tired, then hiked down another scree slope down to another valley to the Refugio San Martin. This refugio sits above a lake on a rocky outcrop. Spent the night sussing out the next day´s possibilities, but with so many scary stories about likelihood of full-on rock climbing with full packs, decided to hike out from this refugio down the Arroyo Casa de Piedra. However, since we had enough food for a couple more days, decided to stay an extra night at the refugio San Martin to enjoy a day of restful exploration in the Andes.

Spent most the third day at Laguna de los Tempranos. This spectacular little lake lies within a south-facing cirque with sheer rock walls that tower above its icy, blue waters. Perfect for an afternoon swim of course. The sun was warm and got to dry off on the polished limestone slabs that line the lake. These rocks are covered in scratch marks left by ice age glaciers. Spent that night in refugio getting to know a british guy, John and an american. The refugio was lit with candles on all the heavy timber tables, most romantic. Next day, finished hike down valley Arroyo Casa de Piedra to Ruta Provincial 79, which was a very long hiking day of 25km. Caught public bus back to Bariloche, passing through lots of fancy ski-resort-type accomodation and restaurants that line the Lago Nahuel Huapi. Love Bariloche!

El Bolson, Argentina (3 days)

Back in Argentina, we headed north to the town of El Bolson, famous as a hippie community. Because of its reputation, there are also lots of tourists there to hang with the hippies, but all in all it was a great place to be for a few days. The day that we arrived into El Bolson was March 24th, which turned out to be a very important day for Argentinians. It is the day that they mark the fact that 30,000 people disapeared starting in 1976 during the military coup, this being the 30th anniversary. Known as the Dirty War, the victims were those who spoke out against the government, and many of the bodies have never been recovered. ´Mothers of the missing´have marched every week in Buenos Aires, they still do. The gigantic flag in the main plaza was at half mast. A parade started but we didn´t know what it was about, though I had an idea that something was up since I had seen a big government ceremony on the bus station TV. An older woman started talking to me in spanish but I could not understand her. She understood that I did not know what was going on, so she tried to explain in spanish. While she explained, she couldn´t help but cry, and it was so moving. It made me so frustrated that I can hardly understand spanish. She said that her brother was one of the missing and he was tortured with both arms cut off and shot through the nose. Absolutely horrible.

What can I say after that, this trip seems so frivolous in comparison. We stayed at a hostel just outside of town which had lots of land with a large grassy area and horses. We played a mini ultimate frisbee game with some other backpackers one afternoon in the sun. There were a few backpackers in our hostel who liked the town and hostel so much that they had been there a week+, unable to move on.

Four days a week, there is a big market in the main plaza. Lots of handicrafts, fresh berries, friendly local hippies, a fun show for the kids in an amphitheatre in the plaza, and microbrew that you can walk around the market with, sunny day, aahhh... In the market we ran into our buddies Mikayla and George from N.Y., so we decided to meet the next day to check out one of the local sights. El Bolson is in a valley and up on one of the mountains is a ´sculpture garden´, essentially some carved wood sculptures set amongst a grove of trees. Most people hire a taxi to get up the 10km. road which rises 1100m, but we hired bikes and did it the hard way. Good exercise, but it wrecked us.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

The Carretera Austral, Chile (1 week)

When you are in the south of Patagonia and you want to go north, you have one of two road choices: either the Ruta 40 through Argentina or the Carretera Austral through Chile. Both are long dirt roads. The Ruta 40 is somewhat easier to get on with more regular and cush buses and it being touted as a road of outpost towns and isolation. If you want real isolation, though, try the Carretera. It is a stunningly beautiful road trip. You travel through lush ´cold rainforest´of thick bamboo groves, tall trees with vines hanging down, the massive leaves of the Gunnera (called Nalca here), and ferns that tower over your head. The road is through valleys between tall mountains with waterfalls and many rainbows. Also there is a lot of rain.

We started our journey where we crossed back into Chile, the town of Chile Chico. Not too much to mention here, but it was much warmer than El Chalten so we enjoyed a picnic lunch on the banks of the lake on which it is situated. A ferry ride across the lake got us on a 2-hour minibus to Coyhaique, the biggest city in the area. Half of all the people that live in the Carretera area live in Coyhaique. At first we tried to rent a car since there were four of us to do the Carretera, but discovered it is much cheaper to take minibuses. Problem is that they only run every few days, so we had to stay longer in Coyhaique than we had wanted. The highlight of this area was a day hike in the Reserva Nacional Coyhaique, a taxi ride just outside of town. Packed a lunch and learned a little with some interpretive signage.

Our first daytime minibus voyage on the road took us to Puyuhuapi. Since I managed to snag one of the front seats, and the driver was happy to plug in my MP3 player to the radio, it was really great! To the sounds of Jack Johnson, Moby and Madonna, we motored along through rain, road construction, washed out parts of road, and much natural beauty. In our guide book for Chile, there is a story about a group of people that were hiking in the bush around here and were a mere 2km. from the Carretera, could even hear cars on it. It says that it took them 3 full days to make that 2km. distance. I did not believe the story until I saw it with my own eyes. The forest is SO dense. The bamboo and huge fallen trees all make for a lot of unexplorable area.

Puyuhuapi was settled by Germans, but the only sign of them now are some black and white photos around town. The town is tiny and very wet. We had read about some 5-star thermal pool resort a boat ride out of town on an isolated peninsula, but figured the price would be out of sight. We called and since we made the off-season by a few days, and the four of us could share a cabana, it wasn´t too bad. So... let the pampering begin. The spa was definitely a well-worth splurge for us. In fact, there were some other backpackers that arrived with us, and we were a sight to see. There were the four of us, two Israeli guys, and a couple from France, Nadia and Romain. Since we all caught the boat over together, we all arrived on the resort´s dock together, dirty and with 2 backpacks each, muddy boots, the works! You could sense the anticipation of a night´s stay of luxury in the air and see it on all of our grinning faces.

We were going to stay 1 night, but stayed 2 because it was so nice. I got a facial, the others got massages, and we soaked in the 3 outdoor pools whenever we could. Since they´re open 24 hours, that also meant at night under the stars. One of the pools was right next to the ocean, so we would dip in the ocean and run back to the hot pool. At night, we ate a fancy ´tasting menu´which started with octopus sashimi and moved on to crustacean de la mer (a fancy crab cake), squash soup, a steak with brie and pesto, and 3 small deserts. Needless to say, we felt very special! Mornings were a buffet breakfast (a nice break from your standard Chilean breakfast of bread and instant coffee). Second day, Laura and I signed up for guided hike in the Quelat National Park. Our guide, Cristiàn from Chile, taught us a lot about the flora and fauna of the area. We hiked to a glacier through lush rainforest. In the afternoon Laura and I took a kayak out to explore the shores of the area. It was a holiday from our holiday, to be sure.

Boat back to Puyuhuapi and onwards on a minibus north to Villa Santa Lucia, a tiny village on the Carretera. The picture of Jesus on the front door of the first hospedaje we ventured into, and then the shrine in the second one we chose, were the first signs that this is a very religious community. An evening walk on the dirt roads was to the sound of voices singing in the church. We had stopped here as a junction to head east to Futaleufu, a big rafting town. Next morning, 8 of us were going to hitchike to the Fu, but since there were so many of us, the hospedaje owners drove us in their van.

The drive to Futaleufu was breathtaking, especially once we started following the river. The famous Futaleufu river has been rated the #1 in the world river for rafting on. It´s all class 4 and 5 rapids. The water is this clear aquamarine colour and the river cuts through lush steep mountains. We´re not really that big into rafting, but wanted to check out the beautiful landscape, and anyway it was on the way back to Argentina. Turns out it is a good thing we are not into rafting, because we missed the rafting season by a mere 2 weeks and all of the companies but 1 have shut down. We´ve come to learn that the summer season in Patagonia is short and when it´s over, it really is over. While it´s nice that there aren´t many tourists around, it does make getting around and doing things require some patience.