Wednesday, December 30, 2009
Since my father and his wife Joyce were visiting us in Buenos Aires for Christmas, we checked in to the luxurious downtown Plaza Hotel to await their arrival. For the last week of our sixteen months in South America, we would be living at a very different standard than we had become accustomed to. Uniformed attendants opened the polished brass doors as we entered the marble lobby and a bellman took our bags to our room. Our suite of rooms was just slightly smaller than our apartment in San Francisco, and I leapt on to the fantastic bed (complete with down mattress cover and eight fluffy pillows) as Chris turned on both of our flat screen TVs. To get in to the Christmas spirit, we went to a nearby dollar store and bought the best plastic Christmas tree, lights, and sparkly bangles $15 can buy.
Despite the snow storm that shut down most of northeastern US travel for 24 hours and resulted in the cancellation of their flight, Dad and Joyce managed to catch a flight only a day later than they had originally planned. After they arrived in Buenos Aires, we immediately hit the packed streets around our hotel for a little shopping. Buenos Aires is known for its cutting edge fashion as well as inexpensive leather products, so we wandered the streets for a couple of hours, avoiding the stores with agressive hawkers inviting their 'friends' in for a 'special bargain.' In addition to the fantastic shopping during the day, we ended most evenings enjoying fine wine and food. My father quickly settled in to a routine of ordering a refreshing white Torrontés to accompany appetizers and a rich Malbec to compliment huge steaks.
While taking a tour of the city to get a feel for its many different neighborhoods, we stopped at the Cementario de la Recoleta. This elaborate cemetery guards the remains of Buenos Aires' elite families who pay dearly for some of the most expensive real estate in Argentina. Walking the narrow alleys of the cemetery we recognized names that are commonly used for streets in any town in Argentina, such as Sarmiento, Mitre, and Alvear, but we were headed for the cemetery's most visited resident: Evita Peron. Luckily when we visited the cemetery, it was almost empty. We visited her grave without waiting in a line that can stretch around the corner. Some mausoleums were constructed from immaculate marble with elaborate statues guarding the entrance of tombs complete with stained glass windows. Others were crumbling into rubble, the tomb's entrance a mess of broken glass and wooden shards.
We spent our last day in Buenos Aires with my parents wandering the picturesque streets of the San Telmo neighborhood. Every Sunday this area hosts a huge antiques fair, complete with tango dancing demonstrations and empanada vendors on every corner. We lingered over some beautiful old seltzer bottles, as well as soon cool gaucho equipment, but decided our bags were already too full to fit just one more thing. After they left that night, we spent another 48 hours in Argentina before heading to the airport ourselves. And now, this is it: our last blog post from Latin America. At 5:30 am December 30th we took off from Buenos Aires International Airport on a flight (via Panama City, Panama and Houston, Texas) to Miami, Florida. I never thought I would say this, but I'm ready to stop traveling for a while. We are looking forward to some quality family time in the United States as we figure out what we want to do with our lives. Taking this trip has been one of the best things we have done with our lives, and I know it has permanently changed us. Still to come for those who are interested: a greatest hits list, and an estimated budget for those considering a similar trip. Thanks for reading our blog and sharing the last 18 amazing months with us.
Monday, December 14, 2009
After six tranquillo days on Panagea ranch, we drove a beautiful route through the heart of gaucho Uruguay to the coast. We stopped halfway to the coast at a canyon called Quebrada de las Cuervas and shared the campground that night with about 200 high school students from Montevidéo. Luckily the campground was large so we managed to avoid most of the chaos. Waking up the next morning we took an interesting hike in to the nearby canyon. The hiking trail consisted mainly of ropes to help hikers scramble down almost vertical jumbles of rocks to reach the rushing river below. After pulling ourselves back up the canyon wall, we continued on to the coast.
The weather got cold and cloudy as we reached the beach in the small town of La Paloma, so we pulled out our winter clothes as we set up our campsite by the shore. We were a little worried about the pine trees groaning in the wind around our car. After caballo's narrow escape from the tornado, we felt it might be pushing our luck to park below so many creaking branches. One branch crashed harmlessly to the ground about ten feet from our car, so that blessing from Copacabana, Bolivia, still must be functioning.
After a week without internet, we pulled out our laptops in our Wifi-enabled campground and tried to catch up. My heart sank as I read an email from the company we thought we had a reservation with for shipping our car back to the states. Turns out the boat wasn't going to the US after all. Several weeks ago when we made the reservation, the shipping agent neglected to mention that when they told us a boat was scheduled to go to Florida, there wasn't actually any confirmed cargo for that boat (and our car isn't enough to send an ocean tanker anywhere). No shipments had come through, so they were canceling the trip. Panicked I called the shipper and they really couldn't help us. They recommended we contact K-Line, another shipper, to see if they had any ships sailing. Luckily I quickly was able to confirm a K-Line ship sailing from Buenos Aires to Florida a week later than we had originally planned. Given this change of plans, we had an extra week to burn before we needed to return to Buenos Aires. After spending four days checking out the coastal cities of Punta del Este, Piriápolis, and Montevidéo, we returned to the estancia Panagea for another week of ridin', wrangling', and wraslin'.
With great trepidation we then returned to Buenos Aires and headed to the port. After dealing with paperwork, corruption, and inefficiency when we shipped our car from Panamá to Colombia, we were ready for a fight. Amazingly, we arrived at the port, met with the aduana (customs) to show some documents, crossed the hall from the aduana to the shippers, and the keys were out of our hands within thirty minutes. The hardest part of the process was actually finding the port. Fingers crossed that the car will show up on January 17 in Jacksonville Florida. For detailed information about shipping the car, please see our Drive the Americas website. Next and last on the agenda for our trip, holidays in Buenos Aires with some family.
While sitting in downtown Tacuarembó (30 minutes from the estancia) using the free Wifi around the town square, our car and its California license plates attracted the attention of a local news team. They brought over a reporter, camera, and microphone, and proceeded to interview us for five minutes in Spanish. For all of our Spanish speaking friends, please try not to laugh too hard at our terrible Spanish. Our Spanish deteriorated under the pressure of becoming a local celebrity. See the YouTube video or watch it below. The subtitles I added indicate what we meant to say, minus all of the grammatical errors and other embarrassments.
Monday, November 30, 2009
While many tourists know Uruguay for its beautiful beaches and the coastal city of Montevideo, the interior of the country is home to rolling hills and picturesque ranches. The tradition of the gaucho (cowboy) goes deep in to Uruguay's history when the land was first settled by European immigrants. Today gauchos still work the ranches of southern Brazil, Uruguay, Chile, and Argentina. Looking to learn more about the gaucho lifestyle, we stayed for six days on the beautiful Panagea ranch in Tacuarembó Department, Uruguay. This is not a tourist ranch with a few token animals and basic follow-the-leader horseback riding. This is a working ranch where you quickly learn to saddle your own horse to head out to the fields to herd cattle and sheep.
Our days followed a vigorous schedule: riding in the morning to round up either a flock of sheep or a herd of cattle, lunch and a quick siesta, then an afternoon ride to move more animals. Two afternoons we gathered sheep in one of the pens, separated the lambs from the older sheep, and dosed the lambs with an anti-worm vaccination (this process is called drenching). This required bringing the sheep from a large field into a small area, wading into a squirming pack of sheep, and plucking out the lambs by the stomach to haul the unwilling patients for their medicine. The lambs were funny though; while they panicked when we were shouting them from one pen to another, as soon as they were picked up they just went limp. We spent another two tiring afternoons splashing around in ankle-deep manure dividing male from female calves. Waving white flags to chase the cows in to a small pen, we then had to avoid getting our feet stomped on while we doing this dirty work. As a reward for our labors we went swimming in the nearby river before downing cold beers in anticipation of another amazing meal.
The first two days on the ranch we shared the chores with a tour group traveling from Rio to Buenos Aires. Once they departed, we got to know our hosts Juan and Susannah better as they had fewer responsibilities. Juan's family has farmed this ranch for the last 70 years. He explained that when the beaches of Uruguay became a popular tourist destination, he decided to open his ranch to tourists because he wanted to show them the true soul of Uruguay. We immediately appreciated his sentiment. His ranch is beautifully situated on rolling hills crisscrossed by rushing rivers and spotted with stands of eucalyptus trees. The sheep and cattle share the land with his horses, dogs, and the huge variety of birds we admired when riding through the grassy fields. We had originally planned on staying four nights, but we couldn't leave this paradise of fresh air, hard work, and good company so quickly so decided to stay an additional two nights.
Monday, November 23, 2009
After a hectic week in Buenos Aires figuring out the details of shipping our car and ourselves back to the United States, we were ready to hit the road again. We have three weeks to explore Uruguay and will divide our time between hot springs, a working ranch, and the beach. First stop, camping at the Guaviyu hot springs in Western Uruguay. We wouldn't be exactly roughing it, as many campgrounds in this southern part of South America have Wifi, electrical outlets, hot showers, restaurants, parillas (grills) and/or swimming pools. Uruguayans take their camping seriously and raise camping to a higher art form. When we rolled in to Guaviyu, some people were watching TV in tents just a little smaller than a San Francisco studio apartment. Gangs of lime-green parakeets flitted from tree to tree squawking enthusiastically. We popped up our camper and chilled out for a sunny afternoon reading in the shade and trying to remember how to play Poker.
After a spectacular sun-rise thunderstrorm, the next day we explored the huge complex of swimming pools filled with naturally heated 37C/98F mineral water. Talking with a grill-meister working in one of the restaurants near the hot springs, he asked us where we were from and how we liked Uruguay. When Chris responded that he liked how 'tranquilo' Uruguay seemed, he replied 'Si, es muy MUY tranquilo aqui' (Yes, it's very VERY laid back here). And he's right - between the kids splashing in the warm water, the families sitting around talking for hours, and the groups of bathrobe-clad adults wandering around with their maté gourds and thermoses, this place exudes tranquilo. We quickly fell under the tranquilo spell and somehow five days slipped by effortlessly. We head north-east tomorrow to spend four nights on a working ranch, trying to get to know the life of the gaucho (cowboy).
Tuesday, November 17, 2009
We marked a milestone in our travels this week: we know when the trip will be 'done'. We will arrive back in the United States on a not-so-direct flight from Buenos Aires to Panama City to Houston to Miami around midnight on December 30th.
After spending a food-, wine-, and Sopranos-filled week with Kelsey and Tom at the lovely beach resort town of Pinamar, we headed north to our ultimate destination, Buenos Aires. We spent a week in Buenos Aires doing a little sightseeing, but mainly running around the greater Buenos Aires area trying to figure out how to ship our car back to the states. Through our Drive the Americas website I had two good leads on potential shipping companies, and one of them, Multimar, offered a good price and good timing. Their next boat was leaving for the states on December 13th, and the car would delivered to Tampa Florida for under $1,300. Relieved that we found an economical option, we booked a spot on the good ship 'Pluto Leader' and then tried to figure out the necessary paperwork. Since Multimar typically helps exporters ship hundreds to thousands of cars, they didn't really know what paperwork would be necessary for one used car being shipped by its owners. After visiting the aduana (customs) in two locations in Buenos Aires and 70 miles away at the port where our ship would sail, we finally found out that (supposedly) we don't need any special paperwork. A very different process than the maze of bureaucracy we had to navigate in Panama to get our car to Colombia. We'll see if it's all so easy when we arrive at the port and try to put our car on the ship on December 6th. And of course I will post full shipping details on Drive the Americas once the process is complete.
We also marked a much sadder milestone during our time in Buenos Aires: we said goodbye to Tom and Kelsey. While we have been saying hello and goodbye to them throughout this trip as we meet up and then travel separately for different periods of time, it has always been a comfort to know that we will see them somewhere in our near future. With both of our trips ending in Buenos Aires in the next month, it finally came time to say goodbye for an indeterminate period of time. While we are discussing a reunion in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for Carnival in 2010, it will still be much too long of a time before we can share some red wine over a sparking parilla. They have been one of our favorite parts of this trip, and while we are still traveling in Uruguay for a couple of weeks before returning to Buenos Aires for our last weeks in South America, the trip definitely feels like it is winding down.
Stay tuned: while we won't be seeing Tom and Kelsey in person for a bit, the four of us have a new website in the works...we will announce it here when it formally launches.
Friday, October 30, 2009
We watched the glacier calve for several hours before the approaching snowstorm and whipping winds drove us back into the warm comfort of Caballo. I think we did a little damage to our poor car's undercarriage on the next day's drive. Five hours of gravel roads separated us from paved highways. Because the scenery was so monotonous and the road completely empty we might have driven a little quickly. We tried to ignore the frequent sound of large stones ricocheting off whatever is under our car, some hitting the undercarriage so hard we could feel the impact through our feet on the car's floor. Miraculously we made the drive without any flat tires (and apparently without puncturing the gas tank or whatever other important things reside under the car) and gratefully pulled on to smooth Ruta 3. After two days hard driving along the coast we arrived at our next destination, Punta Tombo.
Monday, October 26, 2009
Well, the end of the road, not exactly the end of the trip. At 1:27 pm on October 23, 2009, we reached the very end of the road in the most southern city in the world. We were joined by our friends Tom and Kelsey, who we met on the road in Mexico over a year ago, for a celebratory picnic. We toasted this milestone in our trips with a bottle of red wine from a Patagonian vineyard and shivered as the winds picked up. Tierra del Fuego National Park in the springtime isn't exactly the warmest place for a picnic, but we were buoyed by our accomplishment. We finally called it quits when it started to drizzle and headed back to the heat and comfort of our bed and breakfast.
Looking for El Glaciar Martial
voyage from Panama to Colombia. The waves were crazily rocking the boat as they splashed over the hull, but luckily we made enough stops near islands (and areas of relatively calm water) that my stomach had a couple of chances to calm down. We first circled around the Faro (Lighthouse) Les Eclaireurs. Built in 1919, this lighthouse is considered a symbol of the city of Ushuaia. Nearby we floated next to Isla de los Lobos (Wolf Island), a small island covered with South American Sea Lions. I think it's interesting that the animals we call sea lions are called sea wolves in Spanish. Isla de los Pájaros (Bird Island) was covered with nesting cormorants who were busy flying to and from the island carrying moss and sticks to construct their nests.
Lastly we took a quick walk on Bridge Island. We first stopped by the remnants of a shell midden, the home structure of the original people of Tierra del Fuego. The Yamana may be the most hard-core people who have ever inhabited the earth. Here I was, clad in Gortex and fleece, and I was shaking from the cold and wind. The Yamana did not wear clothes - ever. They kept warm by huddling in a crouching position around fires and by smearing themselves with sea lion grease. Apparently they evolved to have a higher metabolism than other humans so they didn't need clothes to keep them warm even in sub-freezing temperatures. The women actually swam in the frigid oceans surrounding Tierra del Fuego to hunt for shellfish. They could survive sleeping outside without shelter because of their biologically unique adaptation. Of course their contact with European explorers was disastrous and the last full blood Yamana person, Cristina Calderon, is 95. She is also the last person who speaks the Yamana language. We took a quick hike around the island before bundling back on the ship to take shelter from the biting winds.
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
Leaving Trevelin we tried not to think about the 1,200 miles that separated us from Ushuaia. A long, boring drive awaits, but we did see some interesting things on the way. Here are a few of the random thoughts and observations that have been rolling around my brain the last couple of days that we spent speeding down the highway.
On our drive across Patagonia, one of the few notable things we saw were official roadsigns stating that 'Las Malvinas Son Argentinas' or 'The Falkand Islands Are Argentinian.' An interesting point, but I think from most historical and political perspectives, pretty whack. The history of the Falkland Islands is complicated. Originally uninhabited, they started being slowly settled by sheep ranchers, pirates, and castaways in the 1700s. At some point they have been claimed as property by France, Spain, the Netherlands, the UK, and Argentina, but the UK and Argentina have been fighting over its sovereignty since the mid 1800s. By the 1980s, the island was mainly inhabited by English speaking descendants of Welsh and British immigrants who preferred to be citizens of the UK. However, Argentina continued to assert that they owned the islands. In 1982 Argentina was facing economic collapse, so then President Galtieri attempted to stir national pride and distract from the economic situation by sending Argentinian troops to the islands to remove the occupying UK forces. The UK, led by Margaret Thatcher, responded with overwhelming force and the poorly trained teenage forces of Argentina were totally routed within 72 days. Despite this defeat, to this day Argentina claims the Falkland Islands and relations with the UK continue to be chilly.
At a lonely gas station about halfway through our journey down the Atlantic coast we spotted a wind-burned bicyclist fueling up on cookies and soda. Curious about his journey, Chris stopped to chat. Turns out that Scott is very close to breaking the world record for the fastest bike-ride from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, to Ushuaia, Argentina. The previous bicyclist had done it in something like 140 days, and Scott was on track to break the record by about 2 weeks. Biking an average of 110 miles a day, and taking only 3 days off in the last 4 months, Scott has survived what I consider to be the ultimate physical and mental challenge. I can't imagine spending that much time alone, biking through unfamiliar countries, camping on the side of the road, and enduring rain, snow, wind, burning sun and who knows what other extreme conditions.
Saturday, October 17, 2009
Great weather, company, and food have marked our last couple of days in the Lakes District. Somewhere on the internet I connected with a couple who own a small sheep farm outside of El Bolson. Donna and Moti invited us to camp on their farm if we ever passed through, so we took them up on their offer. Gracious hosts, they stuffed us with great food and we spent a warm evening sharing travel stories and discussing politics. The next morning we admired their new baby lambs and enjoyed the company of a constant stream of neighbors who stopped by the chat in rapid-fire Spanish.
We next visited the Parque Nacional Los Alerces at the southern edge of Argentina's Lakes District. This will be the last we see of mountains for a long time as we're headed to the Atlantic coast of Patagonia. We spent a crisp night camped on a huge lake and then hiked up to some waterfalls for a mid-day picnic. We decided to splurge the next day in Trevelin as we'd been spending some cold nights in our camper, and had a very long drive ahead of us. The small town of Trevelin was settled by Welsh farmers in the 1800s, and Welsh is still spoken by some of its inhabitants today. Along with their language, the Welsh carried over the delicious tradition of tea time. Tea houses line Trevelin's main street, and we stuffed ourselves with amazing bread, scones, cakes, and pastries before relaxing in our warm cabin for a cozy afternoon. A long road awaits us in the next couple of days as we push for the end of the road in Ushuaia.
Friday, October 16, 2009
Driving south down the Ruta del Sol (Route of the Sun) in Chile, ironically we headed back in to a grey drizzle. A rainy night camping at the side of the road helped push us back across the Andes into Argentina in search of sun. The fog began to lift but was replaced somewhat surprisingly by a fairly serious snow storm. As we headed up into the black and white landscape the snow became to fall more intensly. We were reassured by the slow but steady stream of cars passing us in the other direction with Argentinian license plates, taking this as a sign that the border was still open. While it was freezing with driving snow at the border, we did manage to cross and noted with satisfaction as we descended from the Andes the snow thinned before disappearing into sunny blue skies. We headed south down Ruta 40 to the Lakes District of Argentina.
We descended through arid high plains that slowly changed to green rolling hills. After a quick night in the hip town of Junin de los Andes we followed the "Seven Lakes Drive"to the alpine city of Bariloche. Three hours on a mix of open highway and hard packed dirt mountain roads took us through gorgeous snow capped peaks, turquoise lakes, and rustic log cabins. While we've never visited Banff or Aspen, we imagine Bariloche has a similar feel with its scandinavian inspired wood buildings, gourmet chocolate stores, microbreweries, and idyllic location perched on the blue waters of a wide windy lake. We'll continue to explore the lakes district for the next week before heading south for the glaciers of southern Patagonia.
Sunday, October 4, 2009
Driving south through Bolivia to the Argentinian border, we gratefully descended from the barren desert of the altiplano into colorful canyonlands. I finally felt my shoulders relax from the cold-driven hunch I had been maintaining for most of the last 6 weeks we had spent in Bolivia. After a warm night in Tupiza, we continued south for the border. Miraculously, having a car at this border actually sped our process through the bureaucracy. The border agents inexplicably instructed us to cut in front of busloads of people to process our passports and car import papers. While I enjoyed Bolivia, when we crossed into Argentina it immediately felt like a bit of a homecoming: paved highways with 110 kph speed limits, farms with gas-powered (as opposed to animal- or human-powered) farming equipment, and leafy trees.
Mendoza. Luckily for us Tom and Kelsey had already scouted out a fantastic apartment/hotel, and we arrived as they were uncorking a bottle of wine and setting out a plate of antipasto. The timing continued to worked out really well for us, as we had just landed another website development job. The four of us spent five feverish days putting together NewsroomPanama powered by many liters of fine Argentinian red wine and amazing steak.
With the initial website development complete, we spent an afternoon biking around the vineyards surrounding Mendoza. Chris and I looked super-cool on our sweet single speed tandem bike. We spent several enjoyable hours gorging on cheese and bread, red and white wine, and olive oil and chocolate. The next day we headed across the snowy Andes for more wine in Chile at the Concha y Toro vineyards outside of Santiago. As opposed to the small vineyards we visited in Argentina, Concha y Toro is one of the biggest vineyards in the world. We visited some of their huge wine caves and tasted two wines, although for a large operation their wine tasting was a little small. We next head for the coastal town of Pichilemu to look for some surf.
Saturday, September 19, 2009
A bumpy 7 hour drive on dirt roads from Potosi brought us to the dusty town of Uyuni. Endurance, dust, and cold are three general themes we have come to expect when visiting many of the starkly beautiful areas of the Bolivian altiplano (high plains). Our three day tour of the salt flat and desert of southeastern Bolivia met those expectations and then some. After piling our belongings on the roof of a Toyota Land Cruiser and cramming 6 tourists, a driver, and a cook into its tight quarters, we set out to explore. I think Land Cruisers would be crowded with 7 people, so us 8 occupants got to know each other quite quickly. We made a quick stop at the 'train graveyard' littered with rusty wrecks of abandoned steam engines before heading into the blinding white sea of salt called the Salar de Uyuni. Distant mountains hovered like alien spaceships above the salt flats from the mirages, and we stopped at a strange cactus-covered island for lunch. The brilliant sun reflecting off the white salt almost could make us forget the below-freezing night-time temperatures.
Driving for several hours after lunch we left the Salar and headed into a desolate landscape. Rocks sculpted by the wind and hardy shrubs dotted the desert. We made a quick stop in the Galaxy Caves to view fossilized seaweed and pre-Inca burial tombs before driving three more hours to the tiny town of San Pedro. The sun was setting as we pulled into our simple hostel, and we think the bare lightbulbs in our rooms were the only lights in the whole village. The generator clunked off around 10 pm, so our group quietly went to bed anticipating an early start the next morning. So far from any cities or lights, the Milky Way spilled across the black night sky.
chinchillas darted among rocks and bushes. While in some ways we felt like this was the farthest we had traveled from 'civilization,' the clouds of dust kicked up by the constant stream of tourists being ferried in caravans of 4x4s around the desert reminded us we were not exactly off the beaten trail.
After visiting the hot spring, desert, and laguna, we still had 7 hours of driving in front of us. Packed in between my fellow tourists in the tiny space I felt hypnotized by the constantly rocking Land Cruiser as it skidded down sandy roads and lurched over rocks. Filthy and wind-burnt we rumbled into Uyuni in the evening, gratefully devoured a large pizza, had a quick shower, and enjoyed an uninterrupted and relatively warm night sleep at our hostel. We took faithful caballo out for a spin on the Salar the next day, but otherwise recuperated in our hotel room. Tomorrow we start a 1000 mile grind to Mendoza Argentina to meet our friends Tom and Kelsey.