Monday, November 22, 2010

Santiago, Chile

After returning from Torres Del Paine, Christina and I spent the next two days recovering at our hostel, Erratic Rock in Puerto Natales. We celebrated the night of our return with copius amounts of pizza and beer and a night out with some of our fellow travel mates. On the morning of our departure, we woke up early and had a nice breafkast, before beginning the arduous, but very familiar task of repacking our rucksacks. I was folding my clothes and stuffing them into grocery bags for the twentieth time in not-so-long when a strange sensation came over me. There was a radiating pain in my lowerback, near my kidneys that sparked my curiosity. Not more than five minutes later, I was doubled over on a bench in the common area and and trying my hardest to stave off the chills. It was no use; something had popped my balloon and any gusto I had disappeared into the Patagonian air. Not thirty minutes before, I was wide awake and chipper, ready for our day of travel to Punta Arenas. But in what seemed like an instant, my body began to feel  as if I had been in a car wreck and dunked into ice water. Up until this point, Christina and I had managed to stay relatively healthy during the last month of travel. But when the chills hit as hard and fast as they did, I knew my fate was sealed. I had to settle in for the ride and take what was coming. Timing could not have been worse, my mind was racing with thoughts of what fluid would come out what orifice and at what point during the four hour bus ride ahead of us. I spent the four hours waiting for our departure in the common area of the hostel, sitting next to the furnace, trying to stop myself from shaking beneath the three layers of clothing I was wearing. Nearing 3:00 p.m. and feeling like a crippled old lady, I managed to get my rucksack on and hobble down the street to the bus station. As soon as I hit the bus seat, my chills dissipated and my body began to warm up quickly, as if someone had lit me on fire. Having spent a sizeable portion of my childhood in the sick bay, I knew that follwing the "chills" the fever would not be far behind. I spent the next four hours staring out the bus window and at some point during the barren Chilean landscape, I broke the fever. We arrived in Punta Arenas and I felt much better, but the battle was not over. Not soon after settling in at our hostel my immune system decided to hit the repeat button and the "chills" hit once again. I had to have Christina lay on me to keep me warm. After I broke my second fever, I realized I had not eaten that day. My stomach felt like it was tied in knots and unaccepting of anything that would make its way down there. Christina went to the store and came back with some crackers and ramen for me to attempt to eat. As I choked down some crackers and chicken flavored ramen, Christina and I could not help but to acknowledge the cruel and hilarious irony of having to subsist on the very same food which I had been forced to eat nearly 3 x daily while hikng for the past week. The next morning, we would catch a flight to Santiago and it would take me another three days before I was feeling back to normal.

On our first full day in Santiago, we decided to explore the National Park across the street and the monkeys at the zoo that had kept us up all night. Something as simple as a visit to the local zoo can bring to light glaring differences in culture and standards. The zoo was poorly maintained, animal waste flushed from the innumerable small cages ran directly beneath your feet in a putrid brown stream (someone actually had the forsight to write "do not drink this water" in spanish near the streams). And, despite numerous zoo keepers and signs warning visitors not to feed the animals, people fed the animals peanuts, cotton candy and chips at nearly every turn. Although watching a tiny monkey crack open a handful of peanuts and eat them one-by-one was pretty amazing, Christina and I could not help but to feel bad for the animals. Later that afternoon, we took a train/escalator hybrid (known as the funicular) up to the top of Cerro San Cristobal where one can find great views of the city, as well as a chapel and some religious statues overlooking the city. Located between a few small mountain ranges, Santiago is usually blanketed in a dense cover of smog. From the top of the lookout, one can barely make out the detail of the city beneath it.

Our hood for the next few days.
The "dont feed the animals" sign was lost on most people.

What a beaufitul view. I'm not talking about the city.

Windows like these were everywhere.  There is something storytale about them, dont know why but they caprtured me.

The rest of the afternoon, Christina and I walked around Bellavista aimlessly, admiring the beautiful houses, the well kept terraces and the way of life. Christina and I were really enjoying Santiago. It was cleaner, less chaotic and much safer than any large S. American city we'd visited so far. We grabbed two chairs at a sidewalk cafe for happy hour and for the first time in three days, I was ready for a beer and solid food, although I now question the methodology for picking my first post-sickness meal. Christina orderd a Pisco sour (Pisco is a rum and the official alcohol of Chile) and I ordered a beer. For our snack, we ordered a Pichanga. Our options were limited, but after surviving on crackers and chicken flavored soups for the past week, I'm not sure my system was ready for the onslought of grease, cholesterol and flavor that was to come. Pichanga, in one form or another, is popular around Santiago and it's surrounding cities. It's a heaping mound of french fries, covered with a spattering of various meats. Ours contained sirloin tips, pork sausage and pork leg and onions. It was delicious and we finished nearly every bite, though it would be about another 18 hours before my stomach was ready for another meal. We stumbled upon an impromptu tango performance on our way home, before deciding to hit the sack early and beat the monkeys and karaoke singers to the punch.

Typical of most Latin Americanbig cities.

The look on my face is one of both fear and excitement.  Here comes the Pichanga!

The next day, I was finally back to feeling like my normal self. Christina and I woke up early and decided to hit the markets. We first headed to Mercado Central, a sprawling seafood market designed by Andes Eiffel (yes, the dude who designed the Eiffel Tower). It took us a bit, but I think it was our noses that eventually led us to the market. Inside of the market lies the final resting place for countless thousands of fish and seafood oddities. Walk into Mercado Central and you're sure to be smacked in the face with the smell of a few thousand tons of seafood. After overcoming the initial stench, my eyes grew wide with excitement and curiosity at the sights that were before me. The market was packed end-to-end with fish mongers, each covered in shiny fish scales, each selling an amalgam of ocean dwelling critters, many of which I had never seen. From barnacles to barells of fish guts, to giant Congor eels, Christina and I tromped around the market, the 1/4 inch of seafood sludge splashing beneath our feet as we gaped at the carnage before us. The market is full of tiny restaurants and cafes frying up the catch of the day. So, we grabbed a seat and noshed on some ceviche and Octopus before heading outside to catch some fresh air and explore a bit more. By shear happenstance, we stumbled upon La Vega Market, a sprawling meat and fruit market.

Let the fishy madness begin!

Christina ready to chow down at the fish market.

I love meat... alot. In fact, I've turned meat into a hobby: curing and smoking my own bacon, making my own sausage and rillettes, etc. However, inspite of my love for meat and having been very intimate with animal parts of all shapes and sizes in the past, I was still not prepared for my virgin foray into the sprawling meat market in the Centro Barrio. Your neighborhood butcher shop in America does not share a single common thread with meat markets in S. America. You can call it a meat market, but it was more like a slaughterhouse or a scene from "The Jungle". Americans do a very good job of distancing your meat from the animal it came from and it's inevitable death. Here it was quite the opposite. The floor was covered in an opaque red fluid, likely some combination of blood and ambient meat juice. Pig parts of every shape, size and degree of quality hung from the cieling. Pig and cow heads were stacked in pyramids of carnage in some display cases. Tubs full of guts, coagulated blood and other unidentifiable offal sat unrefrigerated in many areas of the market. And, the fear of becoming a vegetarian began to creep quietly into my psyche. So, I grabbed Christina by the arm and high-tailed it out of the meat market and into the vegetable market before an unforgivable sin was committed: becoming a vegetarian.

This is the cliff notes.  The actual story is longer and more gruesome.

The fruit market was no less impressive than the meat and fish market. On the outside vendors hawked everything from knock-off purses and antique locks to back scratchers and leather goods. On the inside, vendors sold a dizzying array of fruits and vegetables, stacked neatly in uniformed pyramids. Fifty-five gallon drums of pickled peppers and cured assorted olives lined nearly every aisleway and the smell of vinegar wafted through the humid air. Our day in the markets would've been an impressive adventue for anyone, but pulled especially on the heart strings of my inner foodie. Tired and smelling kind of ripe ourselves after intimate encounters with nearly every level of the food pyramid, Christina and I headed back to the hostel to ready ourselves for a night on the town with Roberto, a Santiago native and old friend of mine.

Mercado Vega

Fruits!  Yes!!!!!

Pickled and cured concoctions of every shape and size

Plaza De Armas.

I cannot remember exactly the last time I saw Roberto, but it must have been close to five years ago. Roberto and I met through a mutual friend and he was quickly adopted into our group of close friends in Evansville, Indiana. After a family member fell ill, Roberto moved back to Santiago and has not been back stateside since. When I realized I would be traveling through Santiago, I looked him up and we planned a reunion. Roberto picked us up around 7:00 p.m. after having just gotten his drivers license back that very same day. We headed to Barrio Centro where we would start our night off at "The Clinic". "The Clinic" is a hangout for left leaning people and it makes no secret of it. The walls of the bar are peppered with politically fueled images, poems and epithets. But, inspite of it's reputation, most people come for the Pisco. Roberto ordered us all a round of expensive Pisco with a coke and we dove deep into conversation and catching up. After our first drink, the night would play out like a fast forward movie montage cliche, set to techno music and all. After a few more piscos and an amazing Spanish tortilla, Roberto decided to take us to his favorite local dive bar, a place full of character where classic rock is played all night long. We hopped in the car and ended up at Bar Renee. Roberto had warned us beforehand that no Gringo would ever walk into this place unaccompanied. We walked into the tiny front room with a single long worn wooden bar and not a single empty seat. A couple of heads turned to check us out. Unsure how to act or what to do I stared blindly at the soccer match on TV, though I could've cared less. After Roberto had grabbed some craft brew, he reassured us that there was a larger room in back. We walked into a dimly lit back room where Led Zeppelin was being blasted from the speakers and the air was so thick with smoke you could touch it. The atmosphere was appropriate and the place buzzed with energy. It was the kind of place I would hang out if I lived in Santiago. To some strange degree, it reminded me of home and felt familiar. We nestled into a tiny corner and I had my first microbrew in a month and the first of many that night. After downing two liters of the tasty brew, our new neighbor sparked up a conversation. Though moments before they were belting Janis Joplin at the top of their lungs, they did not speak any english. Before I could grasp what was happening, this 300 lb man had taken out of his wallet and fanned infront of me a fat wad of pesos before licking the nasty money. He then proceeded to spray me with the only english word he appeared to know: "fuck". For a brief moment, I recoiled, thinking I had upset this giant drunken man and he wanted a piece of my comparatively pretty face. After looping Roberto into to the string of events, I came to find out the guy was just inquisitive and wanted to buy us a drink. As he swigged from a tall glass brimming with campari, the large man threw his arm around me, peppered my face with his saliva like a Jackson Pollack painting and ordered us a liter of the delicious beer we had been drinking. After another five minutes of a conversation that was completely inaudible and involved mostly hand gestures, the man grabbed the beer he bought us, of which we had drank none of and disappeared. We left the bar and ended up at an apartment complex near 1:00 a.m.

To pick up Roberto's younger sister, we made a quick stop by a random apartment complex somewhere in Santiago. We ended up drinking in a tiny apartment with an Aussie, a Chilean and a spattering of other people with whom I don't remember. But, I do remember that it was slightly akward, as can happen when packed into a sardine tin with strangers who don't speak your language. We left the apartment near 2:00 a.m. to head to Barcelona, a local discotheque. Anyone who knows me knows my appreciation for a good neighborhood bar and my complete disdain for nightclubs. I knew I was in for an interesting experience, especially in my pickled state. As far as I can remember, the rest of the night went something like this: We paid a pricey cover at the door and hit the drink line, which involved standing in a long line to by a ticket and another requisite line to redeem your ticket for a drink. Christina and I both got another Pisco and coke and we hit the dance floor full of unduluating bodies. We bounced around to electronic music for the next two hours and were burned by other peoples cigarettes countless times as the place reached capacity. Out of nowhere, the nightclub had exploded with people and our dance moves turned defensive as our ground was overrun. Sensing that everyone was growing agitated and unhappy, we left "Club Barcelona" in a hurry at 4:00 a.m. with Roberto intent on finding us some late night eats, but not before Roberto lost a fog light on the way home (another long story). We ended up around the corner from our Hostel at 5:00 a.m. and found a place to eat some "ASS". If this sounds bizzarre, it's because it is. "ASS" is the food of choice after late night drunken revelery and it's ingredients are equally as wierd as the name. "ASS"consists of the following: one large hot dog, one toasted bun covered in tomato salsa, onions, avacado, countless tablespoons of mayonaise and seared sirloin tips. After a night of too many drinks, one "ASS" will bring you back to reality. We had had it's distant cousin, the Italiano Completo, but this was our first experience eating "ASS". After wiping our faces clean, we said goodbye to Roberto and went to bed one last time to the sound of Bon Jovi and screaching Monkeys. The next day, we would have to catch a bus to Valparaiso, Chile.  Thanks for following this crazy adventure.


Italiano Completo.  The "ASS" is the wicked step-sister.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

PATAGONIA: Tierra Del Fuego, Torres Del Paine & The "W"

On our last day hiking the "W" in Torres Del Paine National Park, Christina and I woke up and began hiking at 3:30 a.m. with our headlamps to make it to the lookout before the sun came up.  We sat atop a boulder, perched percariously upon the sea of endless odd shaped, volkswagon sized rocks which we had just scrambled up.  As the sun rose behind us, the Torres Del Paine was set on fire.  As I watched the sun creep down the granite towers, all thoughts of exhaustion and the bitter cold dissappeared.  But, I could not help but to think of the journey that brought us to the end of the world, to the center of a national park, to the top of a mountain, to watch the show before us.  What a trip it had been.

Getting to Torres Del Paine was no easy task, Patagoina is off the grid, man.  From Buenos Aires, we caught a five hour flight to Ushuaia, Argentina.  After two days in Ushuaia, we caught a 13 hour bus to Punta Arenas.  The quality of buses and subsequent rides vary greatly in S. America. If you sign up for anything over four hours, you better pray your bus was built after 1970, your driver is clinically sane, drug free, and drinks alcohol only sparingly while driving.  During our bus ride, we were locked in the passenger cabin (there was a door seperating us from the exit and the driver) and all windows were sealed shut.  After two hours of patchy sleep, the bus came to a stop.  The driver swung open the door yelling "Cambio! Cambio! Cambio!".  Though we did not know it was in the flight plan, we were all hurded off the bus and onto a similiar, slightly shittier bus.  Thirteen hours later, after two haphazard border crossings and having survived only on potato chips and peanuts for half a day, we arrived in Punta Arenas, Chile.  Having come from the charming sleepy town of Ushuaia, Punta Arenas seemed like a see nothing, do nothing kind of town.  Christina and I headed to the grocery, grabbed a roasted chicken and some frozen vegetables and headed to the hostel to enjoy some proper food.  Having subsided on a meat only diet while in Argentina for the past 10 days, our bodies were craving some nutrients and fiber.  We attacked our avocado and tomato salad like pack of starving vegans unleashed at a Whole Foods.  We woke up the next morning and after a a four hour bus ride, arrived in the small town of Puerto Natales.

It looked nasty, it tasted great!

We immediately felt at home in Puerto Natales.  Nestled in a fjord surrounded by the mountains, Puerto Natales is the kind of place you dont want to leave.  The streets are packed with throngs of Gore-Tex clad hikers looking to get their fix.  Everyone here is an addict and the drug is the same: The Torres Del Paine National Park.  At the advice of a friend, we booked a night at Erratic Rock Hostel.  Erratic Rock is run by Bill, an Oregonian socialist turned ex pat who built the Hostel with a group of friends.  They now run several successful hostels, guide companies, etc.  They make homemade bread every morning, they've started the first recycling program in Patagonia and they make you feel like you belong.  It's no shock that Christina and I feel right at home with a bunch of liberal, ex hippie, environmentalist nature loving freaks.  We came to Puerto Natales with no plans, but one lofty goal in mind: hike the famous "W" trail in Torres Del Paine. Luckily, Bill had just started a business next door called "Base Camp" that specializes in renting gear to hikers and holds daily information talks for everyone ambitious enough to take on the "W".  Five hours after arriving in Puerto Natales, Christina and I had rented all of the necessary gear, stocked up on ramen noodles and breakfast bars and were packing our backpacks for four nights and five days in The Torres Del Paine Park.  Christina and I both slept sparingly that night, both excited and nervous for the adventure ahead.

We woke up the next morning and ate a hearty breakfast before hopping on a bus to Torres Del Paine.  While on the bus, we met some great people with whom we would spend the next few days trekking together, on and off.  There was Scott, a burley, but light hearted Aussie from Brisbane with hands that looked like they could crush stone.  He was traveling for six months with his fiance, Leanne, a soft spoken sweet heart from Scotland.  There was Dave, the 23 year old Canuck with a loveable, slightly bizzare personality who looked like Fidel Castro and carried himself like a spider-monkey with ADHD.  Dave had been traveling the world for the past 11 months alone, which takes a very unique person. Dave indeed is unique.  Lastly, there was Sia and Tom, both Aussies, one with an MD and one with a PHD, both of whom had been traveling for the last nine months.  Sia and Tom were both extremely warm hearted, they struck up a conversation when we sat down and the entire group became acquanited rather quickly.  It amazes me how quickly you can become friends with fellow travelers, but how long it takes to develop a relationship in the real world.  But, I guess travelers have a lot in commom: although reigning from all differnt walks of life, from all over the world, they are usually in the same place, at the same time, for the same reason.  It doesnt take much to see how strong bonds can form so quickly.    Three and a half hours into our two hour bus ride, we arrived at our destination.  To get to the trail head, we had to take a catamaran across Lake Pehoe, a lake composed of glacial melt and so strikingly blue, it simply did not appear to be real. After an hour of staring at the lake in disbelief, we disembarked and we were on our way.

Nearly a year ago, I bought a Men's Journal in an airport while waiting for a flight back to Chicago.  While flipping through the magazine, I came across a section titled "The Ultimate Bucket List". This section gave first-person accounts from writers who set out to mark off long standing items on their bucket lists.  Among the list of items were kayaking the Sea of Cortez, multiple day adventure racing in New Zealand and hiking the "W" in Torres Del Paine National Park, Patagonia. The outdoor lover that I am, this last item was caught in my mind.  It contanied a detailed itinerary, a workout regimen and a list of necessary gear.  I read the article twice, earmarked the page upon landing and threw it underneath my coffee table when I got home, where it collected dust along with a stack of old food magazines I could not bear to throw away.  I shared this with no one but Christina.  Like those who read luxury boating magazines and dreamt of what could one day be, I planted a seed in my conscience that I would one day hike the "W".  Not in my wildest dreams did I imagine that nine short months later, I would step off a boat and onto the "W".  It took lots of planning and traveling nearly to the end of the world, but I made it happen. Fucking A!

Moments after entering the park.

On the Catamaran heading to the trail head.

Glacier Grey.  We slept right on the side of this giant ice cube.

Quick stop for a photo opon day one.

Action shot.

The next day we got a real taste of what we were in for.  To hike "W" in its entirety there is a lot of backtracking involved.  Our first full day, we woke up and hit the trail at 8:00 a.m.  Four hours later, we arrived at the spot where we had been dropped off the day prior.  We grabbed a seat and a lunch of tuna and crackers.  After only four hours, we were a bit tired.  But, having only looked at the map sparingly, we did not realize that we had to hike 24 kilometers that day (15 miles).  We cleaned up our mess kit and set off for the rest of the day, completely unaware of the pain ahead.  This was the first point where I realized that the gear I had was completely insufficient.  My shoes, which were much lighter than hiking boots, had significantly thinner soles.  If you stepped on a softball sized rock, the sole of my shoe would bend and flex instead of remaining rigid as it should have.  After walking on softball sized rocks for over ten hours up and down steep inclines, my feet felt as if they had been beaten endlessly by a broom handle.  Nearly an hour from our camp site and after nine hours of hiking, Christina and I traded glances, both of us questioning what the hell we had gotten ourselved into.  We left our first campsite at 8:00 a.m. and arrived at our 2nd campsite at 6:00p.m. dog tired.  We made a quick dinner of pasta and powdered soup and called it a night.  The following day was supposed to be our longest yet, Christina and I both went to bed a bit concerned about the day ahead of us.

On our way up the FrenchValley.

We woke up the next morning and hit the trail as the sun turned the peaks golden at 5:30 a.m. We had ahead of us our toughest day yet and we knew it.  We had to hike the French Valley on our 3rd day and we had heard rumors about it and the pain it inflicted from everyone who crossed it's path. The French Valley is, unsurprisingly, a valley that runs between two mountains.  It is the toughest portion of the "W" and makes up the middle line in the "W".  Many people only journey half way up to enjoy the views.  But, Christina was determined to journey not just to the top at Camp Brittanico, but half an hour past that point up a nearly vertical boulder strewn trail to the look out point.  Reaching the top of the French Valley takes a bit of intestinal fortitude.  It's a three hour ascent to the top over an endless field of odd shaped boulders, ranging in size from small cars to beach balls with avalanches sounding off in the background every few minutes.  Luckily, we had left our backpacks at our camp and packed only our day pack with the bare essentials.  But, when we set out that morning, having barely checked the map, we did not realize we had signed up to hike 26 kilometers (16.2 miles) straight up and straight down.  Whomever made up the phrase "it's all downhill from here" didn't know shit about hiking.  After walking down a steep vertical decline riddled with boulders for nearly three hours, your knees will feel like you pulled a career in the major leagues behind the plate.  When I finally saw flat land on our third day, I felt as if I was Columbus and I had discovered the America's; what a glorious site it was.  Eleven hours after we had set out, we stumbled back to our camp tired and nearly sick with exhaustion. Actually we were amongst a small group of people who collapsed on the beach twenty minutes away from the campsite, unsure as to whether or not we could tackle the last few kilometers.  Tired, covered in dirt and smelling like we had pulled back-to-back stints at Bonaroo, Christina and I arrived in camp and collapsed in a heap.  Less experienced than most hikers at camp, we thought that we had only completed 13 kilometers.  We had failed to count the return distance until we talked with fellow hikers and they gasped at the distance we covered (*it's important to note that there are different campsites and we picked our route beforehand, a route which few people did.  I can assure you, this was done out of ignorance only) Our last two days proved relatively easy compared to the two days prior.  On our fourth day, we slept in and trotted leisurely to our campsite.  Torres Del Paine is full of micro ecosystems.  The environments change daily and on this day, we had made our way away from the glaciers and onto the grass filled valley.  We stopped at a few streams to grab a drink and take in the view.  It's worth noting that the entire time we were in Torres Del paine, we never once filtered our water.  We filled up our Nalgene's directly from the streams of melted glacier water.  I was a bit concerned at first about the prospect of drinking directly from the stream.  Thoughts of microscopic amoebas in the water and ensuing weeks on the toilet made me cringe before I took my first sip. But after confirming from multiple people that Torres Del Paine is one of the few places on earth with unspoiled resources, I embraced the idea.  And, the water was amazing.  Screw the bottle of Ice Mountain Water, I was literally drinking directy from the stream, running off a glacier in the mountain.  I had embodied the illustrated graphic on countless bottles of water sold throughout the world, but this was the real McCoy.  Although we took it easy that day, we smashed the hike and arrived at camp a full two hours earlier than people who had left before us.  The thought of pizza and beer hung above my head, like a carrot driving a donkey in a cartoon. Having arrived at camp, I choked down another chicken flavored pasta dinner before calling it a very early night at 8:00 p.m.

A video on our way up the French Valley.

The trail sometimes disappeared.

Lake Nordenskjold.
They next morning we donned our headlamps and set out at 3:30 a.m. in time to make it to the towers by sunset for the grand finale.  Having gone to bed while it was still light out the past few days, I had not yet seen the stars in Torres Del Paine.  When I peaked my head outside, I smiled from ear-to-ear.  The stars were so numerable, it was hard to find the dark space between them.  Outside of my trip to New Zealand, I had never seen a sky filled so abundantly with twinkling stars.  We had ahead of us a two hour hike in the dark before we reached the base camp.  Afterward, we would have to scramble nearly vertically up a feld of boulders for 45 minutes before reaching the view point.  Our adrenaline was pumping when we hit the trail that morning, both from excitement and fear of life and limb.  It was drilled in our head before we left that if we were injured in the park, we might as well pray that our friends can carry us out.  Ranger Bill will not appear and rescue you like he does in the movies. Not to mention, the thougt of a Puma jumping out of the bush to eat my delicious human flesh crossed my mind more than once.  Each step I took that morning was premeditated.  The park has a handful of elevated water crossings, where streams become impassable on foot. Navigating these in the dark will make the hair stand up onthe back of your neck at times.  They look like they are constructed with second hand lincoln logs and you can feel their eb and flow as your tip-toe across them.  We reached base camp early.

The last 45 minutes before reaching the top of the look out was without question the most painful part of our five day hike for me.  When I checked the map prior to our departure, it had indicated this 45 minute ascent with an arrow pointing straight to the heavens. After four full days of hiking, my body was spent and running on adrenaline.  Christina tried her best to cheer me on, but she knew that I was losing steam.  With one last push, we made it to the top and quickly threw on all of the clothes we had stripped off on our way up.  As the sun eclipsed the horizon, I got a bit emotional, though I did not show it.  Nine months ago I had planted a tiny seed in the back of my mind that if I tried hard enough, I could make it to Patagonia and do the "W".  Now, here I was at the end of the world after over 90 kilometers of hiking, sitting on a boulder, taking it all in.  More than any other time in my life, I had proved to myself that if I put my mind to something, to anything, I can make it happen.  And, what an amazing feeling that is.

Torres for sunrise!

Kicking back with our fellow treckers, waiting for the bus back home.

Video from the Torres on the last day.

Just finished trecking!  Christina admiring her boots and the last of our chicken flavored food.

Made it to the lookout in the French Valley.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Ushuaia, Argentina: THE END OF THE WORLD

We arrived in Ushuaia yesterday, after waking up at 2:30 a.m. to catch our 5:50 a.m. flight.  Not only did our airline move our flight up by seven hour to the ass crack of dawn the day before we were to leave, but we didn't find out until late the night before our departure that the airport we were supposed to fly out of had closed.  When I asked the lady who ran our hostel why?  She responded, "Agghh, it's just Argentina." in a thick accident.  So, instead of a 15 minute ride, we would have to pay 150 pesos to have a taxi pick us up as most Argentines clubs were just opening their doors.  Agghh, Argentina.  We arrived to a scene of relatively organized chaos at the airport. The closing of the domestic airport had left the larger airport overwhelmed and unable to deal with the sudden influx of passengers. As we walked through the sliding doors we were greeted to the sight of about 200 passengers waiting to check in to our airline.  In broken spanish, I asked the gentleman tending the entrance to the check in if this was the correct line for Ushuaia.  He pointed to the back of the line, where Christina slumped over our luggage cart, tired and discouraged.  Luckily, we had arrived to the airport nearly two hours early because when we found our way to that same gentleman nearly an hour later he, with emphatic gestures, pointed to the end of the line.  At that moment, Christina and I looked and saw a dimly lit sign for "Domestic Departures" hanging from the cieling.  We hauled ass to the check in desk and quickly realized that we were amongst a growing contingent of passengers that had fallen victim to the chaos.  We made our flight, thank god.  I felt terrible for Christina, who was suffering from a head cold and a very poor start to her 26th birthday. 

Arriving in Ushuaia after spending the past five days in the insanity that is Buenos Aires, we were in for a bit of a shock.  Imagine going 100 m.p.h. and then hitting the breaks and stopping, nearly completely.  This is what it's like going from Ushuaia to Buenos Aires.  Ushuaia is a town of about 60,000 people and the southern most city in the world.  Civilization south of Ushuaia consists of outposts for scientists and tourists visiting Antarctica.  We are about 1000K from Antarctica now.  It is 9:00p.m. and the sun is still shining.  This is a change that Christina and I both welcomed.  We left Chicago because we wanted to escape the madness of the city.  Arriving in Ushuaia, we both exhaled with a sigh of relief and although tired and travel weary, were excited to explore this sleepy seaside mountain town in the Tierra Del Fuego.

After getting our lodging situated, we headed into town to grab some stiff coffee (not hard to find here, espresso is the only form of coffee in S. America) and get on with our day.  We booked a tour of the beagle channel, where we would visit islands inhabited by seals, arctic birds and other wildlife.  Sitting atop the boat as we departed the dock, Christina and I both looked at each other and smiled.  Neither of us said a word, but as I sat tight with my arm around her and we took in the views of the Beagle Channel, the town of Ushuaia and the jagged snow capped mountains of Chile and Argentina, our thoughts were the same.  This is why we left, this is the experience we were looking for and had worked so hard to get to.  Life at the end of the world is a beautiful thing.

The end of the world, ain't it great!
Local wildlife.

Can you spot Waldo?

Our ride to the Island where we hiked for an hour.

Trekking on the Island.

Thankfully, Christina and I both popped some motion sickness pills before leaving.  The wind whipped up into a frenzy and the boat was pitching rather badly.  We had to skip one of the islands on the tour, because our ship could not handle the waves without sea-sickness spreading rapidly amongst our group of foreigners.  Inspite of the bitter cold and the waves, it was a story book day.  We spent roughly an hour on an uninhabited island, looking at the archeological remians of the natives that used to inhabit it and examining some of the local flora and fauna.  I even tried some berries that the natives used to eat.  No wonder they resigned themselves to seal blubber, they were so bitter I spent the next hour spitting out the acrid taste.

Later that night, Christina and I headed out for her birthday dinner.  We stopped in at a Chilean seafood restaurant and both battled exhaust from the never-ending day.  We stared across the table at each other, wishing our food would just eat itself so we could go home and go to bed. After engulfing an entire bowl of local crab meat, we crawled home and settled in for roughly 12 hours of sleep.

Today we woke up and decided to hike the Martial Glacier.  We took a taxi to the bottom and because the chair lift was not operating at the time we decided to hike to the top.  After roughly fifteen minutes of hiking up the steep incline, we were peeling off clothes like a stripper in Las Vegas.  Christina, an avid runner who recently trained for a half marathon was winded, but doing fine.  My beer gut and I, however, were having more trouble.  Towards the top, boot prints became scarce and it was clear that we were amongst only a handful of people who decided to venture all the way to the glacier.  Martial Glacier is like an ice cube compared to most of the glaciers in Patagonia.  And, hiking up a 45 degree angle for the last fifty minutes of the hike is enough to deter most people.  Determined, however, that we needed to make it to the top to prove to ourselves we were indeed fit enough for our five day hike of the "W" circuit in Torres Del Paine National Park, we eventually made it.  I'll be honest, the glacier is nothing spectacular.  In fact, when covered in snow as it was, it looks more an oversized ski hill in the Mid-West.  Regardless, the views from the top were spectacular. And, having the piece of mind that we hiked from nearly sea level, to nearly the top of a mountain, we were happy.  We popped a squat for fifteen minutes to enjoy the view, before spending another hour walking to the base.  After a cup of coffee at the base, we called a cab and headed to Ushuaia Prison.

Maybe the best view all day.  Ushuaia is in the background, at the bottom.

I had to squeeze a smile out for this pic.  I was hurting.

This is Christina kicking my ass.  She did not realize the slowest person sets the pace.

Look at me!  I am stoic mountain man!!!!

Ushuaia Prison.  Or, as the translated sign read: Is Ushuaia Prison, you in.

 The U.S. sent their worst prisoners to Alcatraz, the British to Austraila and the Argentines to Ushuaia.  We spent about an hour touring the prison turned make-shift museum learning both about Ushuaia as a hub of Antarctic exploration and its reputation as the last stop for many Argentine Convicts.  The Spanish to English translations were laughable, so was the spelling.  But given my broken Spanish, I certainly can't point the finger.  Exhausted, my dogs barking and legs burning, we headed back to our hostel after gathering some goodies for our 12 hour bus ride tomorrow through the mountains, to Punta Arenas, Chile.  Have to wake up at 4.a.m. to catch our bus and currently waiting for a pizza that I hopefully ordered correctly.  We will spend roughly the next two weeks hopping around Patagonia, so we need to prepare.  Ciao for now.  Thanks for following our Adventure.


Saturday, November 6, 2010

Buenos Aires, Argentina

We arrived in Buenos Aires on November 2nd, thankfully.  We have found South American airlines can be a bit unreliable.  Slightly buzzed after a night of dinner and wine (wine is really good and way too affordable here) we arrived back at our makeshift lodge to find out our flight to Buenos Aires had been moved to that evening.  This would have killed our first day in Buenos Aires and since our departing flight had already been moved up by twelve hours, our time in Buenos Aires was shrinking rather quickly.  We woke up and after a small piece of bread for breakfast, decided to head to the airport to see if we could catch the earlier flight out.  Of course our taxi failed to show so the nice Frenchman who ran our hotel agreed to run us to the airport.   There were no seatbelts, so we held on to the "holy shit bars" and prayed we would make it in once piece.  Thanks to Jaime, we made an earlier flight and extended our time here by about a day.

Welcome to Buenos Aires.  Thank god Christina is good with directions!

Arriving in Buenos Aires, we hailed a taxi to take us to the San Telmo neighborhood.  Having spent the past five years in Chicago, I'm all too familiar with bad driving and hell bent taxi drivers.  Let me tell you that Chicago taxi drivers have nothing on the taxi drivers in Buenos Aires.  This was quickly apparent when I saw our driver's car was equipped with a racing steering wheel wrapped in the same material I use to wrap to my raquetball racket.  Christina and I traded glances as we rubbed bumpers with other cars.   In Grand Prix style, we made it to our destination and stumbled out of the race car and onto the cobblestone streets of San Telmo.  The San Telmo barrio (or neighborhood) is the former residence of Buenos Aires' elite.  The neighborhood is composed of beautiful but aging European style mansions, abandoned when disease stuck more than a century and the immigrants moved in.  It has since then become a hub of artists, hippie fairs, antique shops and markets galore.  We were a bit weary after hearing from some fellow travel mates attending a semester college abroad here that San Telmo was dangerous. But, after living in Chicago and having spent the previous week in Rio, San Telmo seemed like Disney Land.

Typical of San Telmo.  Old, slightly banged up, but beautiful and full of character.

Coming from Puerto Iguazu, where life moves at a snail's pace, Buenos Aires took time to adjust to.   Buenos Aires is a sprawling city of various cultures and classes, with 13 million people packed into its quarters.  Like most big cities, Buenos Aires comes with some baggage, but the difference in culture seems to put these problems under a microscope if you're an outsider.  With some of the widest roads in the entire world, traffic here more closely resembles a school of swarming fish, jockeying for position with no where to go.  Graffiti marks nearly every building and even the most sacred of historical city monuments are not without some political epitaphs scrawled on the side.  Imagine graffiti on the Statue of Liberty, the Washington Monument, or the Lincoln Memorial and you'll get a more accurate picture of the graffiti  problem here.  Sidewalks are strewn with trash in some places and Buenos Aires is notorious for the dog shit that lines its streets.  Strolling down the sidewalk can at times feel like a never ending game of hop-scotch.  Air quality is also not great here, as buses spew streams of exhaust upon accelerating and even twleve year old kids walking to school can be seen smoking, like most other Argentines.  Each city comes with good and bad and this is certainly the bad part of Buenos Aires.  But, like Chicago, the city that although I loved I also loved to hate, Buenos Aires has an amazing culture that is completely unique.

We spent our first day in Buenos Aires walking the city aimlessly, trying to get a bearing on the place.  At night, we accidentally stumbled upon Florida Street (which was on our list of things to do) and decided to sieze the opportunity to explore one of BA's most touted attractions.  Florida Steet is less of a street and more of a tiled "go-between" situated inbetween buildings.   It is lined with thousands of vendors showcasing their product on tattered blankets spaced about three feet from each other, spanning for what has to be at least a mile or two.  All vendors were not created equal.  Many sell intricate and completely unique hand crafted jewelry.  If you stand near their blanket long enough, you can watch as they sit indian-style, sip their mate (An Argentine herbal-style tea pronounced like latte) and create these works of art before your very eyes. Hand crafted leather is also big and if you knew anything about the Argentine obsession with beef, you would quickly understand.  Other vendors sell bizzzare odds and ends: little mechanical dogs that walk in circles or play the drums, knock off lingerie, sunglasses and everything else that you could possibly knock off, even old American vinyl records.  After stumblinng around Florida street for a few hours, we grabbed a cheap but amazing bottle of wine and decided to head back and watch the city from our balcony.  Two glasses into the delicious Malbec,  travel fatigue quickly set in and we resigned ourself to the fact that we would not be heading out but instead catching up on some much needed rest.

Like most historical monuments in Buenos Aires, full of grafiti and political dissent.

The following day is was unusually hot in BA for Spring.  Noting that we had not seen a single person wearing shorts, Christina and I tried to blend in (if that was possible) her wearing jeans and myself pants as we ventured out to explore our new city.   The decision to wear pants would nearly lead to a melt down later, after six hours of walking crowded streets with little food.  Although at times we appeared to wander aimlessly, Christina always managed to find our destinations as we visited La Casa Rosada (Argentine version of the White House, but pink where Evita would make speeches from the balcony), the city's towering obelisk monument, the famous Teatro Colon theatre and the Recoletta cemetery.  Recoletta cemetery was certainly a memorable expereince, it is no wonder it's a huge tourist attraction in Buenos Aires.  Like a small city for the dead, Recoletta's streets are lined with ornate and often ancient mausoleums housing entire families in structures chizzled out of marble and granite, often with multiple floors.  Dignitaries, Presidents and the social elite are buried here in mausoleums so large and expansive that many resemble small houses complete with interiors and chairs that allow the family access to pay thier respects.  We walked the cemetery for over an hour, the resident cats criss-crossing in front and behind us, before finally calling it quits after too much walking and too much sun.  We both struggled to find a place serving empanadas before we used the last bit of our energy and collapsed in a cab after six hours of walking on a very hot day.

In La Boca, the working class neighborhood on Camanito Calle
One of the cats, one of the mausoleums.
It keeps going and going and going...
Inside of a mauseloum.

Recoletta Cemetery
After recooperating, we headed out to catch some dinner at Des Nivel, a Parilla recommended by our Argentine hostel mate we met in Rio.  Dinner in Argentina doesn't even begin until 10:30 p.m.  Head out any earlier than that and prepare yourself to sit in a restaurant alone, where the oven hasn't even been turned on yet.  Argentina is a society drunk on beef.   My cholesterol has taken a beating since being here, as I have subsided on nothing but steak, red wine and empanadas.  I'm not complaining as anyone who knows me knows my obsession with meat. But after nearly a week without a single vegetable a carrot sounds pretty good right now and I think my colon would agree.  The streets here are lined with Parillas, the Argentine version of a steak house.  My favorite cut so far is the Bife De Chroizo, also one of the most popular.  It's rib cut, where they have removed the ribs and grilled it like all of their stakes, over a huge wood fire.  Because of the cut and the fire, it screams with flavor.  Take one bit of this puppy and your tastebuds will  send you to a la-la land located smack dab in the middle of beef heaven.  After experiencing Bife De Chorizo, Fliet Mignon will seem like scrap meat to toss to Fido.  The best part of a steak dinner here is the bill, or la cuenta, or as I had been calling it for the past few days: La Chequeta (which actually means jacket.  My spanish is rusty, I did not realize how rusty.)  If you want to spend more than $30 U.S. on a dinner you'll have to try real hard: two steaks and an amazing bottle of wine will set you back about $20 because the exchange rate here it 4:1.  During the day time, you have at your fingertips any number of tasty meat concoctions to choose from.  The empanadas here are amazing, it's like an Argentine hot pocket made to be moblile.  They are typically stuffed with beef, ham and cheese, or roquefort cheese, though the quality and preparation vary from vendor to vendor.  My personal favorite is the Choripon Sandwhich.  To make a choripon, they split a chorizo sausage, throw it in the flat top with some crusty bread to crisp up and smother it with chimichurri sauce.  It goes for about $1 U.S. and will leave you dreaming of flying sausages when you go to bed later that night.

La Casa Rosada. Evita delivered many speeches from here.

 Sausages hanging to dry in the antiques market in San Telmo.

We spent yesterday touring the antique market here in San Telmo before heading to the Ecological Reserve.  San Telmo is known as an antiques hub and it certainly lived up to it's reputation.  One of the markets here is housed inside a giant warehouse-like structure.  There are vendors galore, selling everything you can imagine.  Christina perused the aisles with wide eyes as I peeled off to more closely examine the butchers and the sausages they were curing and drying.  It was a relaxing day, nothing blog worthy, but later that night would be quite the opposite.

Later that night we met up with Maria, one my best friend's little sister who has been living in BA for the past two years working as a painter and teaching English on the side.  Her parents were also in town, so we siezed the opportunity to meet up with some familiar faces and enjoy both hanging out with a local and abandoning my broken Spanish for a while.  We met them at Torquato Tasso, a local (not tourist) tango spot that also hosts a variety of musical acts.  We ordered two bottles of Malbec and some meat and cheese trays as we were serenaded by a quartet of amazing musicians playing the classical guitar in beautiful syncopated rhythm.  It was amazing.  After the guitar act came a satire musical ensemble in leiu of where we thought the tango would be.  After an hour of listening to satire/faux comedy in Spanish, we realized that we had come on the wrong night and decided to venture out around mindnight to find another tango spot.  After another hair raising taxi ride, we arrived at Nino Bien, a famous tango spot that has apparently been written about in a number of novels.  As we worked our way up the winding marble staircase it was quickly apparent that I did not fit.  We had walked into a completely legit tango joint not like the expensive ones put on to the draw the tourist dollars.  Women were wearing high heals, beautiful form fitting dresses with thier hair and nails manicured accordingly and men were wearing suits with ascots and well polished shoes.  I on the other hand, was wearing a pair of jeans that had not been washed in nine days, burkenstocks, and a plaid shirt that had the thickness of a grease stained napkin.  Christina, on the other hand, looked beautiful as always.  We walked into a ballroom where about 200 well dressed men and women sat at tables with white table cloths.  We were, without question, the only gringos in the joint.  I was feeling a bit uneasy as we were catching quite a few eyes from the locals.  They must have thought we were neanderthals.  But, after all, this is the type of experience I had wanted.  Something real, not something manufactured for tourist dollars.  After settling in at a table with some more wine, the curtains as if on cue were lifted and the small orchestra ensemble began to pluck strings to create what would soon become a familiar tango sound.  In what seemed like complete unison, people of all shapes and sizes and age flooded the dance floor and began to dance Tango.  Tango is a peculiar dance, rehearsed and yet completely spontaneous.  Hands clasped in the air, women close their eyes and hang on to their men as they glide gracefully across the dance floor, reacting to both eachother and the syncopation of the music.  It's a beautiful thing to watch, especially when done well.  At one point, the floor cleared and a man old enough to be my grandpa appeared with a beautiful young woman with jet black hair and a purple dress that appeared to be painted on.  Timing their first step with the first pluck of the violin, the couple made their way across the sprawling dance floor and back, without seemingly having even touched their feet to the ground.  It was grace and a spectacle to be seen.  Even more amazing was that the man looked like he should be hobbling around with a walker, not a beautiful vixen.  The dance ended and the crowd applauded.  Although we suffered through quite a few stares, enough to make anyone uncomfortable, we were grateful to have experienced a traditional  milonga.  At 3a.m. we called it a night.  Some video below.

Just arrived safely in Ushuaia, Argentina moments ago.  It's the southern most city in the world.  Unfortunantly, had to get up at 2:30 a.m. to catch our flight.  Looking forward to some clean air and some adventures outdoor. It's Christina's birthday, what a better place to spend it than at the end of the world.  Also, I apologize for spelling errors.  After five years in the corporate world with automatic spell check, it's hard to get used to using your brain again.  Thank for tuning it.  The next two weeks will be spent up and down Patagonia, but at the moment we have little planned.


Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Iguazu Falls.

I'm sitting here on a table made out of a tree stump, sipping a beer as roosters and chickens peck the ground near my feet, trying to comprehend what I've seen the last few days.  I questioned whether it was worth the time and money to venture to Iquazu Falls, just to see some water fall off a rock.  Indeed, it was worth every penny and every minute.  With 220 waterfalls, Iguazu falls spans continously for miles, making Niagra look like it's got a prostate problem at best.  It is a place, like many other wonders of the world, that is impossible to describe.  Pictures won't do it justice, you must see it up close and personal to grasp the magnitude of something so large.  I tried to stop myself from taking pictures knowing that they would only mean something to Christina and myself.  But, when you see something of such beauty, something so impressive, your urge is to document it as much as possible.

The land of butterflies, waterfalls and rainbows does exist and it's not an episode from My Little Pony, though at times it did seem like it.  The falls lie on the border of Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina.  We flew in yesterday and visited the Brazil side, finally arriving at our destination after nearly two hours on the wrong bus.  We got to the falls eventually but were a bit on edge after (actually, it was probably just me).  In my defense, it was election day in Brazil and the visitors center was packed with throngs of people voting on a holiday weekend.  After five days of trying to make my way around with make-shift Porteuguse (which now consists of five words), I was ready to see the falls and get to Argentina where I can speak in my broken Spanglish.  The Brazil side offers panoramic views of the falls, but the experience is not nearly as intimate as Argentina. We spent about four hours on the Brazil side before calling it quits and attempting to hail a taxi to take us through the border to Argentina.  Little did we know, crossing the border would be the easy part.  We grew concerned about finding our hotel after the taxi driver stopped to ask directions and eventually took us down a red dirt road with no street signs but instead lots of roosters and stray dogs.  We finally arived to our hotel, which turned out to be a little piece of heaven away from town.  We were exhausted so we took down a few beers at sunset and played fetch with Santo, the hotel dog who was enormous, slightly ferel, had huge balls and for some reason, was always wearing a t-shirt. After a quck shower we grabbed some dinner before calling it an early night at 1 a.m.
Street where our lodging was located.  Off the beaten path, but we loved it.  Orange trees, chickens and dogs everywhere.

One of the panoramic views from the Brazilian side.


In Argentina, you spend your time walking trails in the ranforest surrounded by wildlife of all sorts.  There is a South American racoon that we became quite familiar with.  It will steal food from your plate, it will bite you if you get too close, and it's damn cute.  We had to scare these little guys off multiple times while munching on the Argentinian interpretation of a ham sandwhich.  I will post a picture below.  But again, there is no shortage of wildlife: we saw giant monitor lizards every few feet, butterflies by the thousands, beautiful birds (including a Tucan) and more.  Argentina, unlike Brazil, puts you up close and personal with the falls.  In fact, we took a boat directly underneath them which was cold, wet and exhilirating.  The falls are nearly two miles long and are in consideration for being added as one of the "Seven Wonders of the World", which unbenounced to me, apparently rotates.  Christina thought it was better than the Victoria Falls in Africa which is actually one of the Seven Wonders. Regardless, it is a wonder to me that these things even exist.  Ranibows are abound in all sorts of shapes and sizes; single ranibows, double rainbows and rainbows that form a complete circle.  If you think a double rainbow is impressive, wait until you see a circular rainbow.  Yes ladies and gents, all of this exists and without the aid of psychadelic drugs.  Come here, you won't regret it. 

Something beautiful lies beyond this ugly mug.  Click to watch!

Multiply this times a thousand and you'll have a better understanding on how massive this place is.

Argentinian side, up close and personal.

We took the boat below underneath two falls.  You get wet, very wet.

Picture number 101 of the day and counting.

Last picture after a long day.  Ready for some wine and beef!

Meant to have this up last night, but again ran into some connection problems.  Arrived safely in Buenos Aires this afternoon and looking forward to $3 bottles of amazing wine and $10 grass fed, spit fired steaks.  Hope everyone is well back home.  Please become a follower and chime in with your thoughts.  It will be nice to hear from people over the next two months.  Thanks for following our adventure.

Clay and Christina