Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Puerto Madryn and Peninsula Valdes

Puerto Madryn

Patagonia is big!

This is more or less all we saw for the four hours before we arrived in Puerto Madryn which is nestled inside the Golfo Nuevo and about 90km from entrance into the nature reserve on Peninsula Valdes

Arriving at our hostel (a lovely, quiet place called Retorno) we look at eachother and say, "what do we do now" and a gentleman at reception says, "why don't you rent a car?" and we say, "Okay!"

And we do.

Though rather expensive (equivalent to $60 US for 24 hours and 400km) - we splurge for it since we only spent five dollars in two days in Viedma and would be on a bus for twenty-four hours in the morning. Plus, this wasn't some beat-up deathtrap, it was a 2007 VW.

And, since we arrived we have been talking about the fact that we, as true Americans I suppose, miss the autonomy of being able to get in our car and just - DRIVE! How this plays into larger economic and social systems is a topic for another day, what matters is that we were able to get away from the buses, away from the tourists, and get out into the open country to see things like this:

It took about an hour to get to the entrance for Peninsula Valdes. After paying the rather steap entrance fee, we zoomed off towards the nearest vantage point, Punta Piramides.

Here we found some of the bluest water I have seen in my entire life. Not to mention the sea lions rolling around in the water and waddling on land. Unfortunately, we didn't manage to see any whales, but sitting at the covered vantage point as a thunderstorm swept over the peninsula, alone, was worth the effort.

After 400km the company charges .80 pesos for every kilometer over. Thus, we were unable to venture further out onto the peninsula. However, this did not stop us from taking a little off-road tangent - that was both exciting because it was not my car that we were jostling and splattering with mud, and also a bit terrifying due to the possibility that if we were stuck, we could be spending the night in the car.

Of course, everything went off without a hitch. We made it back to Puerto Madryn in time to have a wonderful fresh meal and beer, accompanied by an extremely friendly receptionist named Sebastian.

The next morning we awoke before six to drive out to the end of the cove and watch the sunrise. Because we could.
Then we returned to the hostel, continued chatting with Sebastian as we munched on pan integral and the richest butter ever tasted - real butter. Then it was time to head off to the bus depot to catch our micro to Rio Gallegos and ultimately Puerto Natales...

..but first..


Merry Christmas Kaitlin, Mom, and Kim!

And serious again..

Though we anticipated a miserable twenty-four hours on the bus, we were pleasantly surprised to have really enjoyed ourselves. The combination of a clean, smooth running bus, genial fellow passengers, and some staggering scenery - made the trip feel more like a mellow slideshow than a thousand mile slog.

In particular, I made friends with a young girl who was traveling south with her sister and mother to Puerto San Julian to visit family for Christmas. At first she mostly smiled and laughed at my poor attempts to communicate in Spanish. Eventually she responded with a "Si" or a nod of the head. By the time everyone was going to bed, she would respond in full sentences, though still perplexed by the eager stranger.

Talking to her was a great relief at the time. Not only because I was able to use her language without any major errors, but because talking to her I felt as though I could have been talking to my own sister. That we were traveling together, to go home and spend the holidays in communion with our loved ones. It was nice for that moment, but her journey ended at Puerto San Julian..and I find myself another eight hours away in Puerto Natales.

Tomorrow we leave for the park. We plan to be there eight to ten days. Though we plan to trek with another couple..and though there are sure to be more backpackers in the campsites..I can't remember being this nostalgic for the holidays.

For the last few years, since our grandmothers became increasingly frail - the traditions we had held since I could remember, began to fade and fade. I thought then that it was okay, that the progression would lead to new traditions, that we would adjust and adapt and create a new family dynamic and tradition. I didn't think about being here. Surely, no one thought both Kristen and I would have moved out of the continent.

I don't mean to digress into the psychosis of my family dynamic, but it is quite relevant as to my musings about my experiences here. How I am coping with this absence - certainly intense during the holidays, but surely will continue to occupy my thoughts as we move on to the farm in Chiloe and are immersed in a completely alien family dynamic.

Alas, problems for another day!

There are tons of photos I was unable to upload (not enough hours in the day!), but this must suffice for now..as we have a full day of preparing for our trek. Not to mention, over a week to spend in the park. Till then..

Monday, December 21, 2009

Buenos Aires to Viedma

If I don't write about last week now.. I may find myself another week behind and slipping ever further into a blogging-backlog-abyss..

I just need that one sentence to unlock the torrent of words that swarm inside my head all day, but I can't find it and another day goes by. Now, the pressure is truly on. Tomorrow we leave for an eight to ten day trek through Torres del Paine. No doubt our experiences there will warrant a similar feeling within - something must be done!

Here are the facts:

We have arrived in Puerto Natales, Chile - via a whirlwind bus tour:

Buenos Aires to Viedma: 12 hours
Viedma to Puerto Madryn: 8 hours (though it should have been four!)
Puerto Madryn to Rio Gallegos: 15 hours
Rio Gallegos to Puerto Natales: 6 hours
°approximate times°


Not many people are familiar with Viedma. I am paraphrasing, but the guidebooks synopsis of Viedma was, "A nice place to grab a snack, but make sure the bus doesn't leave you behind." When we got off our bus and asked for our bags, the driver responded, "You're getting off here?!" On our way to the bus depot in Buenos Aires we told our taxi driver(a gentleman from Montevideo) that we were off to Viedma, he responded, "Great! It is the second largest city in Argentina, you will love it, etc..."

He was right, kind of. It is evident as soon as you clear the sandy soy bean farms and get your first look at Viedma that it is NOT the second largest city in Argentina. In fact, Viedma and Carmen de Patagones(the last stop in Buenos Aires province and Viedma's neighbor across the Rio Negro) combined might only rival Buenos Aires' Palermo barrio in total land mass, but surely no other category.

Of course, the best part about a misconception is setting the record straight or at least offering a second opinion - something I am quite familiar with, hailing from the Bible Belt. Our aid in this endeavor was a local journalist, named Maria Paula, who covered the city government. Paula is our first contact through CouchSurfing.com that has actually been able to host us and I fear that we have been spoiled.

We met Paula at her office where she promptly left work to walk us to her apartment. By the time we had showered, settled, and been thoroughly acquainted with Paula's insane feline, Moro, she was back from work and preparing a late lunch!


Spawn of Satan

No better activity after a fulfilling meal than a lazy walk around town to see the buildings, monuments, and natural attractions.

Including the original government building of the province where this flag was on display:

The flag of the Rio Negro Province which had just been dedicated in October.

From there we stepped into Catedral Nuestra Señora de la Merced, where Paula explained the two local saints:
One was an indigenous boy, Ceferino Namuncurá, who was taken from his tribe by the Church, converted, and used as an example for missionaries. He later developed tuberculosis, was sent to Rome to see the Pope, and died.
The other was a local man, Artemide Zatti, a nurse who went around curing ailments in his spare time.
There are massive murals and relics of both men in the church.

From there we walked along the Rio Negro until just around sunset.

Carmen de Patagones and the Catedral by the same name.

After a quick photo-op we took the one peso ferry across to Carmen de Patagones - just in time for sunset.

Paula's knowledge of local history continued to flow as we walked past the walls of the old fort that were once the foundation of the settlement, the original dock that made the Rio Negro a potential port city before the discovery of a massive sandbar ruled out major cargo holders, and more Catedrals!

On the walk back from the tour, Paula tells us that she is leaving the key with us and is going to stay at a friends house. That she will stay there as long as we wish to stay in town, "This way everyone is more comfortable." We were taken aback by such a degree of hosptiality, but Paula shrugged it off as, "it's just what we do here."

The next day we attempted to get our travel beyond Viedma taken care of while Paula was at work. Eventually we all met up back at Paula's, piled into her Fiat, and left for the her friend Adrian's house fifteen minutes outside of town on the Rio Negro.

There we sat together on his porch facing the river and ate asado with bread, veggies, and beer. Again, with our bellies full, we continued on to El Condor, a small beach community founded after the "El Condor" ran aground there sometime in the 18th century.

The water was far too cold for swimming and the wind made lounging in the sun difficult, but conditions did make for quite an ideal little chat near the cliffs that hold back the sea and house the worlds largest parrot colony.

We drank mate and talked about everything under the sun as the parrots squawked, flocked, and perched. With our termo empty and the sun getting low on the horizon, and everyone with plenty of sand in their buttcracks, we went back to Paula's where we continued to chat about colloquialism and just really enjoyed ourselves.

Part of the difficulty of our trip is that we have so much time. With so many options, it is difficult to know when to stay and when to go. In retrospect, perhaps Viedma is a place we should have stayed longer. Though the sites were more or less exhausted after the first day, nowhere have we had someone so willing to help us, be able to give us firsthand insight into local life AND do it all in Spanish.

Yet decisions are made. Sometimes without thorough communication. And so, we left Viedma that night (4:15am in fact) and slept off our worries that we had made the wrong decision - arriving in Puerto Madryn later that day - fully immersed in the Patagonia.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

One Month

It has been over a month now since we arrived in Argentina. Thus far, it has been a trip unlike any other. I couldn´t be more pleased with the way we have gone about our travels. From the blitzkrieg that was the first week, to the tranquilo week in Punta del Diablo, to the last week back here in Buenos Aires.. I feel we have about as well balanced a scope of the Rio de la Plata region as we could in one months time.

But now it is time to say, "So long..for now"

To the demonstrations that have become less and less of a curiosity.

To gracious ex-pats that despite their ramblings about "backpackers" really understand how hard it is to be in a foreign city without any local roots.

To the excess and the diversity that is a major urban setting.

And again it is the two of us. Off again together to new places and people, but with so many more resources than before.

We have been so fortunate. Whether it was the staff at the hostel who were always willing to help, but never intrusive - our fellow hostelers who have shared experiences and offered assistance - ex-pats and locals that have allowed us an even more thorough perception of the place - lastly the people themselves, the nameless throngs that shuffle from block to block, the noisy traffic and crowded subte, have all become like a television or radio buzzing in the other room - like the giddy sounds lofting over your balcony from the playground across the street - and anything else that can be considered noise, but is also a comfort.

We are off to Viedma, capital of Río Negro province, and just over 12 hours/950km south of Buenos Aires. There we will be staying with a local who has offered her guidance around the city, a hot meal that night, and a couch to crash on.

From there we will decide whether we continue another day´s journey west to Bariloche for chocolate and picturesque mountain vistas or south to Puerto Madryn for whale watching. The decision is largely logistical and since we intend to visit both (on either side of our weeks of trekking in Puerto Natales and Calafate) - we can´t lose.

Yet it remains an element of uncertainty, one that is no longer intimidating, but more so a liberating challenge. Either way, doing it together, surely with some help along the way - we can´t go wrong.

I have added these photos here so that everyone can see we are still alive and well:

Here Kaitlin demonstrates some wonderful finger puppets we bought for Sean and Susan´s son Walter at a fair in Recoleta.

Here I demonstrate the "medal" we won in the soccer tournament last week. I am also demonstrating my bearded cheeks - which I know my mother and little sister are happy they don´t have to kiss!

More from Viedma..or Bariloche..or Puerto Madryn!

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Upon returning to our hostel in Buenos Aires, we have been pleasantly surprised to find that the brood of partying Aussies has been replaced with an equally as stimulating, though less insomnia inducing group of Scandinavians (Finns and Swedes). Thus, I have had little time to be as reclusive as I anticipated in order to update the blog with our week in Punta del Diablo. Fortunately, I am a special breed of being that transcends all nationalities. I sleep very little. I wake up early. No distractions when no one else is awake. Entonces..

Present: As I mentioned we have been assimilated into the Scandinavian horde. It began innocently enough, a fellow named Antti from Finland and I began talking soccer one day - which became all day. He invited me to play in a 5v5 tournament that takes place every Friday in Palermo. There were to be three Swedes coming down from Iguazu (over twelve hours away) just to meet up for the tournament. They arrived two nights ago and we all talked for some hours about various topics - mostly soccer.

Yesterday, before the match, I had some errands to attend to. Financial matters, letters to send, and registration for my spanish course. It was a very productive, though mellow day.

4pm rolled around and it was time to leave for the fields. The tournament was set up so that there were eight teams in two brackets. The the best record from each bracket playing in the final. I was a bit nervous about my level of play compared to the Scandinavians. We had talked the night before about the lack of opportunity in the States to train at a high level - compared to the thoroughly organized structure in Sweden and Finland.

However, I performed well. Scored all three goals in the first match and then had a handful of assists as we made our way to the final undefeated. The overall quality of play was very high - mostly Europeans and South Americans - all with a very high work rate. We played well in the final. We were up 3-1 only to see it even at 3-3 with three minutes to go. We scored the winner just before time ran out, in our minds we were done. Then the ref says, "We have four more minutes. We could stop now, but..why not play four more?!" Of course, we agreed, and ended up "losing" 4-5. We still got free beer at the end (though it was the last thing I wanted to drink after running longer and harder than I have in some time!), but we missed out on the "medals" which were basically yarn and a coin with a hole through it - simple, but still would have made a great momento for the trip.

Needless to say, we all really enjoyed playing together. After showering and making dinner, we all had wine on the roof terrace, talking and listening to Swedish hip hop until two in the morning.

Today we are all going to the Boca Juniors - Independiente derby. It is likely to be pretty crazy, considering Boca is a smaller venue and the teams are not far from each other in the league table.

More on this later..

Past: A week in Punta del Diablo - Uruguay

Welcome to Punta del Diablo! Here we have the village center (more or less). There is a trinket market on one side of the cove. Then you have restaurants, a surf shop, and the main grocery store just up the road. The beach of this cove is also where the locals come to play soccer in the evening.

Our first night in town we stumbled upon the game. Over twenty men of all ages (mostly young adult) playing between the surf and the boats with piles of sand as goals. As soon as I saw the game, I knew I would have to play. Of course, they said I could join.

For the most part our time in Punta del Diablo was spent in relative isolation. We went to the market every now and then to get supplies, but generally we stuck to ourselves. The game though, is a rare opportunity to communicate in a very profound way. Though little, if anything is said, and certainly the only words expressed revolve around the game. Yet, from group and individual mentality towards the game - you can gain such an insight into the community.

In Punta del Diablo, it is a simple game. It is brutal competition one moment and a farce the next. Laughing, then screaming. They dart between their skiffs and half exposed cinderblocks seemingly without a second thought that a slight miscalculation could jeopardize their livelihood. They wrestle in the tide - heels and shins in a heap - until someone gets thrown into the breaking wave - and the game continues..

As for our cabaña, it was perfect. It was able to accommodate as many as four, but for two people it was a very comfortable space (with a little extra room for scorpions and spiders).

The first floor featured the basic amenities and served as a cozy place to read and lounge - while the second floor had a large bed and spacious balcony for basking in the sun.

Of the seven days, two or three were rather overcast, but this made for comfortable walks around the village. To watch the surfers, the bizarre creatures scuttling from boulder to boulder, the horses, the steady stream of maté carrying scooter pilots - and the dogs that would chase tires without end.

However, there was plenty of sunshine as well! Most days consisted of waking up with the sun. Lounging with a book in the cabaña or on the beach. Though the water was quite cold, I managed to catch a few decent waves, but mostly just enjoyed being back with the ocean.

One rookie mistake, that was mostly due to my nonchalance was that we did not bring enough money with us to pay the cabaña owner for the entire week. The reason being that we didn´t want to carry a lot of cash on our person, figuring there would be an ATM in Punta del Diablo.

The closest ATM ended up being an hours bus ride towards the border with Brazil to a town called Choy. Choy exists mainly so people can purchase duty free items that they don´t really need..and we were stuck there for five hours waiting for the next bus back to Punta del Diablo.

However, this unfortunate time in Choy did allow me to snap a photo of the ever present horse drawn carriages that are particularly popular in Uruguay (even in Montevideo). I suppose it isn´t too strange, considering the economics of the country, but especially in Montevideo - one can´t help but stare as a city bus waits impatiently as a horse drawn carriage attempts to parallel park on a busy city street.

Lastly, a bit of soccer tennis played on our last evening in Punta del Diablo. Rather picturesque..


Even more present:

Since beginning this entry - I have attended the Boca-Independiente derby - and survived! We were actually quite comfortable (more so than when watching River) - though if we had been seated anywhere near the Barra Bravas (essentially fans that are more like the mafia) - I might not be hear to write about it.

Never-the-less, the game was incredible. As a team, Boca are a bit frustrating - rather one dimensional, however - their fans are absolutely incredible. I´m not sure there is anything that rivals their passion in the world..and the more I talk to internationals that love soccer as I do - the more I am certain of this. If only the level of play (which can be quite good) were deserving of the fans energy. Then I might be able to comprehend seeing people climb thirty foot fences topped with barbed wire, just to have opposing fans shower them with questionable liquids from the terrace above. It is truly a different world..and though I love it - I am grateful for the distance I have from it. So I can stay alive and healthy to appreciate it.


Thursday, December 3, 2009

Montevideo - Uruguay

Unfortunately, the need to not look like a tourist in a big city means that it is difficult to capture the vibe you get from different urban settings. Luckily, there are still words!

My overall sense, having now made the circuit of BA to MVD to Punta del Diablo and back, is that Montevideo is a wonderful place. More or less like the mythical barrio we hope to find here in BA.

The streets seem wider (especially off the main thoroughfares..) - children play soccer in the side streets - meanwhile buses, cars, and horse drawn carts scuttle around with purpose (but not the incessant honking and impatience that is Buenos Aires).

The main drag in Montevideo is Avenida 18 de Julio. All the shops and monuments congregate around this major artery that connects the "Old City" with center city.

This is.. some "Palace" - I´m not sure if we knew the name, we certainly didn´t know its purpose. Though there are no signs are markers to explain it, there are postcards. Interesting none-the-less.

Plaza Independencia - Montevideo, Uruguay
Loudest ice cream vendors this side of the Rio del Plata!
On the far end of the plaze is the "Gateway to the Old City" - which basically means you are about to enter ten solid blocks of tourist trinkets..until you reach the still old city - which is where we ended up.

Not much to "do" in the Old City - so we sat down for a meal at what looked to be a cozy and affordable parrilla. Though pictures exist of the entre - it is best to only post the picture of the bread and beer - as not to give anyone a visual heart attack. Let´s just say, the service was much better than the food!

In fact, the gentleman that served us was very friendly. We talked for a good while about the then upcoming elections - as well as the upcoming superclasico (massive soccer derby) between Uruguayan giants Nacional and Peñarol.

The man explained in detail the flags we had seen around the city (Frente Amplio). That Frente was a coalition group and had a strong hold in MVD (they went on to win the election).
He also said that there is not much difference between Nacional and Peñarol. That perhaps Nacional is more of a posh club, but that they were more similar in being the largest clubs - unlike the social stigma that separates Boca and River in Argentina. Thus, he also debunked the notion that either club was affiliated with a political party. We could have talked much longer on this topic, but we were paying for the food rather than the conversation. I was gracious for the little insight into the soccer scene in Uruguay - food for thought!

We eventually made our way back to the hostel. Then later made an attempt to hit the beach that was just a few blocks from our place, but being the homebodies that we are - we did not last too long. We made our way back, again, and spent the rest of the evening engaged in conversation with a Pan-South American group of travelers at the hostel. This very interesting crowd included a journalist from Ecuador who was covering the elections as a foreign correspondent - he more or less hates soccer, but loves baseball and wishes to one day get a visa to visit the States so he can go to a Yankees game, a Chilean who is studying to become a doctor and speaks better German than I do Spanish - a Bolivian who had just moved to Uruguay and offered me a spot on his club soccer team - and so on...

That is enough to chew on for now.. There are maaaany pictures from Punta del Diablo..and much to say yet to come. But later.. now I have to go find someone to tutor me in Spanish so I can give Kaitlin a break!