South America

Machu Picchu

To my dismay (and my mom’s delight), my trip got cut a bit short.  An obligatory networking conference in Los Angles for school is taking the place of Ecuador and Colombia.   So anyway, Peru was my last real stop on Around-the-World Part II.  And now Los Angeles is my final stopover before heading to Michigan for two weeks and then moving to my new home in South Bend!

From Cusco I took the train (the lazy persons alternative to the four day sold-out Inka Trail hike) up to Aguas Calientes, the “city” at the base of Machu Picchu.  I spent the first day going to the supposedly informative museum, but unfortunately didn’t find it nearly as stocked with information as what Lonely Planet described it.  Maybe a lot of the explanations were lost in the English translations…

On day two, after waking up at 4:30am, I made it out of Aguas Calientes on the first set of buses up the 12 kilometers of winding road to Machu Picchu.  Inopportunely, it started to rain about the same minute I disembarked from the bus.  Luckily, this weather cleared out after about an hour.  Unluckily, the oftentimes dense fog took much longer to finally dissipate.  But it all worked out ok for my hike up Waynapichu.  This is the mountain behind the civilization in all of the famous pictures.  It is possible to hike it, though an additional ticket at a specified time is required.   I had heard some horror stories about six inch wide wooden bridges without handrails crossing ravines (with the potential for fire-breathing dragons chasing you down…) that you have to traverse in order to complete the climb.  Auspiciously, this wasn’t actually the case.  Parts of the climb involved relatively steep steps but that was about the extent of the scariness factor.  All of the walking I’ve been doing has paid off because somehow my legs weren’t even sore after the two and a half hour journey.

On the train ride back to Cusco, I had to splurge and spend an extra $8 for the “luxury” train because the cheaper train was sold out.  The extra $8 bought an on-board fashion show!  The crew members modeled alpaca clothing they were selling – mildly entertaining for ten minutes of the three and a half hour train ride…

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Peru

First stop in Peru was the city of Puno, also located on Lake Titicaca.  Once again the lake is the main draw here and the city itself didn’t offer a whole lot in the way of entertainment.  But a side excursion to the Uros Islands was mildly entertaining.  These floating islands are often referred to as “reed Disneyland” and I can definitely understand why that connection is drawn.  Several of the islands seem to only exist for tourism purposes.  When our boat docked at one of the islands, the Peruvian women greeted us with a less than enthusiastic rendition of “row row row your boat”.   To be honest, in their brightly colored outfits, singing the song they very much reminded me of the animatronic dolls in Disney’s “It’s a Small World” ride.

The “tour” of the island included the natives showing us their reed houses (which contained a tv and lights powered by solar panels), and the lady showing my group around prodded us to play dress up in her clothes.  I of course choose a blue and yellow ensemble.  Additionally, the guide gave a pretty thorough explanation of how they make the islands.  While I found this interesting, I must say as an engineer, I didn’t have full faith in their engineering standards or construction techniques.

For the bus ride from Puno to Cusco, I choose the more expensive tourist bus option because it stopped at a few places along the way, most of which I assumed would be either informational or entertaining.  Unfortunately the stops were neither.  Because the guide spoke in both Spanish and English, his explanations took twice as long and I found it extremely difficult to listen to the same things twice (I can understand much more Spanish than I can speak).  Overall a thumbs-down experience.

Once in Cusco, I found out about the chocolate museum and had to get there as quickly as possible.  In this wonderful museum they teach you about how cocoa is grown, and how the beans are transformed into chocolate.  They also do their absolute best to make a case that eating chocolate is a healthy addition to any diet – I really enjoyed that aspect…  I took a “cooking class” where we took cocoa beans from their raw state (in which they are apparently hallucinogenic), toasted them until they began “popping” like popcorn, and then de-shelled them.  An interesting drink involved the cocoa bean shells used to make tea.  Even though I’m not normally a tea drinker, it was pretty good – apparently chocolate makes anything ok with me!   The next step in this process of turning beans into edible deliciousness involved using a mortar and pestle and grinding the beans into a paste.  At this point, the paste needs to be mixed for 24 hours.  Then came the fun part, we were given melted chocolate and about two dozen different toppings and powders to make our own concoctions.  I think my favorite option was putting quinoa into my chocolate trays.  I would compare it to the texture of adding rice krispies, but with the added benefits of anti-oxidants (and now all of my free radicals are gone!).

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I ♥ Bolivia

My next stop in Bolivia was the capital of La Paz.  This city is basically a gigantic market, mostly catering to tourists with llama and alpaca goods along with the standard boot-leg dvds available in most big cities.  Portions of the famous “witch market” are probably geared towards the locals, specifically the llama fetuses used in ceremonial celebrations.  Unfortunately I didn’t get any pictures of this because my camera and phone spent the day drying after they went swimming when my entire water bottle emptied itself in my purse on a bus ride.   Everything is ok and functioning now though, luckily.

Copacabana on the famed Lake Titicaca was my next destination.  The highest navigable lake in the world is really pretty, but the city itself is nothing to write home about…

Overall, I really loved Bolivia.  Definitely one of the top five places I’ve ever been (if I get ambitious and/or bored, I’ll get a list together of my top 10 favorite places).  The people are so nice and helpful!  The country is still in its infancy of tourism, so for the most part, the people haven’t been spoiled by tourism and consequently don’t have the same “out to get you” mentality as a lot of other developing countries.  A very refreshing change of pace!  And as a huge bonus – they speak more slowly and clearly than in Argentina, so my Spanish skills were much more useful than they had been because I could actually understand when people spoke.

The only real problems I encountered in Bolivia involved the super-high altitudes.  At one point I was up at nearly 15,000 feet (nearly three miles).  When you are this high weird things start happening because of the lack of oxygen.  I’m the first to admit that I’m not in the best shape of my life, but I certainly don’t get winded walking or climbing for short distances.  However, even extremely short distances had me embarrassingly huffing and puffing.  I was even taking altitude sickness medication meant to make your kidneys process the carbon dioxide more quickly.  And it was definitely helpful because I got super sick when I even halved my dosage – a less than ideal night after that decision.  The high altitude also meant the freezing cold temperatures (which normally I would just adapt to, being from Michigan and all), but the entire country doesn’t have the capability for indoor heating.  A lot of places only have electricity for an hour or two per day, depending on how long the gas in the generator lasts…

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Salar de Uyuni – Highlight of Bolivia!

I started my time in Bolivia in the small “city” of Tupiza.  I splurged here and stayed at the nicest hotel in the city (because it had wifi) and still only paid about $8 per night for my own room.  Unfortunately, even the nicest hotel doesn’t include central heating (or any type of heating for matter) even though the temperature drops below freezing at night…   There wasn’t a whole lot to do in Tupiza besides stock up on warm clothes (which for me included a hat and gloves with decorative llamas!) and view the beautiful scenery that looks like it was transplanted right out of the Wild West.

Then my four day- three night trip out into the Bolivian Salt Flats began!   The trip started off with lots of llamas (for some unknown reason I love llamas).  They are domesticated animals (like cows, not like pets) bred for their wool as well as their meat.  I actually tried llama meat, it was surprisingly pretty good.   Owners distinguish their animals from neighboring shepherds’ animals basically by the different “earrings” that the llamas wear.  I must say that they do look pretty…

Day number two consisted of lagoons of all colors!  Greens, blues, and even red!  So amazing!  A quick dip in the hot springs certainly wasn’t bad either, especially considering I hadn’t had a shower in 36 hours…   Definitely my favorite was the red lagoon – also known as Laguna Colorada.   This lagoon was full of flamingos gobbling away on their algae.  Fun fact:  flamingos start off white, and the more they eat the pinker they become.

The third day consisted of a few more lagoons, but the main attraction was the rock formations.  It was a lot scarier to “rock climb” without the soft cushiony floor at Planet Rock and of course a belayer providing an important sense of security.  At one point I channeled my “inner lion king” and did the pride rock pose…   The other highlight of the third day was accommodation that night – a salt hotel.  This is literally what it sounds like, a hotel made of salt.  And I mean everything was made of salt.  Interior and exterior walls were made of bricks of salt, the bed frames, tables, chairs – all salt.  The cool part was the floor was loose rock salt, that luckily had just been replaced before we arrived, so it was nice and white – it looked like a winter wonderland…  Still no heat in the salt hotel though L.

The fourth and final day was the main reason I came to Bolivia (and handed over the outrageous visa fee of $135 (USD) to have the privilege to enter their country) – the salt flats!  They were definitely worth it!  It is basically a vast “desert” of salt that stretches out as far as the eye can see.  For some reason I was picturing loose rock type salt (similar to the stuff used for de-icing pavement), but it wasn’t like that at all.  It was a solid mass of textured white salt, it looked a lot like snow…  And because of the freezing temperature, it felt like it could really be snow.   This is where you take the outrageous pictures using optical illusions because the background salt goes on forever and ever…  The most notorious picture involves a plastic toy dinosaur chasing people.  Unfortunately, without the foresight to bring one from home, toy dinosaurs aren’t available in the salt flats and I had to make do with what I had.  However, me standing “on top of the world” was a pretty good last minute alternative…

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Getting to Bolivia

So in case anyone thinks that in my old age I’m getting soft, let me assure you that my adventure getting to Bolivia will definitely prove otherwise.  After living for about a month in a penthouse apartment complete with doorman and having my laundry sent out for someone else to wash and fold (only because self-service laundry mats weren’t an option, but still…), I was worried that I had become indulgent in my travel habits.  Well after I left Buenos Aires the “old Jill” returned.  I had a 17 hour overnight bus ride to Iguazu Falls, then my hostel there didn’t have heat (when it was 30 degrees outside).  The next day I left to begin my 23 hour bus ride to Salta (yes, I spent nearly an entire day of my life on a bus :/ ) .  Once in Salta, my hostel once again didn’t have heat (and again it was below freezing). Then true to my recent travel pattern, I left on another overnight bus journey to the border with Bolivia, but luckily that one was only seven hours (mere childs play for me now).  For those of you counting, yes, that is three nights out of five I spent sleeping (or closer to reality – not sleeping) on buses…

Overall, Salta was just a stop-over for me.  I had heard great things about the city located in northwest Argentina, but because I was headed to Bolivia where similar landscapes and the same excursions are available for a fraction of the price, I elected to just stay in the city.  Well, the city doesn’t have a lot to offer other than a bunch of old churches.  What was interesting is that at 4pm on Sunday in front of a church that is located at the north end of a huge public square/park they held an outdoor catholic mass.  The police blocked off traffic from several directions to allow for the mass to take place.  Hundreds of people stopped their afternoon picnic to “attend” church – an unusual, but apparently successful outreach program.

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Iguazu Falls

Well, after about a month I finally left what had become the comfy confines of my penthouse (studio) apartment in the ritzy Palermo neighborhood of Buenos Aires.  I left behind the luxury of not only knowing how to get “home” without consulting a map, but also a space to call my very own.  I know am once again living out of my suitcase and am on the road again.  If you can’t tell, I’m a little hesitant to go back to the vagabond-Jill of last month, though seeing some new and amazing things is certainly in order!

My first stop was Iguazu Falls.  Even though it took a 17 hour overnight bus ride to get there, it was definitely worth it.  They are spectacular!  Pictures can’t even really do them justice.  My only complaint was that it was so freaking cold there.  Yes, I know that I’m in the southern hemisphere and because it is June, it is winter time here.  Places here are not equipped to deal with this cold of weather (below freezing), and thus don’t even have heaters.  I could quite literally see my breath inside my hostel.   I’m really wishing I would have lugged along my Under Armour right about now…

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Why My Pants Don’t Fit Anymore…

I usually don’t write about food because quite honestly, it’s not important to me.  However, there are some foods here that I feel are worth noting.  First and foremost is the carne.  Argentina became a prosperous country (top 10 richest in the world) in the early 20th century because of their extensive cattle ranches.  (Side note, the Argentine version of Monopoly is called “Estancia”, which roughly translates to a ranch for the wealthy.)  So red meat, especially steak is big business.  Argentines eat on average 67 kilograms (just under 150 pounds) of carne a year.  That is pure craziness, but of course being a red-meat lover, I don’t have a problem with this indulgence.  I ordered a 400 gram steak (0.88 pounds!), and that was only a medium sized portion…

The second food worth describing is dulce de leche.  The best comparison I can make is with nutella, the addicting hazelnut spread popular around the world.  You can put it on French bread, other pastries, or another popular option apparently is just eating straight out of the container like ice cream.  Delicious!  Of course the only thing better than plain dulce de leche is stuffing it in churros.  For those unfamiliar, a churro is basically fried yumminess.

And my final “delicacy” (I obviously use that term very loosely in my eating habits) would be the “submarino”.  This drink is steamed milk served with a chocolate bar on the side.  The idea is that you put the chocolate in the milk and when it melts and creates the most delightful hot chocolate you’ve ever tasted.  This is course is made even more enjoyable when accompanied by churros.

(And no, my pants are not fitting very well these days.)

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Touristy BA

I took a short day-trip out of the ritzy confines of Buenos Aires and headed to the barrio (neighborhood) of Mataderos.  (This is the area of Buenos Aires that all of the fresh beef comes from, so you can get the picture of the surrounding authentic atmosphere.)  Every Sunday they have a gaucho festival, appropriately named “Feria de Mataderos”.  It consists of a lot of street stalls with people selling silver, leather, or knitted apparel.  However, the real draw is the gaucho dancing.  Some of it is organized on the stage; however the really interesting part was the random people dancing in the street.  It reminds me of line-dancing somewhat in that there are organized dances for each song, and if the couples know the dance they join in and dance, but if it’s a song they don’t know, they step off to the side and resume on the next song.  Some of the old people were quite enthusiastic!
I “got out of the rush of the city” and headed out to Tigre, a small community on the edge of the Parana Delta.  Not much going on there…  The big adventure is a boat ride out into the delta.  For some reason I was picturing the quaint Tahiti-esque stilted houses.  Well, there are houses that are only accessible by boat; rather than having a driveway, you have a small dock outside of your house.  But unfortunately most of the houses are ill-kept and in despite need of at least a paint job.  By far the coolest thing I saw in the town was a boat named “Jack Bauer”, unfortunately I couldn’t get my camera out quickly enough to get a picture of my tv hero’s name plastered on the side of a boat.

The list of the normal touristy things to do in Buenos Aires include the obvious choices of Recoleta Cemetery (where Evita Peron is buried with the elaborate above ground mausoleums), the Evita Museum, a visit inside Casa Rosada (the Argentine version of the White House – and no it’s not pink because the president is a female), the Sunday San Telmo Market (a street market basically selling a bunch of crap with a  few tango dancers performing for good measure), and my personal favorite, El Ateno (a theater converted to a bookstore where you can read in the private boxes!).  Well, I did all of those, but as expected they weren’t all that interesting to me.

Much more interesting to me, and apparently to a lot of Argentines as well are politics and history.  I went on three different organized tours of BA and all had a heavy dose of both subjects.  Additionally, a random employee in the hostel I stayed at for the first few days kept apologizing for talking too much about his country’s history, but to my delight, he continued to discuss it anyway.  But don’t worry, I’ll give you the Cliff’s Notes version of the more interesting tidbits.

In the early 1900’s Argentina was a bustling economy because of the thriving cattle industry.  The beef was being exported to Europe via trans-Atlantic ships.  The ships had to be weighted down on their journey back to Buenos Aires, so they were filled with both immigrants and European building materials being imported to South America.  This resulted in a huge influx of mostly Italians, which explains the delicious pizza, pasta, and of course gelato that can be found all over the city.  This also clarifies why many of the buildings in Buenos Aires are very European looking.

In 1929, Argentina had the world’s fourth highest per capita GDP, but this ended with the onset of the Great Depression.  Well, then came the Peron era, including the famous Evita (the same person represented in the musical of the same name starring Madonna and Antonio Banderas) .  For many reasons the economy began to falter under the increased government spending, resulting in ruinous inflation and the peso losing about 70% of its value during his tenor.  And then the once great city came under power of a military dictatorship in 1976.  During this period known as the “Dirty War”, some 30,000 dissidents were “disappeared” (murdered and never seen again).  Finally, with a failed military attempt to regain control of the Falkland Islands, the military power ended and a semi-democratic government took control in 1983.

Because of this very recent history of dictatorship, voting in Argentine elections is now mandatory.  There is a supposed fine if you don’t.  This results in an astonishingly high rate of 84% participation (for comparison’s sake, a mere 57% of the US voted in the 2008 presidential election).  This helps to explain the huge numbers of protests against nearly all of the government policies (well, that and Kirchner- known as Queen Christina to some – is starting down a very dangerous path with many policies, in my opinion and probably a lot of Argentines as well).  They want their voices or their pots and pans (see other BA post for explanation) to be heard.

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A Taste of Real-life In Argentina

Staying put in one place for a month is a foreign concept to me (no pun intended).   But “living” in a place for a more extended period of time has been an educational experience.  While being here has been a great overall adventure, doing both the touristy things and the everyday work/school things; it definitely hasn’t been all roses.  I also had the pleasure of dealing with subway strikes (the unionized workers wanted a 28% wage increase, which they got most of), getting used to “Latin time” (where NOTHING starts when it is scheduled to), and of course there’s the challenge of not truly speaking the language.  Spanish school is over now, and unfortunately I didn’t end up learning as much as I had expected to (the why is a whole long rant that I don’t need to get into).

A taste of true life in Argentina: one night around 8:30pm, I was dutifully doing my Spanish homework in my apartment when I heard a lot of loud noises.  Gradually the noise got louder, so I went out onto my balcony to see what all the fuss was about.  And sure enough dozens of people on surroundings balconies were banging pots and pans together.  The racket went on for about a half hour.  And this continued on several consecutive nights.

Recently the Argentine government has put heavy restrictions on the sale of US dollars, effectively making it illegal to sell pesos for the more favored dollars.  The reasoning behind this is to attempt control the flight of capital and accumulate international reserves.  Because the peso is a very unstable currency (economists estimate that inflation was over 20% last year alone), most people prefer to keep their savings in US dollars (the physical notes, kept in bank safety deposit boxes).  Recently, an Argentine senator made comments in the heat of the moment that he too kept his savings in US dollars, effectively undermining the legitimacy of the Argentine currency when their own lawmakers have no faith in it.

So the people took to their kitchens, literally, and protested.  There is a famous form of protesting in Latin America known as “cacerolazo”.  When people don’t agree with something the government has done (which happens a lot in Argentina), they bang pots and pans making a lot of noise in order to show their disgust.  I’m still baffled by what they expect to have happen by creating a lot of noise at 8:30pm in residential neighborhoods…  I remember banging pots and pans when I was little to celebrate New Years…

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Quick Update from BA

I decided to try something a little different from the rest of my traveling experiences and stay put in a place for more than a couple of days.  I wanted to try and improve my (mostly forgotten) high school Spanish skills, so I chose to go to “Spanish school” in Buenos Aires for a couple of weeks.  A good portion of the past two weeks has been mundane things like finding an apartment, going to class, and then of course there is the whole work thing, and getting prepped for grad school (career checklists, self-assessments, etc.).  Because of this there hasn’t been a lot of interesting things to bother to write about.  I have been doing a few touristy things, and I’ll write my typical post about them soon, so check back for something more interesting.   But in the meantime, a brief update on my whereabouts.

Because I was staying put for about a month, I wanted to get my own apartment, so that I would have a place to actually hang up my clothes (well, my five shirts and two pairs of pants…) and spread out my drawings for work on a table.  I found a studio (on craiglist actually) that has a view of the park across the street!  It’s quite small, and I’ve been sleeping on a pull-out couch, but such is life in the big city.  And well, I’m literally living out of a carry-on sized suitcase, so it’s not like I really need the space anyway.

I’ve started Spanish school, but unfortunately my language skills have not improved as much I was hoping.  I knew that in Buenos Aires, they speak very quickly and with an Italian type flair to their language which makes it much more difficult to both learn and converse with locals.  Nevertheless “living” in the city has been quite cool so far!  And I love taking the subway to school everyday versus driving because I get some reading done on the way!

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Getting to Buenos Aires (with a couple of stopovers…)

After my flight from Easter Island landed in Santiago, Chile I took the first bus out.  I had already been to Santiago on “Around-The-World Part I” and wasn’t so impressed with the capital city, so I decided a quick stopover in the port city of Valparaiso was in order.  I had heard that it was a colorful bohemian type city, so I decided that it would be different enough to warrant a stop.  Yea, not really worth it.  While the ascensores (funicular type apparatuses designed to avoid walking the extremely steep cliffs – which unfortunately I didn’t get a good picture of) were semi-entertaining the first time, after that first joy ride I just felt lazy for not taking the stairs, so I climbed, and of course was sore the next morning.  There wasn’t much else to do in Valpo, as Lonely Planet describes, it is a “working-class” city, which translates to dirty and full of graffiti.  After that it was time for my nine hour bus to Mendoza, Argentina.

Basically I used Mendoza as a transit hub on my way to Buenos Aires to avoid a 23 hour bus ride.  Dividing it out into nine and 14 hours seemed to make more sense.  Though because I don’t like wine (it gives me massive headaches, even in tasting quantities because I’m missing some enzyme to digest it or something), it was kind a waste of time for me because really the only thing to do in Mendoza is wine tours.  And while I’m sure they have some fantastic wines, the last wine tasting I went to in Chile at Concha y Toro I ended up giving away all of my samples, so it seemed like a real waste for me to pay for that experience again.  And yes, I drove through Napa on my west coast road trip and didn’t stop there either…

Then it was time for my 14 hour bus ride, which despite its length wasn’t that bad (even without the luxury of personal tvs attached to the seats in front of you, which I have grown accustomed to on trans-oceanic flights – yes, I’m a snob about that now, but it really helps pass the time watching a half season of Modern Family while crossing an ocean).  The problem came in when the driver pulled into a bus station and said “termina”, which means that is the last stop and everyone has to get off.  Or at least that’s what the only other backpacker and I thought he said.  Turns out, we were a two hour colectivo (small mini-bus thing that makes about a million stops) ride from the bus station we were supposed to get off at.  So yea, that 14 hours turned into about 16… Ahh the joys of South American bus travel.

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The Real-life LOST – Easter Island

After my couple week hiatus from traveling to head to South Bend for a welcome weekend thing, I am back on the road.  I hit the ground running with the most remote place I could fly to (on a commercial flight at least) –  Easter Island!

Easter Island is most known for the gigantic stone heads, more appropriately called Moai.  There are many theories about why these were carved and then transported around the entire island.  However, the most popular is that they represent deified ancestors.  According the archeological museum there are 887 moai on the island, however 397 never got transported out of the volcanic quarry that they were carved from.  These are massive statues (average size is over 12 feet tall and weighing over 27,000 pounds) and were made in the fifteenth century until the ultimate demise of the island.  Many ideas surround the mystery of Easter Island, and the Rapa Nui are considered a fascinating study in human isolation.

The island itself is only about 50 square miles but is absolutely beautiful!  The coastline is mostly rocky, but with the bluest water I have ever seen.  There are two calderas (collapsed volcanoes) and several caves.  One of the caves is basically just an opening that you can climb down in and then walk through for a couple hundred feet to the opening to the ocean.  The scary (or thrilling) aspect is that the opening is several hundred feet above sea level though – the ultimate waterslide if I ever saw one.

Easter Island is considered to be the most isolated inhabited island in the world.  The closest neighbor is Pitcairn Island which is 1400 miles west, while mainland Chile is 2400 miles to the east.  Basically, they are out in the absolute middle of nowhere.  That fact combined with the tropical forests and the enigmatic magnetic rock (which according to rumors makes digital watches reset to 00:00 and makes second hands circle quickly) makes it pretty close to the infamous island from the tv show LOST.  Luckily my plane didn’t crash, I didn’t have to push a button every 108 minutes, or hunt boar for food.  Though hunting for my food would have been considerably cheaper than the alternative of restaurants and supermarkets with their extremely expensive food.  But I guess that is to be expected, since everything has to arrive by either a 5 ½ hour plane ride (as evidenced by my water bottle cargo sticker) or by ship which takes about a week.  They do get regular shipments though (as they would have to in order to support the 2500 residents plus the tourists), but normal things are not actually available every day.  For example, I searched the five supermarkets on the island for bananas and oranges until I finally asked someone and they explained that “fruit day is tomorrow”.

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Chile

In Santiago, we of course had to visit a winery so Matt could hone his connoisseur skills.  He chose “Concha y Toro”, which apparently is rated in the top 10 brands of wine in the world (who knew?).  The tour wasn’t all that interesting; they showed us a few grapes and took us to a cellar.  Matt then proceeded to drink all three of his generous sized “tester” glasses of wine, plus my three…  

After another day of meandering around Santiago, we took off for Punta Arenas, Chile – the gateway to the famed Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia. 

Once we arrived in our refugio (basically a hostel located in a log cabined façade building, named as such in my opinion to charge double the price of normal hostels), we took off for the “Towers” hike.  Looking at the map, the hardest section of the treks distance was labeled as 5 and the contours ranged from 500 to 1500.  I figured 1000 feet over 5 miles shouldn’t be that steep – the metric system didn’t register in my mind until I saw the outrageous slopes of the mountain trail.  The trek started off in beautiful weather – 70’s and mildly sunny and blue skies freckled with only a few clouds.  That lasted about an hour.  Then it became blatantly clear to us why the guide books advise against going to the park in the southern hemisphere summer.  That perfect 70 degree weather dropped to probably the 50’s, the sunny sky turned a dismal grey and started spitting out rain mixed with hail, and worse yet, the infamous 100 mph winds picked up.  We made it to the nearest camp (most likely still 2 miles from where the weather turned) to hopefully wait it out and continue our journey.  Unfortunately, the weather didn’t appear to be letting up anytime soon.  We started our trek back, and since you are reading this, we obviously made it back safely – certainly not without incident though.  I can’t even tell you the number of times I assumed a near fetal position to keep from getting blown off the mountain.  Since the wind (and rain) was at our backs, the back of my jeans (yes, jeans – we came very ill prepared in regard to hiking gear and apparel – we were wearing running shoes and carrying a laptop backpack instead of having the proper hiking boots and fancy hiking backpack with the long water straw) was a vastly different color than the dry front of my pants.  But alas, it was an experience and luckily our one and only set of warm clothes managed to dry by the fire that night.

The next day, we apparently had forgotten the incident of the previous afternoon because we set out again, this time on a 15 mile round trip hike in the same beautiful 70 degree, sunny weather this time to see the “Horns”.  I am happy to report that the weather maintained its good front and the only difficulty was suffering from being out of shape – but I’ll just attribute that to the “fat butt disease” (The Office anyone?) of a desk-job. 

We set up our flights from Punta Arenas to Santiago and Santiago to Auckland with about an 8 hour layover in Santiago so that we could maximize our time spent in the Admirals First-Class Lounge (the joys of coach travel with elite status) enjoying the freebies.  That extra time was needed as our first flight was delayed by almost 5 hours, so sadly a majority of Matt’s birthday was spent with the “regular travelers” in the domestic terminal. 

We got to the Santiago airport on February 24 and thus got our passport exit stamp from Chile on the 24.  We didn’t enter New Zealand until February 26 (taking into account the 15 hour time difference from Santiago – 17 from EST), as a result, according to our passports, we spent an entire day in limbo.

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“Paris of the South”- Buenos Aires

After basically killing time in Sao Paulo, we made our way to Buenos Aires, Argentina (Sorry Cristina Learman).

We basically went to Adelaide going to the Evita museum (thanks Tres).  “Don’t Cry for me Argentina…”   It was kind of a crappy Museum and everything was in Spanish but it only cost 3 bucks.  One of the comments in the guest book was “This museum was hard to follow and I don’t understand how Evita got famous”; at least we weren’t the least cultured ones there. 

The Recoleta Cemetery is where all the Argentinean Elite are buried.  It is a pretty amazing spectacle to see the above ground tombs, especially the enormity of some of them and of the cemetery in general.  Eva (Evita) Peron is buried here, there wasn’t anyone else that we had even heard of though.

 

We went to La Boca, a town of Buenos Aires, where the most popular futbol team in Argentina – Boca Juniors plays.  Maradona used to play for this club, who is arguably the best soccer player of all time (Pele from Brazil being the other).  We took a tour of the stadium, and we wanted so badly to go to a game.  Unfortunately, the Boca Juniors weren’t playing until after we leave, so we instead went to go see Lanus play their first game in the America’s Cup (basically all the countries in North and South America participate except for US and Canada), which is very similar to the UEFA league in Europe.  Lanus was last year’s Argentinean champion.  The crowd there was crazy; there is either a barbed wire fence or literally a moat separating the fans from the field.  The home team fans aren’t permitted to leave the stadium until the opposing fans leave the surrounding area – I think they should start implementing this at the Horseshoe at Ohio State.

 

We also tried to go to a theme park in Buenos Aires.  I felt like Clark Griswold from the National Lampoon’s movie “Vacation”.  In this case, we didn’t travel by station wagon halfway across the country to find out Wally’s World was closed; we traveled across the globe to go to a closed “Saint World,” themed after Jerusalem.  Instead of holding up the security guard to go on all the rides, we just went across the street and bought some ice cream and watched the ocean until we decided to go back to our hostel.  We heard about this park from the magazine “Budget Travel.”  Someone had sent in their story from the park.  See their story below. 

 

“Our Buenos Aires guidebook recommended Tierra Santa [Saint World], a religious theme park that resembles Jerusalem.  All we knew was that highlights were said to include a laser-light show of the creation story.  Upon entering the park, we heard a voice over the loudspeaker: ‘We regret to inform you that Christ will not be resurrected due to high winds.  We will resume the resurrection as soon as possible.’  Twenty minutes later the winds died down, and sure enough, an eight-foot-tall Jesus emerged from the mountain in the center of the park.”

 

 

Now Jill would like to add something before we make our way to Chile. 

Argentina is known for tango.  There are several opportunities for beginners to try and learn the art in Buenos Aires, but Matt would have absolutely nothing to do with lessons (though in the end, it’s probably better that way – it saved me from inevitably several broken toes).  We went to an Argentine restaurant, which happened to have a tango show.  After several glasses of wine, Matt agreed to at least watch the show.  So we had a steak dinner with drinks and a show for the same number of pesos as it would have cost dollars in the US for a night out in the “Paris of the South” – certainly not bad for a third of the price. 

Our hostel is just off of a road called 9 de Julio, which according to wikipedia is the widest street in the world.  It is at some parts 10 lanes wide (in each direction) plus a huge median. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Sao Paulo

Basically Sao Paulo is a big city.  There really isn’t anything too spectacular to distinguish it from other large cities around the world, except that is it the fourth largest, with a population of about 19 million.  Because it isn’t really on the tourist radar, English is harder to come by than other foreign cities; my high school Spanish to the rescue – well, sort of.  It took me a few trys to make sure the movie we were going to see had only Portuguese subtitles (not dubbed), but I managed to get it right.  Given that I haven’t had any Spanish in almost seven years, and Spanish is still a different (though quite similar) language than Portuguese, I think I did fairly well for myself (and Matt). 

 

While sitting in a churrascaria (Brazilian restaurant, basically a meat buffet – though Wikipedia describes it a little better) Matt wants to order a beer, though is completely unable to communicate that to the waiter, without the typical point and grunt method provided by a menu.  I step in and end up getting him exactly what he wants.  I then ask Matt what he would do without me; “go to McDonald’s” was his only response. 

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Rio de Janeiro

After our red-eye flight from Miami, we arrived at our hotel in Rio Saturday morning completely exhausted. Our early arrival paid off though, when we got a complimentary upgrade to an executive suite.   The hotel that we staying in for free (hotel points – courtesy of Matt’s days as a consultant) has a going rate of over $700 US a night.  I’ve decided that Matt needs to go back to his job because the perks are so good for me: this hotel is significantly better than paying $100 a person for a bed in a 16-bed hostel during peak Carnivale times. 

 

Though we were tired, Carnivale festivities wouldn’t wait for a nap, so we headed to Ipanema beach for the street parades.  Overall, the streets are fairly similar to Mardi Gras in New Orleans:  a lot of drinking, eating, and standing around.  The biggest difference is obviously the temperature, mid-80’s here!  Another notable difference is instead of everyone wearing beads, people wear head bands with bobbly ears and a lot of men dress in drag.  A couple of “nurses”, complete with dresses, heels, and wigs made our bus ride quite entertaining.   The bus driver even made a special stop for a beer run for these nurses.

 

Unfortunately, the weather hasn’t exactly been cooperating.  Beyond Saturday, it has been rainy and overcast. Ipanema and Copacabana beaches just aren’t the same without the hundreds of umbrellas and even more people. It is true that the beaches attract the scantily clad; it was quite common to witness old men wearing nothing but a speedo and running shoes out for their afternoon jog. 

 

We wanted to watch the Superbowl on Sunday.  Matt asked the concierge desk where we could watch it, and they told us we needed to go to Shenanigans, a bar in Ipanema.  So we hopped in a cab and were in line at the bar before the game started.  Unfortunately, this being one of only a few bars in all of Rio playing the Superbowl, and it apparently being more popular than people thought, we didn’t get there early enough.  We proceeded to wait in line for over two hours (with fellow Americans travelling as we are), occasionally getting updates yelled down to us from the balcony of the bar, while we watched Brazilians, who mind you didn’t even know who was playing, stumble down the stairs to exit.  After two hours of waiting as the sixth and seventh people in line (thus making us the “official gatekeepers to the bouncer”) we gave up and headed back to the hotel.  There is nothing like waiting two hours in line at a fake Irish bar in Rio de Janeiro during Carnivale.  Upon entering the hotel, we heard cheering from the bar, to find out, unbeknownst to us (or apparently the concierge desk) that our own hotel was playing the game.  So after $30 in cab fare, and waiting around for two hours, we at least got to see the fourth quarter, which apparently was the most exciting anyway. 

 

The huge event of Carnivale are the samba parades held in the Sambadromo on the Sunday and Monday nights before Ash Wednesday.  It is AMAZING!  The costuming, the floats, and the atmosphere are unlike anything I have ever seen before.  There are six different samba schools that put on their show, each lasting about an hour.  The sheer number of people participating in each parade is amazing (about 5,000 people per school according to Matt’s Fermi estimation), not to mention how detailed each and every costume is.  The crowd participation is also something to be seen; the Brazilians sing and dance along with the schools while waving the school flag.  Matt even got swept into his surroundings because he “liked the song”, though he doesn’t speak a word of Portuguese, or even Spanish.   Much different than Detroit’s Thanksgiving Parade. 

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