Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Pic Posting

Post trip editing has taken it's toll on me. With all the back-to-work, er, work to do as well as taking on a lot of photography jobs, I haven't been as quick as I had hoped to organize the hundreds (and hundreds) of images from our trip. It is happening, however, and to prove it check out "Cono Sur" Photoset by Bhlubarber (that's me, Dave) on Flickr. If you are so inclined, please leave comments and let me know what you think. For all those in Vancouver, don't worry, you'll still get your slide show....soon!

Saturday, February 10, 2007


It's the end of our first trip together, and the first real backpacking trip for both of us. The new sights, smells, feelings of excitement and nervousness, movement from place to place and meeting all those amazing people combined for an experience we will never forget. We learned a lot of lessons along the way - how to plan as you go, when to make the jump from the bus and when to stay on it, how to communicate in another language and keeping your energy and wits about you during so many overwhelming moments.

Argentina and Chile are places we felt very welcomed and safe. We are already planning our next trip down to South America, some new places and perhaps, some new friends to visit as well. But that's not for another few years. In the meantime, we're taking the best of our travels to heart and incorporating our newfound outlook in the 'global village' that we find ourselves living in.

With that in mind, here's a little list of what we'll try to forget and what will stay with us forever.

Things we won't miss

• Unimaginative "standard" menus - not that the food was bad, but try a little variety sometimes!
• Convenience shops stocking only crackers, biscuits and tiny cookies - when it's the only source of food on a 5-hour bus ride
• Paying for toilet paper - in the washrooms, that is
• Absence of toilet seats
• "Cheese" - unless you get the artisan-crafted heavy cheeses, queso is not very tasty at all
• Jamon on everything - whether you like it or not!
• Dated music - late 80s adult contemporary rules the roost
• Tripping on dislodged sidewalk tiles
• Road apples of the canine variety under your feet on the big city sidewalks
• Buying bottled water daily and throwing out the empties
• Seeing litterbugs toss rubbish anywhere - a few "Keep Argentina Beautiful" signs could go a long way
and finally.....
• Big dog balls swinging everywhere! (Bob Barker should be flown down for some education)

Things we'll miss

• The friendly "Hola" or "Buena" everywhere you go
• The best palta and tomato we've ever had (in Chile)
• Helados - Dulce de Leche Montanes (con nuez y rhum) is the best ice cream ever!
• Litros de cerveza - at $2.50 ARG a pop, it's cheaper than water and oh, so tasty
• Speaking Spanish while still just learning it and receiving encouragement from strangers
• The "bang for your buck" - Canadian dollars go a long way down here, especially in Argentina where prices are familiar but the exchange makes it a third of the price
• Comfy buses for those long hauls - again, Greyhound could learn a thing or twelve
• Beautifully tiled sidewalks and floors and the old architecture above it all
• Petting perros in need of love - so many to choose from too!
• Mamushka chocolate shop and their amazing tiramisu bar
• Sidewalk cafes and having a drink anywhere you like
• The big, crazy precordillera and the Andes towering behind at sunset
and finally....
• The super-friendly, always smiling, never condescending, beautiful people of the Southern Cone!

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Words to live by, soul food and freedom

Argentinians express their angst, their love, their poetry visibly throught the ancient art of scrawling on walls. It's not enough to simply deface a poster or scratch with chalk on the pavement. Old brick buildings become soapboxes for their political rantings, lucid poet meanderings and bombastic blasts of momentary fury ("Bush Muerte!"). No structure is too sacred for the paint can - from banks to churches, statues to plazas, private homes and vehicles.

In fact, the greater the importance on a public structure, the more likely it seems to be a target for graffiti. Could be the authority they see in a statue of San Martin or the oppressive doors of the grand old national bank (especially since 2001) that makes it easier to rail against the machinery.

If a spraycan can be used for vulgar displays of passion, so can it too be used for beautiful expressions of art. But hidden within these painted puzzles are cryptic messages of non-conformity, subversive mutations on recognizable icons, and just plain funny little eyecatchers.

Within the major cities of Argentina that we visited, the creativity and style that these illegal bursts of colour provide greatly added to the character of the city and the voices of those who need to be heard.

The Entrepreneurial Spirit
It seems that everyone in Argentina works. Kids, moms, dads, grannies, and teenagers. With a little bit of inventiveness, one can be in business for oneself within an afternoon. On a hot, dusty day pick up an armful of brooms and take to the streets hawking your wares along the way. If it's raining, get in on the umbrella trade. A full busload of folk heading off on an eight-hour trip? Better take your thermos of coffee and cooler of sandwiches onto the bus and work that aisle for sales before it pulls out, taking 40 potential customers with it. And better yet, if you have a more artisitic streak, it is very easy to join up with one of the dozens of Feria Artesanals happening every night, in every neighbourhood in every town. These aren't your typical craft fairs either. Everyone pours their heart and soul into creating something "coming from me" and the diversity in jewelry, carvings, clothing, food and wine, music to name a few is astounding. It's not just shopping for trinkets here, it's more like storytelling - you get to know the artist and the whole history of why and how this particular item came to be before it lands in your hands.

Relaxed pace
No water this morning? No problem. It'll be back by this afternoon, tonight...manana latest. In the meantime, do you want a cerveza or cafe? Relax. It's not going to hurt you to have your dinner an hour or two after you've met up with someone. Or hit the nightspots after dinner, after coffee and after a stop at the desert shop. Why get impatient waiting for your bill when you can just keep the conversation flowing, albeit without a refill on your drink. It's a different pace here - the pressure and need to get everything done now, on time, exactly when you want vanishes after a few weeks. And it feels very good.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Rocket to the crypt

Walking through Bs. As. is tough enough what with the cars, taxis, buses and pedestrians all claiming right of way at all times. Plus you are always on the lookout for rogue dog-deposits and missing sidewalk tiles while trying to catch a glance at that gargoyle above you. Navigating isn't always easy on foot, so why not take our lives in our hands and get on the street itself to join the foray. Renting a couple of bright orange cruisers to ride one of the busiest streets was exciting in an oh-geez-i-might-die kind of way - somewhat fitting since we were heading to the Cementerio de La Recoleta. The buses spew filthy exhaust making it dark ahead, motos pass within inches while hubcaps whizz off cars and towards Sandra's bike - all this while circumnavigating a huge roundabout and trying to make it all the way before the light changes and it's a full on charge of headlights towards you. Whew! Quite a change from the relaxed rides to bodegas we were used to.

We made it to La Cementerio in one piece, dying of heat and sucking back pomello juice like crazy. This place is one of the largest above-ground cemetaries in the world and the final resting place for many of Argentina's leaders, hereoes, religious figures and of course, the centerpiece for the tourists - Eva 'Evita' Peron's gravesite. Everything in this massive maze is over the top ornate - some of the mausoleums are well over three stories tall and decked out like miniature cathedrals with huge sculptures, crosses and weeping angels.

It's rather sobering to walk through the pathways and notice that behind the broken glass on that particular window are shelves of coffins, and downstairs in the crypt are 16 more. You can reach out and touch the brass handles and curved tops, weathered and dusty from years of sitting. Cats wander amongst the tombs, caretakers mop and sweep the steps and fresh flowers greet visitors to family plots.

The cemetary was started in 1820 as a 'regular' graveyard but became the elite resting place it is now in 1881. Since then it has become somewhat of an open-air museum of glorious artwork, carvings and architecture in the most devoted of styles. We could have spent many more hours here walking and taking photos, contemplating, but had to return our bikes by the end of the day so into the sun and back to the black top. If we didn't make it we told each other - nothing too fancy, ok?

Friday, January 26, 2007

Full Circle

We rode our final coche cama bus to Buenos Aires - arriving early on a hot, humid day to the city where it all began - for us that is. It's with a "world of experience" that we navigate the city again. With only 6 weeks under our belts, it really feels like we have learned a lot about the language, the customs and dealing with day to day life on the move. No more ham on every meal. Hardly a confused look on the faces of bus drivers, servers or shopkeepers we inquire. We rarely pull out our little black book of translations anymore and we are actually getting compliments from Porteños about our "bueno español" to which we reply "really?, thanks...er, gracias!"

Coming back here to Bs. As. felt good. Not only is it a fantastic city to look at and feel, but the neighbourhood we settled in - San Telmo - is rich in history and charm. Artists and musicians mingle and perform under the shade of trees aside antique shops selling silver from the 19th century, squeeze boxes decades old and seltzer bottles from days gone by.

There's Tango in the square during the day surruonded by some of the finest, classic cafes in all of Argentina where folks like Carlos Gardel - the 'songbird of Buenos Aires' - and South America's most famous poet/writer Jorge Luis Borges used to hang out and compose their art. These places still have their original espresso machines from the mid-1800s, admittedly more for show than use these days - some of them appear ready to fly away with all the crazy doo-dads coming off them.

San Telmo's charm rubs off into the cobblestone streets and narrow sidewalks - it's almost like visiting Europe but it's still a Latin American country we're in and signs of that are everywhere. Horses with carts sometimes compete with taxis under gorgeous, French-inspired colonial apartments that are hundreds of years old. Every doorway is eight feet tall, every key is of the old, hang-it-around-your-neck antique variety. Rooms are never under 12-feet tall and the attention to every detail, from door-knockers to intricate caritedades is incredible. It's a city that lives it's grandeur from the past, still reeling in some aspects from the hard times of a few years ago, but, creating a new reality that only adds to the concrete history all around.

Wandering the streets of Bs. As. really is a feast for the senses as this city never sleeps, in fact it only really seems to wake up late in the eve when the music starts up, the lights go down and the energy perculates into the night. We've got our work cut out for us in the next few days...

Thursday, January 25, 2007

(Still) Waiting for the Wind

Córdoba province is in the geographical heart of Argentina, surrounded by the central sierras - lovely rocky, green mountains that seem to meander in all directions for miles. Two hours north of Córdoba city is La Cumbre - a funky little town that prides itself on being one of the top spots in the world for para-pente (para-gliding). With this in mind we hopped a minibus from the city and booked a spot with a few of the best pilots around. The first morning we were scheduled to fly, we awoke to thunder and rain - obviously not the best conditions. When the sun came out at noon we prayed for wind, but alas, nothing doing in that department. A little bit of cabalgatas in the mountains took our minds off ´being stuck on earth´ (and our horses were actively interested in galloping whenever you made the notion which was very fun).
Day two and again we awoke early in the morn to bad news - sunshine a plenty, but absolutely no wind to speak of. Damn! Time was getting shorter and we still hadn´t even been to the launch site. This time we spent the day lounging by the backyard pool, sharing maté with vacationing porteños and feasting at a vegetarian-friendly asado with a dozen friends. It was pretty good alright, but we better be gliding tomorrow!
Day three: bad news at 9am but a glimmer of hope for midday. Finally, at noon we were picked up by our pilots, whisked out to Cuchi Corral and watched as one solitary hang-glider took off and quickly floated down to earth in no time at all.

Not good. The wind was changing and pilots were building their wings, when the the flag posts finalized everything. It was gusting - hard - but in the wrong direction. No flying today, and, sadly for us, no flying in Argentina this time round.
We were bummed. Luckily, the town of La Cumbre and the hostel we stayed at made up for this disappointment, and we now have friends in Buenos Aires to visit in a few days. And maybe, we´ll be back one day bringing good luck and fair winds in tow.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Heroes and History

Casa de Che
Ernesto ´Che´ Guevera´s legend is strong here in Argentina. He was born in Rosario, went to university in Córdoba and Buenos Aires and lived his adolecense in Alta Gracia, a small mountain town just south of Córdoba. We went for a visit to the Museo de la Casa de Che - one of the homes little Ernestito lived in while growing up. It´s now a museum filled with photos, letters and writings, bicycles, chess boards and cigars.

The highlight was seeing La Poderosa II - the 1939 Norton motorcycle that Che rode along with his amigo Alberto Granado though South America in 1951/52. It was on this trip that Che formed many of his ideas on Marxism and armed, socialist revolution as the only means for change. Within a few years of that journey, he would reconnect with Fidel Castro in Guatemala and enter Cuba as the leader of a revolution that brought Castro to power and installed Guevera as the head of the national bank among other things. It was interesting seeing some of the currency and state documents from this era on display. The house was recently visited by Castro and Hugo Chavez, but we were there on the ´gratis mercioles´ along with dozens of Argentines intersted in knowing more about one of their national heroes. Though he is usually identified with Cuba, in Argentina, there is no mistake that Che Guevera was, and remains, one of their own.

The Jesuits
In Córdoba province, and in much of Northwestern Argentina, the influence of the Jesuits is strong. Who these people are exactly is still a bit of a mystery to us, but the legacy in architecture that they left behind is quite stunning.

Many of the extremely well-preserved ´estancias´ date from the 16th century. In this province alone there are five world heritage sites, and in the city of Córdoba there are univerisities and entire blocks of Jesuit buildings from the 1600s. They made the first dams, started the first schools, built massive stone churches and raised cattle, spun looms and essentially made little civilizations wherever they went. Until they were unceremoniously expulsed from the continent in 1767 that is. In the city, they recently uncovered an entire block of underground crypts that are over 400 years old. There is a lot of history here and it´s funny to think that while Buenos Aires was still a backwater pueblo, the cities of Mendoza, Córdoba and Salta to the north were bustling economic, cultural and artisitic centres that really shaped Argentina´s national identity.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Of Stars and Skies

After a taste of small-town Argentina, we felt we needed to check out some more of that relaxed pace. Enter Barreal, where the elevation (1650m) exceeds the population. Nestled in the scenic Valle de Calingasta, smack between the rumpled, multi-hued geological oddities known as the precordillera (think of them as the weirdo cousins to the foothills of the Rockies) and a stretch of the Andes known as the Cordillera de Ansilta including Cerro Mercedario, second only to Aconcagua at 6770m.

The setting was divine with weeping willows pouring over the empty dirt roads. Finding a home at Don Lisandro Hospedaje, we were treated to amazing homecooked vegetarian food (and no pasta either!) and a tranquil yard to relax and take in the views.

Barreal is known for having some of the best sky in the world for star-gazing, and at Observatorio El Leoncito we could see why. Cloudless, perfect skies in all directions. We were able to sample some of that night sky for ourselves when we walked into the precordillera one night with a blanket and thermos of wine (the best we've had, actually - Callia Alta Syrah Bonardo). The southern skies put on a show, with La Cruce de Sur, Las Tres Marias (aka Orion's belt) and a few shooting stars lighting up the clear skies. (There is a pretty good chance we saw a puma as well, when some car lights shown across the road below a very large cat passed into the light, not 50m away. Thinking there were no pumas in this desert-like area we said, "wow! that´s a big cat!" Not until the rangers at El Leoncito handed us warning flyers and stickers the next day did we realize the area is packed with them.)

Just outside of town was La Pampa El Leoncito, a completely dry former lake bed that stretches for 12km. Perfect for land-sailing - carrovelismo - but we just took it on in a 4wd for some pics. Stay out here too long and you'll end up as bleached white bones in the dust.
Our final night in the Andes was spent watching the sunset over Mercedario from the red rocky hills where the wilderness takes over from the town of Barreal. From here on, we head east to complete our loop via Córdoba and the Atlantic Coast.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Further musings along the way...

No Pee Free
It´s strange, in a country where people take such pride in having clean stores, restaurants and sidewalks, that the washrooms in almost every place are downright scary. No TP, no toilet seats, no towels, soap or often running water. You may dine in a classy joint, finish off your meal with champagne and tiramisu in the finest of environments, then excuse yourself only to be transported into a dungeon-like afterthought of a restroom. What´s interesting is that the finest cans are in gas stations, opposite to what we are used to in Canada. And, to top things off, in every public location, there is an attendant who does not keep things in order, but sits and collects pesos for the privilege of relief and expects more if you are in need of a square or two. In Chile, you cannot even enter the room without paying a turnstile guard 100 pesos to get in. The one rule: Always BYOTP.

Throwing Out Plastic
It´s hard, but when you don´t trust the taps you are destined to consume bottled water. Unfortunately, this means having to toss them out when you´re done. In the trash. No recycling exists that we´ve seen other than in private school yards. And what they do with that plastic is unknown. Paper, metal tins, glass bottles (except beer and wine), plastics of all kinds and organics all get tossed. Having grown up with the Three R´s it´s a difficult thing to get used to.

Some of the finest ice cream in the world is made in Argentina. So they say. But we´ve done a fair share of sampling and it could very well be true. Frutillas for Sandra and delicious Argentine Dulce de Leche for Dave. At the local "helados artesanal" a double portion in a waffle cone runs you about two pesos and the desert is sculpted into a tower of creamy delight. But don´t lick it with your tongue or you´ll get looked at funny - there´s a reason that tiny spoon is poking out of the top. This isn´t DQ, but small-batch, homemade goodness for those hot days and nights.

Lemon Aid
Never order fresh lemonade. Unless you like 13 lemons squeezed into a glass and served semi-warm. One huge gulp through a straw when parched is enough to kill your tastebuds for the rest of the day.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Saddle up

Valle Fertil in the rocky hills made a great base for exploring the crazy desert surrounding it. The hills here are covered in those classic cacti you see in Road Runner cartoons - "stick ´em up!" - and there are succulents growing in every crevice. It´s a sleepy little town that really goes gung-ho for helping out travellers, most of whom are here en route to Ischigualasto and Talampaya. We stayed in a nifty little hotel on a side street not too far from El Cardon, a small, family-run place offering cabalgatas - excursions by horseback.
It was finally time for me, Dave, to fulfill a life-long dream of mounting a steed for the wilderness. Yes, it´s true. Though 32-years old, the only horse I have ever been on was called "horsey" and I think it was either a) a stuffed head on a stick, or b) a pony at the Calgary Stampede. Either way, it was high time I got to check out this new fangled form of transportation.

We hooked up with Carlos who took us on a three-hour excursion into the mountains beyond. I rode Pintado, the best-behaved horse of the bunch, while Sandra took Flacca, who was more interested in eating every bit of plant he saw along the way. Carlos led us along "main street" towards the edge of town and into a deep valley that was constantly alive with condors hunting above. At one point we saw a dozen condors all gracefully swooping amongst the rocky hills. They rarely bother to flap, instead curling their massive wings under and unfolding them to keep the glide going.
We rode our horses though streams, past petroglyphs and into some very dense foliage. Halfway through the trip we actually got up to speed a bit - from slow canter to brisk gallop - which caused us to burst into uncontrolled laughter while bouncing hard on the back of the poor horses. They must have been wondering what our deal was, with our English commands, strange directional controls with the reins, and somewhat agonized whineying when going too fast. Yup, we were a bit sore after a few hours. And the next day even more so. Being on horseback is a view we could certainly get used to...so long as it is followed by a good massage

Scenic surrealism

From Mendoza to San Jaun, San Juan to San Augustin del Valle Fertil. We arrived in this quiet little town of 3000 specifically to check out some of the natural parks in the area. First off: Parque Provincial Ischigualasto and Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon). Some of you may have been to Drumheller or Dinosaur Park in Alberta. Picture that kind of landscape, but add to that dashes of colour from the most surreal of palettes, cracked creekbeds of red that haven´t seen water in ages and geological formations that really do look like another planet.

From the upper edges, the wind blew sand across the open canyons, the light filtered through a veil of gray, while rays from the harsh sun sent shafts of colour onto dunes in the distance. It was a pretty wild place to be. Our caravan of vehicles were led further into the valley, passing such famous monuments as La Catedral, El Submarino and El Hongo leading us to the unique and bizarre phenomena called Cancha de Bochas.

Perfectly round rocks, some the size of soccer balls, on the desert floor. No real pattern to speak of, yet, they almost look like they could have been placed by humans. This area has gone through such geological turmoil that to have caused this scape is a real testament to the power of nature. And in the process, the valley walls have revealed not only the largest dinosaur skeleton ever excavated, but also the oldest at 230 million years. There are fossils here that are considered to be the origins of dinosaurs. Like we said, a pretty wild place indeed.

Next stop, was Parque Nacional Talampaya, a UNESCO world heritage site an hour from Ischigualasto. This place blew our minds! Blasting with park rangers across a desert flecked with guanacos (wild llama-like animals) towards towering walls of deep red jutting impressively from the sand surrounding us. Ancient "petroglifos" from 600 years ago carved on stones that seemed to have just fallen off the canyon wall yesterday. When we entered Cañon de Talampaya, we passed into a realm of awe.

The cliffs went straight up 150 meters and the canyon is 4km long. Carved by water centuries ago are rounded impressions that go the height of the walls, almost like perfect cylinders of rock were removed, leaving half cylinder outlines that create vertical waves along the canyon. One of our favourite parts was the Chimenea del Eco where you can shout while standing in one of these rock tubes and the resulting echo from the other side returns louder that the original and echoes a half dozen times before disappearing. Condors nest on the cliffs and parrots swoop from tree to tree in the ancient bosques below. It is almost inconceivable how a canyon like this can rise from such a flat, sandy environment. Or rather, how the land falls apart around it and becomes the desert. I imagine Uluru has much the same impression, but Talampaya has the added bonus of being able to travel through the twisting confines of this above-ground canyon. It is a difficult place to get to - out in the middle of nowhere far from any villages - but well worth the hot, dusty journey.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Can´t get enough

We mentioned the moon-lit scenery going over the Andes, but to do the trip during the day was breathtaking. The sky was bright and the Andes were red, very red, with cactus-studded rocks in Chile and whisps of green shrubbery on the Argentinian side. The colours were surreal and the 2-hour border stop was tolerable only because of the mountain pass we found ourselves in. Aconcagua was to our left and we got a great view of this beast - snow-capped and majestic.

Shortly after was the natural land-bridge of Puente del Inca and a long journey out of the hills and back into wine country. The landscape in Mendoza province is like the prairies - fairly flat and covered in agriculture. But here, instead of endless fields of wheat, there´s literally mile after mile of vineyards - it´s all you can see in every direction and surrounded by sandy desert! The very old and complex aquaduct system did wonders to make the area such a mecca for the grape.

We did the smart thing, and again rented bikes to check out three bodegas in Maipu - a short ride outside Mendoza. Bodega La Rural had an amazing wine museum showing some of the methods used 100 years ago like using animal skins for filters. Carminae was the furthest out and was a fairly new winery, but had the best Malbec we´ve tasted yet. Our backpack was getting heavier as the day went on! Lastly, we rode to La Familia de Tomasso - a great tour guide, a cuddly gatito and some delicious sherry to finish the day. Argentina has some great wine, that´s for sure. It´s a pity most of it never leaves the country, but we´ll certainly make use of our 4-bottle export limit when coming home.

Chau Chile!

Chile has been treating us very well. In fact, had we not pre-purchased our return ticket we likely would have imposed and stayed a bit longer. That said, we managed to pack the time we had here with good fun, great company and lots of sightseeing. On our final day, we stayed in Villa Alemana to check out the scene here. It´s a small place with a real local feeling and we lazily spent the day having a traditional Chilean "tea" with Margarita - mostly beans of all sorts and the obligatory peeled tomato slices. On that note, the tomatoes and especially paltas (avocados) are insanely tasty here, unlike any we´ve had before.

Later, we hit the streets with two goals: to visit with our new-found friend Carlos and sample some of those famous homemade empanadas. Carlos is a shopkeeper whom we met within two minutes of arriving in Villa Alemana. We immediately made a connection with him as he used to live on Main & 49th in Vancouver - right in our neighbourhood! We spoke at length about Vancouver, his working travels in 13 countries and what he´s up to here in Chile. After showing us a bag full of photos from his time in Canada over gaseosas (soft drinks) we asked where to find The Best Empanadas in town. Before we knew it, he was locking his office and personally guiding us to the place. He paid for 6 of the largest empanadas we´ve seen (and we´ve seen quite a few) and they were indeed delicious. Chau Carlos! Muchas gracias por su compania y las empanadas - mucho gusto!

After a short siesta, we were in for a great surprise. Javier and Marie took us to Valparaiso that night for what we thought was a tour of the cerros and some picture-taking. Instead, we arrived on Cerro Monjar at the home of Javier´s brother Mauricio (Coco) and his wife Paola and their daughter Tamara. Their house is perched on the side of the cerro, overlooking the city and sea, sparkling in the distance.

We sat on the patio admiring the view and imbibing in bebidas including Sandra´s new favourite Pisco Sour Mango (a spirit made with the skin of white wine grapes in northern Chile and infused with fresh fruit - it is delicious). We chatted, again in that funny misunderstood understanding kind-of way, until early in the morning.

Such warm, friendly people and we were encouraged to come back again and stay in Valpa with them. It was sad to say goodbye to the Ruiz families - they made our trip to Chile - and we know that when we are in the area again, we´ll have some friends to visit.

Monday, January 8, 2007

Getting vertical in Valparaiso

Viña del Mar sits on the northern crescent of a large bay on the Pacific Coast about 2 hours from Santiago de Chile. Right next to it on the southern side is the historic port city of Valparaiso. Now this was an interesting place! The city is built up on "cerros" (mountains) that form a massive bowl around the waterfront. There are dozens of these cerros, each a somewhat distinct neighbourhood serviced by ancient lifts called "ascensors". The first ascensor was built in 1883 - Ascensor Concepion - and we rode this one up to Cerro Alegre to explore the hillside.

The ascensor took up about 30 seconds to ascend the vertical slope. Picture a box that can hold about 10 people on a train track that is on an 80-degree angle. A wire cable pulls you straight up this track while another ascensor heads down. They have not changed at all since they were built making it a somewhat frightening experience the first time. Once we ascended we were in the middle of a colourful neighbourhood on winding, steep streets, impecable views of the coast and the other cerros - which looked like they were right there, but seperated by huge gullies filled with homes impossibly perched on cliffsides. It was very cool.

Sandra thought it looked somewhat like San Francisco meets the favelas of Rio de Janeiro - not a shanty-town like the favelas, but definitely far from an American city as well. I should mention, we started the day by traipsing through the market-area of Valpa where the oldest buildings are right next to the port. We met a resident named Christopher who took us up into an old, decrepid building for some panoramic views of the city and issued us a stern warning to watch ourselves on the street. It was a rough part of town, as most port areas are. Luckily, nothing weird happened and heading up onto the cerros changed our intitial impression of the city.

Up on Cerro Alegre, there were artists, street musicians, a full-blown string-band, studios and cafés everywhere. The architecture was very unique and we couldn´t see how some of these buildings were still standing on the sides of the cerros after 120 years. So much colour and creative expression everywhere - a very bohemian feel to this place and when we descended via Ascensor Reina-Victoria it was down into another world again. Bustling trolleys and buses, business-folk on cell phones and an old-time street feel once more. Valparaiso is a place you can explore for days, weeks even and never see enough - so many cerros, all holding their own character. And enough charm to make you forget about the gorgeous beach-front of Viña a mere train stop away.

On the beach in Viña del Mar

For our second day in Chile we decided we had better hit the beach and do some swimming in the ocean. We took the metro from Villa Alemana straight to Viña del Mar on the Pacific coast. The trip took about 25 minutes and wove through deep valleys covered in cacti and massive succulents. Pretty impressive scenery for a public transit system. When we got to Viña del Mar it was hot, but we didn´t really notice it due to the lovely offshore breeze. We really noticed it that night when we realized we got some pretty sweet farmer´s tans! Wandering along the ocean front we spotted some huge animals in the sea, just off shore. Getting closer we realized they were pelicans. Unlike the ones we saw in California a few years ago, these ones were massive! We watched them glide just above the water in sets and then swoop up, become a straight point and dive in for a quick meal. It was an incredible sight. We could have watched them all day, but a thatched umbrella and lounge chairs were calling for us. The breakers were quite large and after a few minutes in the sun we jumped in. The push/pull of the tide was very strong and Sandra managed to get turned upside down more than once. It was a rollercoaster ride with the waves coming from ankle deep to suddenly over your head. And the water was cool and refreshing - not too unlike the summer temperatures on our beaches in Vancouver. We spent a good part of the day in and out of the sea, basking in the hot Chilean sunshine, and wandering along the beach we came to a massive pier filled with people fishing over the rails.

Some had poles, but most had a simple roll of line and a large hook that seemed to do the trick as we saw boxes of fish all over the place. Dusk came around 8pm and with it came the teenagers, musicians, gypsies, and street performers all crowding the boardwalk along Avenida Perú. The beaches were full of youngsters playing fútbol and footbag. The feeling of a festival was strong, but it was only a regular weekday night on the coast. It seemed like everybody was out and about enjoying the beauty around them and it was a blissful walk back to the metro and onward to our home away from home.

Friday, January 5, 2007

Homestay in Chile

It was quite the effort to make it happen, but it did. Our friend Veronica from Calgary has family in Chile, and we were offered the chance to stay with them for a few days. Sounded perfect so we took them up on it. Trouble was, we had to arrange this in Argentina, by phone, with people who spoke no English at all and spoke Spanish very quickly. From the bus depot in Mendoza we called once, spent about 10 minutes trying to arrange a meeting point in complete confusion, then resigned to call again. We found a lady in the terminal who offered to help us, and after her call to the family we were able to sort out some details: how to get there, where to get off, and what time to meet. It was a nerve-racking time, but when we stepped off the bus in Villa Alemana it all seemed okay. The first person we met was a shopkeeper named Carlos who actually lived on Main & 49th in Vancouver for a few years. So we had a good chat with him until I spotted a lady on the street who looked right. I went up to her and said Hola! and voila! it was Margarita - Veronica´s auntie.

She walked us to her family´s home a few blocks away and we met her son Javier, his wife Marie and their two children (los niños) Javiera, 6, and Benjamin, 2.

We also met her other son Fabian, his girlfriend Oli, and the family pets: Dolly the Cocker, two budgies and a couple of bunnies. We were immediately welcomed in, and felt the instant warmth from these people. It was a nice moment. After a nap to recover some of the lost sleep from the bus trip, we were invited to "tea" and had a simple meal and some interesting conversation. It was really amazing that we were able to all communicate with one another considering our low-level of Spanish and only Javier speaks a little English. Good fun all around - lots of laughing and smiles, arms in the air and exagerated facial expressions. That night, we were taken on an impromptu car-ride with Javier and Marie to Viña del Mar 20 minutes away. They were more than eager to show us around and make friends with "the Canadians" and at one point even asked us bluntly if we liked them! Of course we did! We went to the beach and watched the huge breakers roll in, visited the feria artesanal on the boardwalk and stopped for pictures and bebidas (drinks). By midnight it was back to Villa Alemana and a pleasant Buenos Noches for all.

Over the next five days, this would be our home in Chile and our relationships kept developing until it felt like we were all very comfortable around each other and even los niños were no longer too shy (of me, "Alto Dave" especially).

The reception of total strangers who, only a day before had called in a foreign tongue to ask about staying in their home, was amazing. What could have been a "lonely" visit to Chile has turned into an experience we will never forget.

Moonlit Crossing

In the 3 days we were in Mendoza we almost melted. We knew it was hot, but we recently found out it was actually 43 degrees celcius that first day and 38 on New Year´s. This is why we break out in a sweat at 1am from the simple act of lifting a bottle of water to our lips. Hydration is key obviously, and wine does not cut it!

It was with a sense of relief that we boarded a 10pm bus bound for Santiago de Chile. Air con - yes! The night was dark in the precordillera but by the time we began our ascent up the Andes the full moon was out and cast an eerie glow across the massive peaks. Valleys with tiny streams twinkled and cascades sparkled as they came crashing down the mountains. Our bus kept going up, up, up as we passed by the tallest mountain outside the Himalayas - the gigantic Cerro Aconcagua @ 6962m. The mountains kept us in awe and the moon was the perfect spotlight for our nocturnal voyage. At Los Libertadores we crossed into Chile and then made our way into the inspection room where dogs sniffed out the rogue manzana (apple) I had in my small bag. Oops. Not cool. We weren´t alone though, so it wasn´t too bad. But what about the tomate and the berenjena (eggplant) in our backpack under the bus? Is this a felony? Should we attempt to come clean? Before we could do anything, a cup appeared before us and we plopped a 5-peso note into it - too much? Not enough? And why? Then...stamp! Bienvenidos á Chile!

The route down from the summit was very steep, hairpin turns aplenty, and our ears paid the price. Bottled water vacuumized and peanut butter just about de-hydrogenated itself. Within a few hours we were in Santiago and ready to hop another short bus to our final destination - Villa Alemana near the Pacific Coast.

Monday, January 1, 2007

Pictures uploaded!

As we sit here in a lovely air-conditioned internet café, waiting for our overnight bus to Villa Alemana in Chile, we thought we´d load some pics onto the past posts for your enjoyment. So...most older blog posts now have images so go back and check it out!
Ta luego amigos!

¡Feliz Año Neuvo!

Mendoza is in a desert along the highest peaks of the Andes, and, in fact, the world. It is insanely hot here. Humid as well - even at night it is still well over 30 degrees. Fortunately, the streets are lined with giant Sycamore trees whose leaves lend a welcome relief from the burning sun. To deal with the heat you walk in the shade, stop a lot in the many plazas and eat delicious helados (ice cream). You also scope out the closest bar or cafe with air conditioning and stop in for one of whatever is on the menu.
For New Year´s Eve we got together with a few friends we met back in El Bolson - fellow Albertan´s Colleen and Carey - and went directly to the first air con bar we saw. A few mugs of cold ´chop´ (draft beer) and it was back into the night with a backpack of now somewhat warm Bianchi champagne, jugo naranja and some hard (soft) cheese. We popped the cork early and found a nice spot in Plaza Independencia, the biggest plaza in Mendoza, which happened to be right across from the Hyatt Plaza hotel where they were having quite the bash. Throughout the day we had heard soft pops and pows across the city from firecrackers, but come midnight we didn´t need a watch as the sky lit up with fireworks and the air filled with the sounds of explosions - some literally making us duck for cover! Around 2am we got back to our hostel which was in the middle - literally - of a party started at 8pm. We managed some shut-eye and woke up to 2007 feeling refreshed and ready for Chile. We wish you all a great start to 2007 and we look forward to sharing it with you!