Sunday, February 27, 2011

Mate

Our very first day in Argentina, we noticed that everyone seems to have some strange looking drinking apparatus that they are always fooling with. The next day, we started to make inquiries. We were told that the drink is called mate. Everyone, literally everyone, drinks it. Mate is a dried herb, much like tea. It is prepared and consumed in a mate set that consists of a gourd-shaped cup and a stainless straw, with hot water. Most people carry their own thermos, even on backpacking trips! Various public places, e.g. bus stations, would have hot water dispensers, some furnished by mate manufacturers. I have never seen hot drinking water so readily available outside of China.

In this increasing homogeneous world where people are eating the same food (e.g. hamburgers) and drinking the same drinks (e.g. colas). I find the mate tradition endearing. When we asked Anna, from Buenos Aires, if one can buy a mate drink in a cafe or restaurant. She explained that mate is something one drinks at work or on the go. It is not a leisure drink. People have tried to sell them in Buenos Aires, but failed. When John suggested that Starbucks may one day sell mate as they do with chai, Anna found the idea very amusing.

Mate gourds for sale at the San Telmo Street Market in Buenos Aires.
Mate Gourds - San Telmo Street Market - Buenos Aires, Argetina

Woman prepares to fill her thermos at a free hot water dispenser (sponsored by one of the herb vendors) in the Bariloche bus station.
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At a bus stop a hiker checks his thermos before heading off into the woods.
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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Ho-hum Buenos Aires

I am surprised that I do not like Buenos Aires as much as I had expected. Compared to the cost of living and the level of goods and services that are aimed for disposable income, Buenos Aires is low on upkeep, e.g. trash, sidewalks, buildings, etc. For a New World city, it is unusually crowded, and for us, is reminiscent of Shanghai and Mumbai. There seems to be a lot of petty crime, right around us too, probably festering on the hordes of tourists. We are usually just content looking at grand buildings in big cities, but in BA there is a hodgepodge of different architecture styles, but none outstanding.

The highlight for me was the totally unexpected Floralis Genérica, a recent sculpture that combines art and technology. In fact I was so impressed with it that I lament Washington DC does not have a cool addition such as this. We found the famous Recoleta cemetery nicely outrageous, even after what seems like the grand-tour-of-South-American-cemeteries that we have been on.

We are experiencing our third period of hot weather of the trip. Since we are used to hot and humid summer at 35 degrees north, BA, at 34 south does not seem so bad.

A couple of shots of Floralis Genérica.
Floralis Genérica - Buenos Aires, Argentina

Floralis Genérica - Buenos Aires, Argentina

Eva Peron's tomb draws a crowd in Ricoleta Cemetery.
Eva Peron's Grave - Recoleta Cemetery - Buenos Aires, Argentina

The Art Deco Metropolitan Cinema.
Cine Metropolitan - Buenos Aires, Argentina

La Bombonera: Stadium of the Boca Juniors futbol team.
La Bombonera - La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Russian Orthodox Church (Iglesia Apostolica Ortodoxa Rusa).
Russian Orthodox Church (Iglesia Apostolica Ortodoxa Rusa) - Buenos Aires, Argentina

The "first plates" of our all-you-can-eat-buffet lunch at Granix, one of many vegetarian restaurants in Buenos, Aires.
Ganix Vegetarian Restaurant  - Buenos Aires, Argentina

The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo still march on Thursday's at 3:30PM. Very poignant and inspirational.
Madres  del Plaza Mayo - Buenos Aires, Argentina

Friday, February 18, 2011

From top to bottom

In exactly five months we traveled from Cartagena, Colombia to Ushuaia, Argentina (about 4000 miles as the crow flies) by bus, except for two trains and one ferry. It is our longest continuous journey by land. I like our route very much; of course, I did most of the planning. Yet I am still amazed by all that we have seen and experienced.

Ushuaia was not even in our original plan, but somehow it worked its way into our itinerary. The southern most city in the world and located on the Beagle Channel Ushuaia may be conceptually significant, but there is nothing unique about its physical feature. It feels like a tourist trap to us, maybe because many cruise ships pass and originate here, and the usual tourist attractions seem overpriced. We had to drum really hard to come up with some worthwhile outings. Our efforts did pay off. The first outing was a hike up towards Cerro del Medio, through a forest reserve, above the tree line, into the snow. The second outing was a coastal walk to Estancia Tunel with unexpected sightings of wildlife and beautiful views of the Beagle Channel.

Walking up through the beech trees on the well-maintained Cerro del Medio trail.
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Great views to the Beagle Channal and Ushuaia as we walk above the treeline.

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Sun-Ling heads for a patch of snow. That's Laguna Margot at left; Beagle Channel in background. We turned around just after this point as the weather deteriorated.

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Stopped at Playa Larga for some beach combing on our way to Estancia Larga.
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Sun-Ling looks out at the Beagle Channel on the way to Estancia Tunel.
Beagle Channel - Ushuaia, Argentina

Beagle Channel with cruise ship in the distance.
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View of Beagle Channel from a meadow near the ruins of Estancia Tunel.
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Patagonian Fox.
Patagonian Fox - Ushuaia, Argentina

Came on a noisy flock of Austral Parakeets but were too far away for a decent photo - sorry.
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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Penguins, Isla Magdalena, Chile

We are on our way down to Tierra del Fuego. We chose to go the western route through Chile so we could visit the Magellanic penguin colony on Isla Magdalena near the city of Punta Arenas. Punta Arenas is at the southern end of Chile on the Straits of Magellan, so we were just about as far away from the 2/11/11 earthquake as possible while still in Chile, much to John's dismay. Punta Arenas is yet another underwhelming town except for the cemetery.

To visit the penguins, boats do not leave everyday, so we had to stick around town an extra day. The boat ride is four hours round trip for a mere one-hour on the island. It is going to be yet another one of those US$100+ day trips. The worst part was that the boat would not leave until 5pm and all the weather forecasts were predicting rain. I hesitated. All the penguins are going to be in their burrows hiding from the rain, our time and money wasted. John was unfazed, so we went ahead.

We packed all our warm and rain gear and bought John a pair of gloves. It started to rain as we headed out to the ferry terminal. When our boat approached island we could see penguins fishing in the water; the island thick with white, black and gray. When we touched ground, I felt I had just landed in a penguin documentary film. All my senses were filled with penguin, sights, smells, and sounds. All my previous doubts evaporated. There were supposed to be 65 thousand pairs plus their new-borns living on the island. It did not feel like an overestimation. The penguins were every bit adorable "in actu" as in film. The one hour flew by even though it was very cold and rainy.

The highlight for me was being "attacked" by a penguin. Visitors were supposed to stay on a marked path which all of us observed well, as opposed to the penguins which wandered indiscriminately. So when I noticed a penguin stepping into the path towards me, I stood still. I could not bring myself to walk away. He first rooted around my shoe laces which I thought was really funny. Then he proceeded to tug at my rain pants. At which point I had to shoo him away. I was so excited by the encounter, it did not dawn on me until later that the little guy was looking for building material for his burrow. What a smart fellow! My rain paints would make very good burrow material.

The shaped trees and park-like atmosphere of the Punta Arenas Cemetery.
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Penguins!
Isla Magdalena Magellanic Penguin colony

Isla Magdalena Magellanic Penguin colony

Monday, February 14, 2011

Patagonia summer - my coldest winter

Actually, it is not that cold. It just that every hotel room we have been in has a radiator that gets turned on at least at night or all day. It puts out more heat than our heat pumps in Raleigh. Maybe the title of this port should be "the warmest winter I ever spent was a summer in Patagonia". I hate to think what real winters are like here. Yet the days are long. Every day we go to bed at or before dusk, and the sun is already above the horizon when we get up.

Weather here is highly variable. It can be anywhere between sunny and hot to rainy and cold. But we can always bet on wind, the strongest we have experienced. Throughout the day we are always putting on and taking off our wool hats, fleece jackets, windbreakers, and sometimes rain pants, a million times. The wind makes my nose run, but we have managed to stay healthy -- knock on wood.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Excellent hiking in El Chalten

Since we did not hike in Torres del Paine, we headed to El Chalten to do some day hikes in the northern section of Los Glaciares National Park. We had three full days of hiking, day 1: 26km (350m ascend), day 2: 25km (750m ascend), day 3: 24km (1000m ascend), with minimal pharmaceuticals, 2 ibuprofen (John) and 5 Band-Aids (me). For me it was a personal record( the hiking, not the Band-Aids).

Each day the hike involved walking to some initial viewpoint, followed by a difficult section that lead uphill to an even more scenic viewpoint. Each day I hesitated going on the last part. With encouragement and help from John, my personal mountain guide, I was able to make it each time. The views were truly incredible.

Another good thing is that all the bodies of water in the El Chalten section of Los Glaciares are potable. I would have been in big trouble if I had to carry all the necessary water. The water is delicious and icy cold. John claims he can barely hold his hand in the water long enough to fill the water bottle in one shot.

Photos from Day 1, the Cerro Torre route.
At Lago Torre with Cerro Torre (topped by a cloud) and Glaciar Grande in the background.
Lago Torre - El Chalten, Argentina

We hiked up to the Maestri Viewpoint for a better look at Glaciar Grande.
Glaciar Grande & Lago Torre - El Chalten, Argentina

Sun-Ling walking up the scree ridge to Maestri Viewopoint.
Lago Torre - El Chalten, Argentina

Photos from Day 2, the Los Tres\Fitz Roy route.
The day started (and ended) with great views of the Rio de las Vueltas.
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Lunch break on the banks of Rio Blanco with Mt. Fitz Roy in the background.
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Lago de los Tres at the base of Mt. Fitz Roy.

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Photos from Day 3, the Lomo del Pliegue Tumbado route.
After 3.5 hours walking with over 2000 ft of ascending we are rewarded with an awesome view of both Cerro Torre (left) and Mt. Fitz Roy (right). But there was another 45 minutes of uphill to go.
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John at the top of Lomo de Pliegue Tumbado.
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Sun-Ling at the top of Lomo de Pliegue Tumbado with view to Lake Viedma behind.
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The descent.
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Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Exuberant Argentinians

We have been doing a lot of walking to miradors in Argentina. Argentinians of all ages and shapes, solo or by groups, cheerfully ply the same trails. In the beginning, we would be coming down from a mirador, John would see someone not so fit and whisper to me, "they'll never make it." One time we even tried to warn this couple trying to mountain-bike up a trail that is really only suited for hiking. They pointed to their rental bikes, "those are very good bikes." After a while we realized that more times than not they do make it in spite of, or because of, their exuberant struggling. Now we cheer them on when we come across them.

Argentinians also seem to head out on trails any time of the day. John and I are used to being the last ones on trails, between my phobia for downhills and our propensity for dawdling. Not here, we would be heading back when throngs of Argentinians are still heading out. John would worry for them that they may have to walk in the dark. Nothing seem to faze them. To them, it is always vale la pena (worth the pain).

Their exuberance is rubbing off on me. I am hiking more, attempting more difficult hikes, and enjoying myself more. In fact, I have been thinking of finally giving backpacking a try after we get home.

A mirador "worth the pain" in Bariloche, Argentina.
Bariloche, Argentina

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Perito Moreno Glacier -- a HIGHLIGHT!

We are back in Argentina in El Calafate to visit the Perito Moreno Glacier in Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. During trip research I had identified the Glacier to be of high interest and had been looking forward to it. Expectations were high. Nevertheless, when we reached the park, I was in awe, even after having seen the Pio XI Glacier from the Navimag. Never before I had ever beheld a sight so magnificent.

The Perito Moreno has a pointed front that directly faces a peninsula that has miles of boardwalk that allows one to truly appreciate the glacier. From the top decks, it is very evident the glacier is a frozen river. From the lower decks, one can hear ice cracking and watch icebergs dropping. The glacier does things -- John had promised me. I was not expecting the frequency (every 10-15 minutes) icebergs break off from the glacier and crash into the water. If it were more often, the crackling and booming sounds would be like fireworks.

We had seven hours at the glacier. Much of the time it was very windy. At one point we had to duck into the cafeteria for coffee. Otherwise, I could have just sat there watching the alluring colors and listening to the magical sounds of the glacier all day long. In fact if the weather had been worse, I would have insisted that we return to the park the second day.

Watching the Perito Moreno from the boardwalk.
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A large chunk of ice plunges into the water.
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The two of us.
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The North Face.
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An ice cave on The South Face.
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Sun-Ling takes in the action.
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A few more photos.

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Friday, February 04, 2011

National Park Torres del Paine has been checked off

Everyone from the Navimag that was young and/or fit seemed to be going on some multi-day trekking expedition in Torres del Paine National Park. We had to rule it out due to harsh weather conditions, preposterous pricing, and low interest. In fact our interest was so low that we had even considered skipping the Park completely. Nevertheless on our second day in Puerto Natales we found ourselves boarding the bus along with the old and/or decrepit for a one day "Full Tour" of the Park.

The day was mostly cloudy and windy to very, very windy. The bus took us to various view points and a couple of short walks. We saw the granite towers the park was named after, glacier lakes of various colors, waterfalls, wetlands, icebergs, a lone condor (we think), a rhea or two (nandu in Spanish), and several hundred guanacos. We certainly do not regret not trekking and are glad that we have the park checked off.

All shots below are from Torres del Paine.

The two of us in front of a lake of various colors with the Torres (Towers) del Paine (tops in the clouds) in the background.
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The two of us by some rapids and the edge of the Cuernos (Horns) del Paine in the background.
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A herd of guanacos.
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Lakes of various colors.
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Waterfall.
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Icebergs, beach, and clouds.
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Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Another strike against Chile -- as in our boat struck land!

We took the Navimag ferry Evangelistas south 1000 kilometers from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales. Since this is a working ferry instead of a cruise ship, I had no qualms about riding it. When we went to Norway we rode the coastal ferry Hurtigruten to get around. For symmetry we had to give the Navimag a try. Besides John loves boat rides. I, on the other hand, had low expectations.

The first day weather was perfect; that is, sunny, though we did not leave port until 5pm. The second day it rained more or less the whole day. At night we sailed in the Pacific Ocean over 10 to 15 foot waves which was considered calm. If it were not for the Dramamine pill, sleep would have been hard to come by. The third day weather turned slightly better. Along the way there were snow-capped hills, the occasional dolphins, sea lions, a shipwreck, rainbows, and glaciers. The Pio XI Glacier was quite impressive as it's the largest glacier in South America.

In the middle of the third night around 3am, we were shaken awake by a couple of violent jolts. I drowsily assumed earthquake, proceeded to go back to sleep. John, being the usual alarmist, jumped out his bunk and ordered me to get up and get dressed. I figured that it cannot hurt and decided to humor him. Immediately after that the loudspeaker went off announcing "emergency" and we were order to put on our life jackets and gather at the Pub Deck (the top of the ship). There was hypothermia to consider, we needed to put on or bring all the warm clothes we had. We may never come back to the bunks, we needed to bring our passports, money belts, computer, etc. What if John and I get separated? Good thing I skipped "Titanic" on purpose, so I did not have to cram a playback in my head.

As we were a little slow going, a crew-member was sent to our corner of the ship to hurry us up. By the time we got to the Pub Deck, people were already being sent back to their cabins. The crew had checked out the boat; we were not taking on water and we can still sail. The official word was an investigation was still underway. Through the grapevine we learned that the ship had run into an island. We had to assume that someone fell asleep at the job since the boat is full of instruments: GPS, radar, etc. After some chatting with fellow passengers we went back to our bunks to catch some sleep. The ship now had a vibration it did not have before. It was a restless night.

The next morning we woke up to find dirt and branches in the bow and were informed that we were now sailing at around 8 kmph instead of 16 as only one of the "screws" is operating. In the afternoon a Chilean Navy boat showed up to inspect our boat, ordered a change of course, and escorted us the rest of the way. In the end we spent an additional day and night on the boat. We spent the day working on our will. Well, at least we thought about it. And yet another restless night rooting for our remaining engine to keep chugging. We were very glad to be safely off the boat on the morning of the fifth day.

A beautiful day in Patagonia to start the voyage on the Evangelistas.
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View off the stern.
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The Pio XI Glacier.
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Pio XI.
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A rainbow off the stern.

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The Evangelistas at the dock at Puerto Natales.
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A crew inspects the damage to the ship's bow after its collision with the island.
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Playa del Carmen, Mexico

From Aguascalientes, there is a very convenient direct flight to Cancun.  Since the wedding is at a private beach south of Playa del Carmen,...