Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Our last huzzah

Night on the streets of Buenos Aires

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.

Busy shoppers on Calle Florida

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.

Around the sparkling dollar-store tree Christmas night

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.

Elaborate statues in the Recoleta Cemetary

We also took a one-hour boat ride across the mouth of the Rio de la Plata to visit the exquisitely preserved town of Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay. The oldest town in Uruguay, it was originally settled by Portugal in 1680, and changed hands many times between Portugal, Spain, and Brazil before the entire independent country of Uruguay was established in 1828. We wandered its rough cobble stone streets, peeked in some preserved homes, and enjoyed a quiet lunch on the main town square before heading back to Buenos Aires later that afternoon.

Lighthouse built in the remains of a crumbling cathedral in Colonia de Sacramento

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.

Old seltzer bottles for sale in San Telmo

Monday, December 14, 2009

Somehow it all worked out in the end

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.

Quebrada de las Cuervas, Uruguay

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.

Windworn Virgin greets people on the beach in La Paloma

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'.

Piglets on the Panagea Ranch

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.

Epilogue

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

Seeing the soul of Uruguay

Old-timey portrait of Chris with his trusty horse and faithful dog

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.

Bilingue gathering the horses for our morning ride

After an afternoon lesson from the owner, Juan, and a quick ride to see some of the countryside, we tucked in to what would be the first in a series of memorable meals. Juan's partner Susannah, despite nursing a four-month-old baby and working with a kitchen equipped only with wood burning stoves, cooked delicious stews, meats, breads and vegetables consisting of food mainly farmed on the ranch. We got to know our fellow gauchos-in-training that night during the two hours of electricity provided by a gas-powered generator, and retired to bed when the lights went out. The next morning would start with breakfast at 6:30 am followed by our first ride of the day at 7:30. Juan reassured us that we would be awakened plenty early by the hundreds of ibises who nest in the trees around the house. Sure enough as the sun was rising the next morning a tremendous squawking roused us from bed.

Kristin taking a break from sheep drenching

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.

Hummingbirds buzzed the feeder sunny afternoons

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.

Herding sheep across a stream

Our last night was marred by the arrival of a violent thunderstorm accompanied by a small tornado. When riding back towards the house after our last afternoon ride, we could see ominous clouds boiling over the ranch. Lightening began to flash with strobe-light frequency as the storm bore down. Over two inches of rain fell in less than an hour while the winds whipped the poor ibises out of the trees. When the storm broke after dinner we headed out to survey the damage. Confused ibises looked around on the ground, surrounded by branches and fallen trees. We think in the dark they couldn't see well enough to fly back in to their customary nesting trees. In the pitch black we could make out one tree leaning against the roof of the house. We all headed quietly for bed and woke the next morning to scene of destruction. Many of the large old trees surrounding the house had been ripped from the ground, one puncturing the roof over a bathroom. Our car very narrowly escaped being crushed by a huge branch, surviving with only a small dent to the hood.

Four feet to the right and no more caballo

Juan solemnly handled the destruction as he took a quick survey of his lands before helping us load our belongings in to the car. We were leaving that morning with the remaining three tourists. Because of the rains the rivers had flooded the roads on the quicker route to Tacuarembo, so we had to take a muddy long-cut through ranches to get to the city. Putting our faithful car caballo to the test, we skidded through huge mud puddles and up rutted roads, towing Juan's truck out of a couple of tough patches. We were very sad to leave the ranch but are already plotting our return, maybe coupled to our date with Tom and Kelsey for Carnival in 2011. Staying on this ranch was definitely one of the highlights of our whole trip through Latin America.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Achieving tranquilo

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.


Parakeets hiding in the trees

There are two activities that the people of Uruguay take even more seriously than camping: the art of the parilla (grill) and the pleasure of maté. Every noon and evening the delicious smell of burning wood and sizzling meat filled the air of our campground as meat artists grilled huge portions of cows on giant parillas. The cows in southern South America must be very happy, because we have been eating some of the most delicious, tender, and inexpensive beef of our lives. Two huge T-bone steaks cost around $4, enough meat and sausage for 4 people can be purchased for around $6. And Uruguayans are purists when it comes to their parillas: no gas grills, no lighter fluid, no charcoal. Just dry leña (wood). Another pleasure here is the ritual of drinking maté. Yerba maté looks like loose-leaf tea and is made from the leaves and twigs of a species of holly. It is dried and then drunk as a potent infusion. A dried hollowed-out gourd serves as the cup. The gourd is filled with yerba maté, small amounts of hot water are poured over the yerba maté, and then the drinker sips the liquid through a bombilla (straw) with a filter at the end to keep the yerba maté pieces in the gourd. People here walk, drive, and work with their mate gourd and handy thermos of hot water so they can sip away at this bitter beverage all day. For a great video on how to make mate, see Kelsey's blog post on maté, complete with instructional video.

Chris grillin' like a villain

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).

Demonstrating the art of mate

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Homeward bound - on December 30th 2009

Launch party with cul-de-sacs, Nicaragua, January 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.

Beers at the Waikiki in Panama City, April 2009

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.

Sailing from Panama to Colombia, April 2009

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.

Caribbean beaches of Colombia, May 2009

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.

The end of the raod in Ushuaia Argentina, October 2009

Friday, October 30, 2009

All cold things great and small

Glacier Perito Moreno in Glaciers National Park, El Calafate Argentina

A general theme of our trip through Argentinian Patagonia has been the cold: wearing every available layer of clothing to stay warm, huddling in our ECamper at night to hide from the winds, complaining about the cold, lusting after the heat wave that is currently baking Buenos Aires. Because of this cold though, we were able to see two really unique things. After leaving Ushuaia we spent two long days driving northwest to reach Glaciers National Park outside of El Calafate. Home to the world's third largest ice cap (Antarctica and Greenland are numbers one and two), this national park also boasts one of the world's most accessible glaciers, Perito Moreno. It's easy to get right next to this glacier without donning crampons or hiking any distance. We just drove our car up to the parking lot, walked about 100 yards on a well maintained board walk, and the glacier was staring right at us. I have never seen a glacier before and it blew me away. Towering more than 200 ft over Lake Argentina, deep aquamarine and cobalt blues radiated from inside the glacier's icy towers. Huge chunks of the glacier periodically calved off and crashed into the lake. The initial whip-crack of the ice breaking followed by huge chunks of ice cannonballing into the lake sounded like thunder rumbling from the surrounding mountains.



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.

Magellenic Penguin stretching his wings at Punta Tombo Provincial Preserve

Punta Tombo is home to the world's second largest colony of Magellenic Penguins. Between September and April thousands of penguins arrive to lay eggs and hatch their young. The penguins dig nests in the gravelly dirt and protect their eggs as a couple, occasionally taking turns to waddle down to the water to fish. These little guys may be some of the cutest animals I have ever seen. They seem quite unperturbed by people walking next to their nests, and some will walk right by you like they don't even see you (kind of like being in high school). While penguins are awkward on land, flopping down on their white bellies to bask in the sun or slowly making their way up from the beach, once they hit the water they turn in to sweet swimming torpedos. We wandered among their nests for several hours before hitting the road again. As we get closer to our final destination of Buenos Aires, the long hours in the car seem to get more tiresome. We plan to relax in the beach resorts just south of Buenos Aires for a week or so before hitting the big city.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The End

Here ends Route 3: Buenos Aires 3,079 km, Alaska 17,848 km

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

Deciding to brave the falling snow the next day, we hiked into the mountains around Ushuaia to visit the Martial Glacier. While the surrounding mountains were beautiful and the sun managed to peek through the swirling clouds, we're not sure we saw the glacier (or maybe we were walking on it). It's not a large glacier and has receeded significantly in the last century so apparently it's easy to miss. We amused ourselves by sledding down the steep glacial mountainsides and enjoyed the stunning views over the Bay of Ushuaia.

Faro Les Eclaireures

We also took a 4 hour boat tour of the islands of the Beagle Canal that separates Argentinian Tierra del Fuego from Chilean islands to the south. Shortly after our boat left the port I started to have flashbacks to our fateful 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.

Cormorants nesting on cleverly named Bird Island

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.

Sea lions warming up after a cold dip in the water

Now that we've reached the end of the road, we are headed back to Buenos Aires where we will finish our trip. For the first time in fourteen months, we are actually headed towards home, and it kind of feels nice.


Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Random observations from a very long drive

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.

The end of the line for the Patagonia Express

We first made a quick stop in the city of Esquel to see the end of the line of the Patagonia Express, an old railroad that used to traverse much of Argentina. When we first started seriously planning for this trip over two years ago, we read a bunch of travel novels about Latin America. One of my favorites was a novel by Paul Theroux, The Old Patagonia Express. He chronicled his travels from Boston, Massachusetts to Esquel. Whenever possible, he traveled by train, taking buses or flying only when absolutely necessary. Though I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys great writing and a cynical sense of humor, I would not suggest that someone interested in learning about Latin America read his novel. He made this trip in the late 1970s when many countries were extremely unstable due to civil wars and/or dictators. While poverty and corruption still plague many countries in Latin America today, I think the situation has improved greatly. And beyond the social or political situations in the 1970s, Paul Theroux himself seems like he's probably a pretty depressing guy. He could put a negative spin on any situation, and tends to put himself in particularly difficult circumstances, like taking a train through Latin America in the 1970s. Trains back then apparently were the mode of transportation of last resort for the poorest people, so frequent breakdowns, filthy conditions, and desperate poverty surrounded him during his travels. The Patagonia Express' traveling distance has been greatly reduced since Paul Theroux's travels, although within the last ten years some of the track has been restored and the train's itinerary extended.

Leaving behind the Andes for the bleak Atlantic Coast of Patagonia

Leaving Esquel we headed southeast across upper Patagonia on a long drive for the Atlantic coast. This was the last we would see of the Andes, trees, hills, or lakes for several days as we entered the desert of coastal Patagonia. Small towns and sheep farms infrequently interrupted our drive. While driving through this vast ranching country, we observed an unsolved mystery. The first time I saw this phenomenom, I thought it was some sort of freak accident, but after a couple of sightings it became obvious that this was done on purpose. Barbed wire fences stretch for miles along the freeway, keeping the sheep, horses and cattle (for the most part) off the road. Strangely, dead animals were strung up on these fences every once in a while - mainly dogs, the occasional sheep, and I think I saw a rhea (looks like a small ostrich). We have no idea who does this or why this happens. If you really want to see a picture of a sad animal strung up on a fence, click here. And if anyone knows why people do this, please leave a comment, we are very curious.

That's one way of thinking about it

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.

High winds warning (and they weren't kidding)

While the roads are good in Patagonia, driving was still challenging because of whipping winds that constantly rocked our car. The highways are peppered with a silly excess of a road signs (quite a change from the rest of Latin America), but in particular our favorite was the 'high winds' warning sign. We had to pass a couple of these before we realized what they signified. An evil combination of these crazy winds, the high speeds allowed by the empty highways, and the day-long drives added up to some whopping gas bills. Since we were blowing through our daily budget on gas alone we tried to live cheaply. Luckily this is easy in Argentina if you like camping. Many of the wonderful gas stations in Argentina have free camping areas, in addition to great cafes, high-speed wifi, clean bathrooms, and hot showers. Both the YPF and Petrobras gas stations served as our home for the three nights we spent on the road in Patagonia.

Chris signing Scott's guestbook

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.

The first sign of something interesting in 3 days in Tierra del Fuego, Chile

By a strange quirk of geography and politics, to get to the end of the road in Ushuaia, Argentina, you have to drive through Chile. We hit the first Argentina-Chile border in the morning and sped through the customs and migration process. We then crossed the straights of Magellan by car ferry to finally enter Tierra del Fuego, where the road turned from smooth pavement to rough ripio (gravel). While less than 100 miles of Chile separate Patagonia, Argentina from Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, it was a rough drive. We image that Chile doesn't have much incentive to pave a road that is really only used by people trying to get from Argentina to Argentina. At the second Chile-Argentina border, Argentina proudly marked the beginning of pavement again with a large sign. We saw snow-capped mountains peeking over the desert, and as we got closer to Ushuaia the landscape changed dramatically. Two hours later we pulled in to the southern-most city in the world as the crescent moon rose over its quiet bay. Next up: the end of the road.

Drinking mate and driving for 3 solid days

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Tea time in sheep country

Frolicking lambs at Donna and Moti's farm outside of El Bolson

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.

Hiking in Parque Nacional Los Alerces

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.

Herding sheep in Patagonia

Friday, October 16, 2009

A watery two weeks

Picnic on the Chilean Coast in Pichilimeu

After crossing the border from Argentina to Chile, we drove under cloudy skies to the blustery Pacific coast. We happily settled in to our deluxe camping in Pichilemu at Pequeño Bosque - electrical outlets, high-speed wireless internet access, hot showers, and hosts who couldn't do enough to make us comfortable. While it was rainy the first night through to the next morning, after the sun broke through it was clear and crisp for four straight days. Mix a little website work, wonderful Chilean wine, meat on the parilla (grill) every night, thundering waves, and the great company of Tom and Kelsey, and we had a great time. For our last day we packed a gourmet picnic and basked in the sun on the cliffs looking down on the legendary surf break of Punta de Lobos.

Quiet blanket of snow covering the lower Andes between Chile and Argentina

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.

Finally a little sun and no more snow on the Argentinian side of the Andes

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.

Seven Lakes Drive from Junin de los Andes to Bariloche

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Through canyonlands to wine country

Canyons and cactus around Tupiza, Bolivia

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.

Bikes and wine around Maipu, Argentina

Three days of hard driving through the canyons and vineyards of northwestern Argentina brought us to the eucalyptus tree-lined streets of 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.

Driving across the Andes from Argentina to Chile

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.

Caves at the Concha y Toro Vineyards

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Possibly the weirdest place in the world

Salt into the distance

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.

Fish Island, Salar de Uyuni

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.

Sunset over the desert

The landscape continued to become more varied and bizarre as we headed south toward the Argentinian and Chilean borders of Bolivia. Colored lagunas were filled with chattering flamingos, llamas and vicuñas grazed the barren hillsides, and foxes and the adorable Pokemon-like 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.

Flamingos feasting in one of the many lagunas

We realized we didn't know cold until our second night in the 4,500 m high altitude desert when we were trying to sleep in unheated concrete structures. Our driver woke us at the painful dark hour of 4 am and bundled us into the truck for an hour-long drive to a weird volcanic moonscape of steam geysers, bubbling mud pots, and searing cold winds. As the horizon lightened with the rising sun we continued to natural hot-baths that attracted llamas and flamingos to their welcoming warmth. The feeling returned to our fingers and toes as we ate a big breakfast before driving through the Desiertos de Siloli and Salvador Dali. Multicolored mountain and volcano peaks towered over the sandy wasteland, complete with a brilliant green laguna supporting more pink flamingos.

No idea how this rock ended up in the middle of the desert

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.

Exploring volcanic mud pots at 5 am in the freezing windy cold