To South America and Back

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Dedos (hitch-hike)

I know what you´re thinking with that title, as there has been some concern for our modes of travel. I can hear Buzz Wickman´s stearn warning echoing in my head "You know, that is my only daughter that you´re traveling with, you better take good care of her."

Also there has been some e-mail concerns as to the advancement and degredation of the South American country that we are traveling in.

Well, both of these dangerous notions should be cast aside, as they couldn´t be more wrong. Maybe it´s the has to the be the know the ones with the gritty sandy images of South America, the rough burlap ponchos, thick dark mustachioed men spitting tobacco through the gap in their teeth and then-knives brightly flashing in the moonlight-stealing away with a few American tourists tied up neatly in the back of an old pick-up truck.
I´m here to say that the only think true about the above paragraph is the old pick-up truck, cause those are everywhere.

We had done a few little hitch hiking excursions before deciding to leave Chilé via this mode of transport. One time in Mendoza when trying to make it back to our hostel before our rental bicycles could not be returned, and once when walking next to a highway near Coyhaique when we could no longer stand the big trucks whizzing past. Easy ten and fifteen minute rides. One with a kindly old gentleman, and one in the back with two teenagers driving.

We figured with such good luck (we stuck our dedos up at the first passing vehicles and were picked up) why not try it from Futalefu, Chilé right over the frontera (border) and into Argentina? Various sources had told us that the road to the border was anywhere from 5 to 8k...not really that bad when you think about it...we justified to each other, so if worse comes to worst, we can just walk to the border, and get a ride from there.

It was 10k, and we walked the whole way, because no one picked us up.
The hot sun did not relent it´s beating down on us either. At one point a truck stopped, it was going our way, and it had stopped about 50 meters from us. We couldn´t see the driver from the glare on the windshield, assuming he was deciding whether or not to pick us up.

In a cloud of dust he roared past, not slowing, or even looking in our direction. We were furious, hopping around the road shouting obscenities and waving at him. "Damn you, Damn you red truck" our traveling partner Falco kept saying over and over, unbelieving. "I can´t believe the red truck," he kept saying as we pushed onward. Closer. The heat starting to take over Aimee´s mind as she almost sprinted the last 3k, "come on you two!" she was barking out orders left and right "we´ve got to get there quick, and hope they have some cold beer, or something."

We got to the border and they laughed at us, I´m assuming because we came walking up.

It was only when I saw the red stamp that one of the guards slammed on my passport that it hit me, I turned to Aimee..."hey-babe by the way, Happy Valentines Day," I said placing a gentle kiss on her forehead. She rolled her eyes and pushed her passport closer to the next administrator. I think she actually muttered "my best valentines ever" under her breath.

Then it was time for the waiting...and we waited, and waited, slept a little on the grass, played with the guard dogs, and waited some more.

"Why won´t anyone take us....I really hate Chilé" was about all that Aimee could muster as she curled up in the shade. Our rations of avacado, peach, empanadas, and bread long gone when, earlier, the border guards informed us that we could not take any fresh food or fruit over the border.

Our break finally came. We had been asking everyone who had come through the border for a ride, most of them shooing us greasy mochillados (backpackers) away before we could get close enough to ask. Then a couple whom we had asked, and they said no, approached us cautiously, at the side of the guards building. "Do you es speak english?" We said indeed we did, and they told us to go down the road, around the bend, and over the bridge, where they would wait for us, as the guards had told them, and apparantly everyone else too, that it was illegal to carry people in the back of their trucks. Sweet, thanks guys.

We almost quite litterally ran to the bridge, hardly noticing the crystal clear blue waters (aren´t they all that way in Patagonia) or the anglers casting their bait into the icy depths. The couple was more than a little nervous to be transporting us, and continually asked us to duck down if we passed any guards. Like we would be able see them if we were, since we were facing backward. We heartily agreed and stuffed our bags in the back and climbed aboard.

So far, this has to be one of my favorite ways to travel, the winds were furious, and bitingly cold, but it felt good after sitting in the sun all day. This same sun was just starting to set behind the mountains, and as we moved away, it melted in with them and the edges of the peaks started turning all sorts of purples and blues, intermixed with streaks of yellow.
It was a nice way to end our little journey Chilé, looking back over where we had been. Contentadly eyeing the landscape, convinced we´d somehow conquered something, anxiously awaiting what was unseen ahead of us.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Our friends along the way

-Helen and Phil from the U.K. who we have renamed "Bernie and Phyll" thanks to Boston
television for making that combo easier to remember. They were on their 18th month of traveling. We are so jealous!

-Javier of Buenos Aires who taught us how to make maté, took Jeremy to a transvestite club, and said that he knew of Wisconsin..."that's where all the black people are!" He said he heard that in a movie. Too funny. He told us he wishes he was black, he'd like to be a hip hop dancer (insert Argentinean accent). He was so much fun and if we had the money and time to visit him in B.A., we would be there in a second!

-Friends from Portugal that we met on the bumpy trip from Coyhaique to Chaiten. They had named Jeremy "sponsor" because he doled out fruit to everyone while they passed out hand rolled cigarettes.

-Japanese man that we also met on that bumpy trip but ended up going the same direction for many days and ending up in the same hostels. He has been traveling for 30 years. The first day we met him he was stumbling with his spanish while talking to the woman who sold the bus tickets (who we had been sitting and chatting with for almost an hour). She then asked him if Chinese people had more slanted eyes. When he didn't understand, she demonstrated. We were speechless and completely in shock. He was such a nice guy and we aspire to be as well traveled as him someday.

-Falco of Germany who was our traveling companion for a while and made it out of Chile with us. He kept us laughing and improved our travels along the way. He also confirmed that the words my family uses are not made up but, in fact, real German words! (ok, "pachis" may have been made up)

- Augustine and Martín (of Buenos Aires), and Aviatar (of Israel). Unfortunately, we only have a picture of Augustine as there were too many games of "Shithead" and cerveza artesanal. We all stayed in a cabin-like place in El Bolson. Aviatar taught us the Israeli game of "Shithead", all about Isaeli culture, and why all of their youth is currently scattered across South America. Martín and Augustine gave us more lessons on maté and taught us some dirty Argentinean slang. Augustine had many great quotes but our favorite was when he was trying to convey a friend´s peircing in a sensitive area of the body but in English it came out as a "person in the dyke". We couldn't stop laughing and he just looked very confused. We loved these guys.

*I only wish we had taken pictures of all the other amazing people we've met. There have been so many crazy characters!

And here are some of our favorite locals...
(I promised a certain someone that these guys would make it on here...enjoy!)

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Don't trust long skinny countries

After deciding that the Argentinean route to southern Patagonia & Tierra Del Fuego seemed far too touristy for us, we decided to enter Chile and take a much less traveled route. It was this brilliant idea that lead to our hatred towards Chile. I will try to keep the recap of this adventure brief while not leaving out sufficient evidence to prove its exhausting annoyances.

¡Bienvenidos Chile!
first stop (day 1): Puerto Montt...aka cold, rainy, dirty, smelly, hell hole where hostels cost the same as a four star hotels in Argentina but resembles a crack house that may be found on North avenue and 35th street in Milwaukee. Oh and the people? They harrass you as you pass by in order to buy whatever it is that they are selling. And no, it's not just sweet locals trying to make a buck by offering their handmade goods. It's rude grabbing, pushing, yelling, starring, and beyond tourist prices. The food? expensive and non-impressive. I want out.
-marina says the boat to Punta Arenas and Puerto Natales is broken and we have to wait two weeks.
-travel agent says plane tickets are costly unless we want to wait several days (now we realize this was the option we should have chosen)
-travel agent also informs us that other boat service to Punta Arenas no longer exists in Puerto Montt and we must go to Chacobuco. to get there we have to go to Chiloe.
-bus station has a bus to Chiloe for the next day.

second stop (day 2): Castro on the island of Chiloe
-I come down with a cold
-cold and yet another town that looks like hell but smaller
-a woman at the depot whisks us off to her house where we can stay. "¿es circa?" we ask (raspy throat, dripping nose and all). "¡Si!" she answers. Then she drives us about two miles from town where there are no restaurants and in my state we dine on dried soup bought from the market which doubles as someone's home.
-bus station says no way to anywhere from here. Must return to Puerto Montt.

third stop (day 4): original hell hole again (Puerto Montt)
-bus station says there is a 36 hour bus ride to Punta Arenas...tomorrow. Twenty hour bus to Chacobuco on regular seats... no baño. No bus to Chaiten (another city even closer). They tell us to go to the marina.
-this is when I reached my limit. We had spent way too much money on the worst rooms I had ever seen. I've been heaving around my backpack for days through the streets of cities I wish not to reside for a minute longer. I hadn't had my own bathroom in weeks. My nose was running, my cough was disgusting, and every bone in my body hurt. I therefore dragged Jeremy to every upscale hotel until I found one of my liking. The Holiday Inn Express. We lived like Americans for the next two nights. (why two? well, the receptionist gave us the wrong boat info and we missed the only way out of this dump...ha ha! fun times...I of course tried to squeeze a free night out of her but she coud only offer 1/3 off). Despite the disgustingness outside we truly lived it up in our Holiday Inn palace! Huge breakfasts where we stuffed our faces with cereal, yogurt, and coffee and our pockets with pastries and fruit. A king sized bed with high thread count sheets. A gigantic bathtub where I could actually bathe for as long as I pleased. A spectacular view of the ocean from floor to ceiling windows that covered an entire wall. We dined on McDonalds from the food court at the attached mall (we really had to make it American) and watched episodes of Lost, ER, CSI, Cold Case, Law and Order, and various movies on HBO until our eyes grew tired and we were lulled to sleep by the peace and quiet of the luxurious thick walls that guarded us from the city below. This could not go on for long.
-on the second day of our stay (after being fooled by the receptionist-which I complained to the corporate office of Chile's Holiday Inn- Regis style) we bought tickets for a 24 hour boat ride to Chacobuco. Yay! Such hope.
(as a side note...the funniest thing about this city was the second day we awoke to a large cruise ship outside of our window. When we went outside there were hoards of people lining the entire shore. Everyone came to stare and take pictures of this monster ship as if it were some kind of beautiful peice of art. When we asked the receptionist she replied, "oh yes! This is very exciting!")

fourth stop (Day 8): Coyhaique
-van pìcks us up in marina. Holds 8 but squeezes 17 on. Half hour drive to another marina.
-24 hour boat ride goes on for 32 hours with smelly feet (reminiscent of Alex LaMotte), room full of loud snoring, 10 small children running around screaming, riding a scooter, turning the lights on and off, a guy with a boombox blasting reggaetone.... the list goes on. To give it some credit, it did have such perks as seeing beautiful islands and mountains go by as well as whale watching.
-Supposed to arrive at 8pm, gets in at 4am. No hotels. Cab to Coyhaique is our only option. $40 cab ride.
-Way too expensive hostel that looks as though it's been deserted. No heat (it's cold here) and you have to light the water heater to take a shower.
-On the bright side, we get to do a day hike in the nearby National Park.
-Finally realize that we can't go south because we'll never get there and our money may be gone if we have to endure one more week of this. Decide to go to a park that's north of here.
-Can get to park but then have to take a $40 cab to the entrance.
-Buy bus tickets to the only way out of this country: Chaiten where we will then buy tics to Futaleufu and then Argentina.

fifth stop (day 10): Chaiten
-Bus is actually a van. 12 hour ride on the Carretera Austral (all dirt) with a lively bunch of travelers from all over. This ends up being a pretty fun time.
-Chaiten is small and cute.
-We are told there is no way to Futaleufu for two days (of course!)
-Pay too much for a hostel but enjoy a lazy day drinking wine in an overgrown picnic area by the ocean. We wasted away the day finishing off our box of wine, eating fruit and avocados, and taking a long nap in the grass.
-Next morning the bus terminal tells us the bus is not only full but also broken. We offer to stand for the four hour drive. She gives in but that is only if the bus is fixed in time.
-No bus. But hey, they scrounged up something similar to a vw bus. yay!

Sixth stop (day 12): Futaleufu
-Another cute small town but a bunch of expat Americans who are a bit obnoxious.
-no bus to Argentina for two days (of course!)
-Find out the border is only about 6 miles away. Decide to hitch the next day with a German friend we made.
-No rides. Every car passes as we walk in the burning sun on the dirt road. I almost kiss the ground when we see the Argentina sign ("my homeland" as I keep telling Jeremy).

-Now it's only 20 miles to the next town. We attempt to hitch again. Three hours later as the border control was ready to close we found some friendly ex-Argentineans from Spain that said we could ride in the back of their pick up.
-Ahhhhhh Argentina!

(so maybe I didn't really keep that short...oops)

When I return...
I have already decided that someday I will return to do this the proper way. And now I know just how that will go. First I will be wealthier! Fly into Chile, rent a car (actually they are all SUVs but that's ok because the roads make it necessary) and drive down the Carretera Austral. This was our favorite part of Chile and I can only imagine how fun it would be to do the whole drive, stop in all the cute seaside towns, and finish up with a visit to Tierra Del Fuego. Ah, the idea of being self sufficient!!!

And to give Chile some credit...they did just elect their first woman President!

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Her Big Toe Nail is Disgusting....but worth it.

We are still in Chilé, but I thought I would write something about our trek outside Bariloche...fond memories of times past, not the calamity of our current travels.
I was looking over some notes that I had made, trying to think about what to write, so I just decided to make it as brief as I can and just put down some of the notes I made...
Note: The pics of Aimees GrossToe wouldn´t load from this computer, they should be coming soon.

Day 1.

-started out relatively easy, lots of greenery, and a well worn path, I think this is good, especially for Aims, since the cycling was a so hard and hot....earn a little trust back.
-walked through a field of dead trees, hundreds of them all along the mountainside.
-they didn´t have any peanut butter at the supermarcado, so it´s Nutella and Durazno (peach) jelly sandwiches, no peanut butter?
-we keep trying to re-pass the groups of hikers that pass us, who cares if they have lighter loads. need to stop doing this, especially if we are to do three days.
-near the end of the first day I was hoping that Aimee wasn´t going to push me over the edge, and into the ravine bellow, especially after the last half mile, extremely steep and exposed to the hot sun, great views of the adjoining mountains though.

Camp 1: Refugio Frey
-amazing views lakeside, and free camping, I could do this forever.
-climbed a little, ok a lot higher to see into the next valley-reminds me of hiking in CO with my Dad, sitting at the top of the world.
-I keep looking around while at the top thinking...where could the trail go from here, not over the top of that mountain right? Right?
-I go back down and drag Aimee to the top for sunset-she´s thinking of pushing again, but once at the top, the view is staggering.
-we can´t wait for dinner.
-reading Between Extremes by Brian Keenen and John McCarthy, a book I was given by Phil our friend from Leeds. Sorry Phil but I feel like strangling both Brian and his unhealthy obsession for Neruda. Interesting to hear another take on S.A. though.
-dinner is way too much meat, and even more rice, very good though, worth the wait.
-met a couple from Belgium at dinner, I think I started in about Cyclocross too quick. Although they do tell of two very good Flemish cycling movies...must check them out.
-walk back to the tent in the most inky black night I can remember, the stars are awesome...but thank you Erik for the notion to bring headlamps.

Day 2.
-bones are a little stiff from sleeping on the ground, I mean $2 sleeping mats.
-water is running short, so we do what everyone else is doing, fill from the lake, tastes ok...
-first climb is pretty easy, large boulders, one little snow covered stream, and another huge beautiful lake at the top, about an hour in.
-interesting snow walk next, angling up about half of the next basin.
-two well groomed Golden Retrievers (???) guarding the next turn, barking their heads off, what the hell are two GR´s doing out here, and where is their master? Many people clambering off the trail and up to avoid them.
-I take a wrong turn and things get real ugly and real steep quick. Someone is not happy. What could I do, the trails are not clearly marked.
-back track shakily
-on the right course and up to the top in no time flat, Aimee did really well, and at that point we had to make a decision to keep going, maybe another 5 or 6 hours, or turn and head to where there are some chairlifts down. I left it up to her, and she gave it a green light....
-down is kind of fun, jump...sliiiiide...jump....sliiiiiiide. I keep thinking of a Beasties lyric:"slide-ing, on down the hill"
-the bottom has to be one of the oldest forrests I have ever seen, amazing, and this place just seeps...old, everything is huge, and the light is coming through the trees "this is why we kept going I say"
-Nutella and Peach Jelly Sanwiches are the Bomb!
-it seems like we´re going up again, quick..the Israelies are gaining on us and we just passed them a little bit ago.
-next peak looks a little steeper than the last, and it seems to be snow at the top.
-now, I want to preface this by saying that heights don´t really unnerve me, and I´ve done my fair share of hiking, and climbing, but scrambling straight up a cliff face digging my bare hands in snow, footing slipping, while staring at the sun. ok ok, I was really scared.
-got to the top and the both of us were gasping for the rock.
-almost out of water
-can see the next refugio at the bottom
-had to Aimee to go faster as I can see she doesn´t have much left, the last few kilometers are a blur as we run out of water and our legs start shaking
-I remember we kept talking about our favorite foods, and what kinds of beer tasted best really cold, every kind.
-I can safely say this is the hardest hiking I have ever done...

Camp 2: Refugio Jakob
-rustic cabin overlooking another lake, situated on some huge rocks, waterfall across the way
-tired and sort of delirious as we wander around the camp area, soaking our feet, and gulping huge ammounts of spring water.
-the dinner tonight was simply put..exqusite...soup, gnocchi, meat, and dessert, just what we needed, we kept looking around for Nutella to put on our bread.
-older chatty couple from Buenos Aires, and a kayaker from France at our table. I told him, in french of course that my father and my uncle love kayaking.
-Aimee went right to sleep in the tent escape from the Tavanos (horsefly) and maybe from the hike we did too...I stayed out for a few minutes to look at the stars, it amazes me every time I get to a place where there is no light pollution, stars everywhere...
-Sun Salutations (Yoga) to stretch out the ol´ legs, Aimee always makes me look like some kind of stiff zombie during these exercises, but damn if they didn´t feel good.
-coffee, please coffee, un poco mas
-we actually felt pretty good this morning, and kind of anxious (maybe a little too much) to get back on the trail

Day 3.
-Aimee fell in the river the first chance she got. Luckily she was in good spirits about it, it was pretty funny though, she waited....and waited...and waited, and then jumped, and splash!
-Tavanos! Tavanos! I thought she might take another spill at any moment from all the swatting that was going on back there.
-the forest was pretty amazing, lots of bamboo rising above our heads, totally diferent than anything we had seen either day.
-the river that we were following was the bluest, cleanest river that I have ever seen.
-the Frenchie passed us.
-we passed the couple from B.A. and they started about an hour before us
-we came to the last big hill, not a mountain, just a steep incline up the trail I really did not think that Aims was going to make it up this one, from the way she was bobbing and weaving I didn´t think that she would make it much further on the flats I carried both our packs up the hill, and the next mile or so to the end. She was still lagging a little when we got there, but man if my heart wasn´t pounding, and my grin was as wide as my face for her, I couldn´t believe we made it.

Monday, February 06, 2006

My big toenail may be gone but it was worth it!

Jeremy and I departed our favorite city and headed into what we heard to be an awful tourist trap...Bariloche, Argentina. At first sight, we felt like someone dropped a small town from the Swiss Alps right into Argentina. Later we decided that due to the tourists this city brings in and the focus on spending big bucks and skiing it reminded us of what Aspen might be like. We took some quick pics of the st. bernards that walked around in the center square and then climbed several steep hills to find the cheapest hostels in the city (yet still one of the most expensive that we've stayed in). For the rest of our days there we tried to avoid the tourists but it was pretty difficult. Though Bariloche was a tourist trap, we had a delightful time. I will skip to the best part of our stay in the area though...and that was not in Bariloche at all.

It was in the heart of Patagonia that Jeremy and I had the best experience on our trip thus far (yes, we have had favorite cities and favorite restaurants but this was another favorite). It was probably also the most trying. We begun our three day trek through the Patagonian mountains from Villa Catedral, Argentina.

Day 1: a four hour hike through forests and winding hills overlooking a beautifully green lake with one tough uphill climb ending at Refugio Frey. We set up our tent, rested our weary legs, and tried to take a dip in the crystal clear lagoon but as it was a fresh spring, it was freezing cold. We were also wary of drinking from it but by the end of the trip that fear was long gone as we filled our Camelbaks without any resistance from every creek and lagoon we found. It was delicious. The refugio was one lone cabin-like structure with an outhouse beside it. It resided along the shore of the lagoon which was completely surrounded by mountains. Our dinner was more expensive than we had hoped but we were loaded with more meat and rice than we could handle. The small structure where one woman cooked up the meals for about seven people was lit by candles (as there is no electricity). We dined with a couple from Belgium and a man from Buenos Aires who sung in the choir and wore a button of Jack Nicholson from the Shining. Odd but so entertaining! After a rough sleep, we were back on the path (keep in mind, this was hardly a path at times...not something you would ever find in the States...hardly any signs, no guards patrolling, no emergency first aid, etc....just us and the woods/mountains/streams...and a few Israelis).

Day 2: a 8 hour hike consisting of three mountain climbs ending at Refugio Jakob. The first ascent consisted of easy to grip large rocks following a waterfall topped with a snow drift leading to another gorgeous lagoon. Following that, it was up a mountain of snow and boulders. Then straight down a mountain(and when I say "straight" I mean terrifyingly steep) of all (and when I say "all" I mean ALL) loose gravel. A refreshingly shady forest with another beautiful stream followed. Then...up yet again. This included a scary snow climb where even Jeremy admitted he was frightened for his life (I'm glad I wasn't the only one). Then down another straight mountainside of loose gravel but this time with rocks the size of footballs. It was this descent that I believe led to the fate of my toenail (we'll get to that later). I have to admit that this day's trek was the most energy draining and death-defying experience of my life(since I am scared of heights). By the time we reached the refugio we looked like we just crawled from battle. The lovely refugio workers took one look at us and offered us some beers. It was yet another small cabin structure alongside another amazingly clear fresh spring lagoon. They offered a three course meal of corn chowder, gnocchi with meat and sauce, and flan for dessert. We dined this time with a man from France who was there to kayak and a couple from Buenos Aires who also did the same trek that day. We were suprised to see the Israelis that we passed in the forest stroll in over two hours after us! I'm pretty proud that I even made it but was elated to find that I could do it faster than another person. Sleep that night was a bit more restful.

Day 3: a less rigorous trek of 5 hours beside a winding crystal clear river with rolling hills as the only obstacle. My legs and feet didn't want any of it though, no matter how rigorous. We woke to do some yoga to help our sore muscles, drank some coffee and got on the road again. I took an accidental dip in the river as I was trying to cross it which felt nice as running water hadn't been an option since we left Bariloche. As we reached the end of our journey, five hours later, I fell into a van that whisked us back to our hotel in Bariloche. All I could do was swallow some advil and rest my dead tired legs. After that we rejuvenated ourselves with some beer and pizza.

During the days following the trek I have watched my big toe slowly deteriorate, turn black, detach from my toe, and it will soon be gone forever. Yummie. I have to say that it was worth it. The days we spent trekking were the most exhilirating and fun of our travels so far. The views were spectacular! Being absolutely alone in the woods and on the sides of high-reaching mountains (with only a couple sightings of other trekkers) was such a great experience. Jeremy and I often discuss the constant "need to immerse oneself in culture"that travelers are always trying to acheive. We've decided that that's crap and focusing on that ideal only leads to further seperation from the culture. Instead, it's just a matter of living and learning without so much need for aspiring to an unatainable goal. Anywho, what I'm getting at is that it's almost impossible to get lost in the world down here without being an outsider (in some sense) but this trek taught us the most thus far about the region and the differences between our culture and this particular one. Without the need for constant human contact, showers, and an easy escape route, we were truly In Patagonia.