A few tips on how to be the best Uber or Lyft passenger possible
As I board the plane to leave Aruba, I have to finally admit that the adventure is over. For now, at least. But what an adventure it’s been.
I crossed paths with so many great people, who carried along with them such interesting stories. They were all over the spectrum: kids who just graduated from high school taking a gap year before starting school, shorter-term travelers on winter break, college graduates delaying the real world before it even started, entrepreneurs with online businesses who only needed an internet connection, and retirees enjoying their newfound freedom abroad.
I saw many amazing places. In fact, the most common question I get is “What was your favorite place you went”. It’s a logical place for the conversation to start, so I don’t blame anyone for asking, but it’s not a question I’ll ever try to truly answer. I walked and ran and hiked and swam and rode and flew through so many distinct environments, it’s not fair to try and compare them. How would you even go about comparing the hike to Machu Picchu to a week in the Amazonian jungle? The solitude of Patagonia to the madness of La Paz? The metropolis of Buenos Aires to the desert oasis of Huacachina? I don’t; and there’s really no need to do so. I just tried to appreciate every different place for the unique experience it offered.
But I’ve written in plenty of detail in the past about the new friends I’ve met, and the beautiful places I’ve seen. What I would really like to reflect on is what I’ve learned, how I’ve grown, and how I’ll use it to move forward. If I just went down to South America to party in hostels and chase women for 9 months, would it really have been worth it? Well…I mean…it sounds fun. And there was plenty of fun to be had. But for the personal and professional sacrifices I made, I wanted to be sure to get more out of this experience. So, bear with me as I ponder the meaningful changes I’ve witnessed.
I can comfortably say I speak Spanish. I don’t speak it perfectly, or even fluently, for that matter. If a group of Spanish speakers are talking amongst themselves, there’s a good chance I’ll miss a lot of what they say. But I can have one-on-one conversations with people who otherwise would not be able to speak with me, and that makes me feel good. Listening to the taxi driver’s story is a lot better than sitting in silence. And when called upon, I was somewhat able to translate for English speaking friends who hadn’t quite picked it up yet. When I arrived in Santiago in August, thinking I was ready to start speaking Spanish, I was humbled quickly. So, my goal became to speak Spanish. For real. And I can call that a success. Learning a new language made the trip much more enjoyable, and is a skill that will benefit me as much as I seek out the opportunity to allow it to help.
I have an improved sense of independence and self-confidence. Not that this was an area that was majorly-lacking, but it’s always reassuring to take a leap into the unknown and thrive. It’s comforting to be able to show up in a foreign city, where I know no one and have nothing but a backpack and a hostel reservation, and survive. I can walk into a social situation as a stranger, and leave as a friend. And when I hit a snag, whether it’s a wrong turn, missed bus, or broken ATM, I can adjust on the fly and solve the problem. I’m not a well-oiled machine; I still can get turned around and I still can be awkward or nervous, but I’m heading in the right direction.
I have learned not to worry or stress about two major categories: short-term inconveniences and things out of my control. Subway station closed? Throw in some headphones and walk it. Caught in a pop-up rainstorm? It’ll end, and your clothes will dry. It’s almost like free laundry. Tired after a rough overnight bus? Nothing a nap can’t fix. I admit that this probably naturally comes easier to me than others, but I do believe it’s a skillset that can be practiced and improved, and that practice won’t stop just because I’m back in the states.
I’ve lessened the importance I place on wealth and material things. That doesn’t mean that I’m returning as a hippy who wants to only live off the land, or that I won’t continue to strive for financial success, but being without a lot of your things for an extended period helped me realize their status as a want instead of a need. There’s an old writing called ‘’Moral Letters to Lucilius” where Seneca discusses something similar to this. He encourages practicing a few days a month in poverty, or simplicity. Whether it’s eating only ramen, beans, and rice for a weekend, or wearing jeans and white t shirt for a week, so you realize how it feels. And I’ve seen this; once you experience a taste of poverty, and the sacrifices you need to make, you aren’t so scared of that scenario, and it frees you up from the fear that you may get there. I don’t know exactly how much I spent over the last 9 months (and I’m not sure I’ll ever go through the exercise of calculating it out), but I could ballpark it at under $1500/month for everything. That includes lodging and food, but also buses, flights, excursions, and nights out. For one, I just want to put that out there in case anyone reading thinks they couldn’t ever do something like this due to money. But also, to highlight how I lived. It often wasn’t glamorous, and I wasn’t always a beacon of health, but I did it on a tight budget, and if I ever need to, I could do it again.
All that being said, I come back to the US with a much stronger appreciation for some of the first world comforts I took for granted in the past. A few examples:
- A full selection of appliances – I won’t have to google how to hand-wash clothes anymore, and a wrinkled shirt can just get a few minutes in the dryer instead of an iron
- Strong, readily available Wi-Fi – the Wi-Fi availability in South America might actually be better than I expected going in, but the strength and consistency left a lot to be desired. Now I can download Netflix whenever I damn well please
- Free water (with plenty of ice cubes) and quality napkins in restaurants – I’ve never been a big fan of buying water, but it becomes a necessary evil in some countries where the tap isn’t the safest refill spot. It’ll be nice to walk into a lunch spot, get a water with lemon, and leave unscathed
- Price tags in stores – knowing how much something cost, and not have to worry about if you’re getting the gringo price
- Wide varieties of food – Listen, I love meat and potatoes and pasta and rice as much as anyone, but after 2 months of it, I’m excited for some southern-style breakfast, decent Indian food, or my sultry mistress, Taco Bell
- The ability to flush toilet paper down the toilet – 4 months of tossing used tissues in the bathroom trash can will harden a man. I even did it the first few times back in the states until I realized where I was. Definitely a bad habit that I need to break.
There’s plenty more I’m sure, but it’s safe to say I’m returning to the States with a very strong love of home.
I’m coming back to a fresh start, with some exciting plans in my future, that I’m sure I’ll write about along the way. Coming in clean will allow me to break old bad habits and start up good habits, hopefully before I settle into old routines. So, I will attempt (again) to stop biting my nails. I will start back up a regular yoga and meditative practice. I will eat enough fruits and vegetables. And if I’m really strong, I’ll waste less time on the internet.
I’m happy to be home, surrounded by those closest to me, with an exciting life ahead. The exploration doesn’t stop now. Let’s do this
I arrived in Cusco a few days ahead of time, still nursing a cold, to try and acclimatize to the altitude (Cusco sits at 3400 meters). I booked the tour through Wonderland Tours travel agency (and later learned that while there are over 1000 travel agencies, there are only a couple hundred tour operators, so I was farmed out to KB Tours) and was set to leave early Saturday morning.
The Trek Begins
Packed with the pharmacist’s best medicine, I boarded the bus at 4:30 AM and we drove 3 hours by minibus to our breakfast spot/launching point. We were allotted 5 kilos to be carried by mules along our trek, and my mule bag was about 7.5. A little trick from the pro: if you take an annoyingly long time to try and reduce the weight of your bag, they’ll take it as is because they’re tired of waiting #lifehack.
We circled up and got the awkward team intros out of the way – a group of 8 in total (the perfect size range IMO). Vera and Susie from Austria, Kristina and Iris from Germany, Marcela and Guilherme from Brazil, and Sanna from Sweden. For those counting at home, that’s two guys and 6 girls. Shucks. Guilherme and Susie are both biologists, and I found it very interesting to get in on their conversations and learn a little about what we were seeing. And Marcela, a yoga instructor, informed us she was planning on practicing silence during the trek, a first for me. We had to choose a team name and humbly went with the Wirakochas, the Incan god/creator of all things. It matched our skillsets well.
The first morning hike wasn’t too bad – 3 hours of “Andean flat” (which just means it’s not completely uphill) to arrive at our day 1 camp. Camp consisted of tents, which were conveniently set up for you before you arrived underneath a metal roof. Maybe that counts as half-camping, not sure…but the roof was immensely important as it rained almost every night. After our lunch (which, again, were massive portions), we did an hour hike uphill to the glacial lagoon. It was tough, and it was then I saw probably the most impressive athletic feat of our trip. 7 of us were going slow, taking breaks, etc., and Sanna power marches up the hill without stopping. She was beating the guide. Oh, to be 20 again. But the hike paid off in the end as we arrived at a gorgeous blue lagoon at the foot of snowcapped mountains. It reminded me of my time in Patagonia three months prior. After spending an hour or so up there, soaking my feet in the ice bath and taking the first of many group photos, we headed back to camp to close the day. And this when we saw the first benefit of having a yoga teacher in the group – the first of several of our own private classes. We were all in need of a good stretch and she delivered. I also found it impressive to be able to teach yoga in your 2nd language (she would suspend the silence practice to teach). Every day before dinner we’d have a tea time, to take in some coca tea and snacks to help with the altitude, and our guide Edgar would go over the plan for the next day. Edgar, or Chavito as his friends called him, was just a legend. He pronounced mountain like “meow-ntain”, which always made me smile, without fail. And he has this laugh, maybe more of a giggle, that would light up the damn room. I wanted to record it and set it as my alarm clock but never could catch him at the right time. Such a Peruvian treasure. So, after tea time and another massive calorie-replenishing dinner, we all crashed before 8 to mark the end to a long first day.
Another early wake up to start day 2 – 5:00 this time. But they woke you up with a quiet “Buenos Dias” and coca tea delivered to your tent, about as effective of an alarm as one can have. Day 2 was known to be the hardest day of the trek, and it started with a 7-kilometer, steep uphill climb, to the highest peak of the trip, at 4630 meters. I stayed near the back of the group and took my sweet time. Not like I’ve ever been in stellar aerobic shape, but with the cold still sitting in my lungs and the air getting thinner by the step, I wasn’t winning any race to the top. That said, this wasn’t a hike you wanted to rush through either. The scenery was gorgeous. We started hiking through lush green valleys and ended at snow covered mountains. And there were plenty of stops to take a picture (another pro tip: anytime you get tired, just stop and take a picture of something…No, I’m not tired, just inspired). 4 hours or so later, we reached the peak and earned a well-deserved break. And this is when Edgar taught us more about the Incan culture. He led us through a proper Incan ritual, giving thanks to the mountains, the glaciers, and Mother Earth. Normally so jovial and laughing, he got very quiet and serious for the dedication. It was cool to see his other side for something that was obviously so important to him. At the end, he thanked us for joining him in the ceremony and respecting his culture, but it was him who deserved the gratitude, for opening his heart and welcoming us all into his world. From there, we had 17 kilometers more downhill to our next camp, and of course, the last 3 hours or so was through pouring rain. At least I had proper footwear…Sanna and her tennis shoes were in bad shape by the end of it. As day two finished, I thought the team had truly come together and gotten close.
With the most challenging part behind us, we set off on a leisurely walk on day 3 morning. Relatively flat and in lower altitude, we hiked through the rainforest (or tropical forest, or cloud forest…I don’t remember the right term, the biologists can correct me) and learned a bit more about local plants and wildlife. Lesson 1: the cochineal insect which is sold and crushed to make dye for fabrics (or in our case, face paint). Lesson 2: the Angel’s trumpet flower, which can be boiled and made into a hallucinogenic tea for ritual ceremonies [not to be taken lightly…Edgar told us the story of the tourist who bribed the cook to make him some of this tea, drank too much, went completely crazy (swimming through grass, fighting with massive rocks), had to be sedated by the cops and then rushed to the hospital in Cusco to save his life]. At lunchtime, our hiking was done for the day, well, for most of us. Sadly, this was where we said goodbye to Guilherme and Sanna (who both booked the 4-day tour instead of 5). And as they marched on, the 5 remaining girls and I had to settle for 2 hours in the natural hot springs. Anytime anyone asks you to soak in a natural hot spring, the answer should always be yes. Two hours got us healed up and relaxed, and I could’ve easily done about two more. That night, we all had a few beers around the bonfire, and I believe it was at that time I became Marcela’s official translator (somehow, we were on the same wavelength and I could understand her hand signals better than most…I need to try my hand at charades again and put these skills to use). I was surprised that despite the fact she wasn’t talking, we were still able to get to know her pretty well. The key is lots of yes/no questions.
Day 4 started easy as well. It came with options for the morning – hike three hours to Hidroelectrica, or get a van to take you ziplining and then drive you to town. I actually would’ve done the hike as I’ve been ziplining before and it’s never blown my mind, but everybody else in the team was pro-ziplining and hiking solo didn’t sound fun (plus, you can’t split up the family, right?). Alas, I ended up being happy I went; the guys at Vertikal Ziplining had a cool course set up and sent you down in all different positions, finishing with the super condor. After ziplining, we arrive in Hidroelectrica for lunch and then start our walk along the railroad tracks towards Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu. It wasn’t the most exciting hike, so I tossed in the headphones and took some Ryan time. We got to our hostel (yes, an actual hostel with a shower and a bed and everything) early in the afternoon so we all squeezed in a nap before we met for our final Wirakocha family dinner. It was there that Marcela finally broke her silence; it was an impressive 4-day run and quite the display of self-control, but I was happy to be able to have a normal conversation with her again.
The final day arrived bright and early, as we left the hostel at 4 AM to hike up to Machu Picchu, with the idea being we get there right as the park opens, and right at sunrise. For one final test, we climbed stairs for 45 minutes straight (a good time, with Vera’s #slowandsteady leadership setting the pace) and got to the opening gate in plenty of time ahead of the 6:30 opening. We entered and straight away I was in awe. It was even bigger than I imagined, and at that time, peacefully quiet. As the sun came over the mountains, with the fog looming, it felt truly magical. Edgar started giving us some history of the site, but I found myself distracted, looking around in wonder and imagining what it would’ve been like to live there 700 years ago, how unfathomably difficult it would’ve been to build it with the tools they had at the time, and how satisfying it must’ve been when American Hiram Bingham “discovered” it again in 1911, when he was led to the lost city by a young boy as his tour guide. After Edgar led us around for a 2-hour tour, we had a few more hours of to explore the nooks and crannies and take some classic tourist pictures before starting the almost 12-hour journey by foot/bus back to Cusco.
Overall, a brilliant five days and one of the highlights of my travel career. The tour company and our guide took great care of us, natural beauty surrounded us for 5 days, and I couldn’t have asked for a better group to share it with. If you ever get the chance to come to Peru, or if Machu Picchu has been a bucket list item for you, make it happen. And I would highly suggest going on one of the treks instead of just taking the train there. Much better value and a much more complete Incan experience.
After arriving to the La Paz airport in one piece, I made my way to the gate, down the jetway, and onto a bus to take us to our plane. I heard the plane was small but its lack of size exceeded my expectations. A single prop plane with 10 rows of 2 seats split by an aisle, and no cockpit door to prevent us from hearing any bell or alarm that may sound, it was the smallest plane in which I’ve ridden. The flight was uneventful, and we taxied to the Rurrenabaque airport, which is a term they use lightly. It was one building where the departure and arrival sections were split by a mosquito net, and the security checkpoint consisted of manually (and casually) searching your bag. I went from the airport to my El Curichal, where I’d stay one night before heading out in the morning.
I booked two separate three-day tours through Fluvial Tours, the Jungle and the Pampas. They presented two very different types of excursions, and I didn’t want to choose, so I splurged a bit and booked both. Yet they didn’t know, even the day before, on which I would go first. Luckily they had similar packing lists. I got to the office that morning to find out Jungle was first stop, and my group was me and 4 British kids on gap year after high school. Not my ideal group selection…19 year olds just seem to have different priorities while traveling, but they seemed cool enough. We hopped on a 3-hour boat ride up the river into the jungle, and hauled our stuff and food for the trip 15 minutes through woods and rivers to our camp. Good news: they told us we should rent boots cause they had gotten a lot of rain recently, so we were prepared. The bad news: they gave me two right boots and of course I didn’t try both on because the first one fit perfectly. So for the next few days I had dry, yet crooked, feet. After getting settled and eating lunch, we went out on our first of three jungle explorations. Very unstructured in nature, our guide Eliberto would just lead us through the jungle, creating a path with his machete as necessary, and teach us about any animals or unique plant life we came across. Trip 1 was a little light on wildlife (and this was expected…the Pampas is billed as the trip to see a large variety of animals) but we did see a few massive macaws, and learned a ton about the different plants and how the natives (like our guide) would use them. For example, we saw the tree sap they’d put on the end of a stick and throw into a small pond, which removed the oxygen from the water and killed the fish. Angling made easy. That was our last adventure for day 1, and after dinner, we just relaxed until bedtime, which comes early with no electricity.
Our second day was much more active - within the hour we ran into a family of yellow monkeys and chased them around for a while. And in the next few hours, we saw an iguana, wild pig, a few tarantulas, and a deer run off. We sampled some bark from the tree which the natives use to cure malaria. Extremely bitter, it took about an hour for the taste to leave my tongue, but I’m telling myself it’s pretty much like I took a vaccine against malaria, so it’s worth it. At least I think that’s how science works. After dinner, we grabbed our flashlights and went into the darkness for a nighttime walk for wildlife. What it turned into was a spider excursion. Big spiders, small spiders, all terrifying. I learned what a tarantula’s web looks like (and would later see one on the roof of both our bedroom and the dining room – fortunately this was while we were leaving).
After breakfast on day 3, we sat down with our guide Eliberto and made some forest jewelry. It brings you back to elementary school arts and crafts time. Rings for the hombres and necklaces for the chicas, all out of acorns and seeds found from the woods just outside of camp. I’m not necessarily a jewelry guy but I’ll wear this ring proudly for the rest of my trip (or at least until I lose it). Eliberto was just the type of guide I’d want for a voyage into the deep jungle. He was born in the jungle 60 years ago, and has made it his life. He spoke very little English (which gave me more helpful practice as a translator) but loved sharing his passion and knowledge of the rainforest. He only had two years of schooling (where he would have to walk an hour through the jungle to attend). He said “If you ask me about the stars I can’t explain them…but I can tell you about the jungle. I know the jungle.” He also claimed he cured his own rheumatoid arthritis by drinking a tea from the jungle for 12 straight days, followed by downing a bottle of whiskey (clinical studies soon to follow, I’m sure). But his belief and passion in the powers of nature were important factors in the experience. After our last lunch, we hauled our things back to the boat for our ride back into town. Right when we got on the boat was about when it started absolutely pouring down rain. And this wasn’t one of them fancy boats with cabins underneath…no, we were in the elements. But one thing I’ve learned and try to reinforce is not to worry or stress about things out of your control, especially the weather. Any rain you’re in is just water, and any inconvenience due to it is just temporary. Like Luke Bryan so eloquently put it, rain is a good thing. So, we arrived back into town, a little damp, and I went back to the same hostel for a night of rest before the second excursion.
I come back to the tour company office the following morning to meet my new group for discovering the wetlands – a Japanese couple and a triad of nice, young, good looking Australian girls (I can’t catch a break, right?). You never know how it will be as a solo traveler when you get paired with groups of people who already know each other, but we got along great and couldn’t have asked for a better group to explore with.
For this journey, we took a three-hour drive along unpaved roads, stopping for livestock in the road as required, towards the riverboat port. Close to our destination, we stopped for lunch, when we realized our driver had disappeared. Waiting around impatiently for 20 minutes or so, he finally showed up again, being dropped off by a car outside the restaurant. Judging by the sheepish smile on his face, our working theory was it was his local girlfriend. Unable to confirm though.
When we arrived at our boat, we met our guide Taz, and set out to look for wildlife as we headed towards the lodge. Taz handed around a bag of coca leaves (very popular amongst Bolivians for help with altitude sickness and an energy boost) and a bag of baking soda, which maximizes the effect of the leaves (not a bag of cocaine, as one unnamed Australian thought). We cruised up to a tree on the river that was filled with yellow squirrel monkeys. Taz calls my name and tosses me half of a banana to feed them. The plan in my head was to calmly break it into a few pieces and feed them peacefully. They had a different idea. I turn around and the monkeys are rushing the boat; probably 4 or 5 jumped on me and one lucky winner ripped the banana out of my hands, as the others retreated, disappointed and hungry. It was hilarious and terrifying all at the same time – I have a video that I’ll post, although I wish I could dub over the sound to make my screams sound much more manly.
We got to our lodge, a series of huts elevated over the water, and I was pleasantly surprised to find I had a private room. These last two stays in the rainforest were also my first experience sleeping in mosquito nets (the Aussies thought that was weird), and I’d be fine not doing it again. They’re lifesavers in an environment like this, but are as effective as keeping in heat as they are keeping out mozzies. We got a quick tour of the facilities, which included introduction to their “pet caimans”, one over 12 feet in length, who hung around under the dining room for meat scraps or clumsy tourists.
We had our first meal on site which, just like the jungle tour, was massive. One reason I’d recommend Fluvial Tours was the sheer amount of food they give you. Prepared by a nice lady that stays on site, they’re classic Bolivian meals with meat, 3-4 different carb options, and heaps of fresh fruit and veg. All you need to do is justify it by the calories you burned hiking and there’s no food guilt. After dinner, we went for our first round of nighttime caiman searching, as their eyes hover above the water and eerily reflect the flashlights, but we didn’t have much success. Back to get some sleep for the next full day ahead of us.
After breakfast (consisting of three different types of deep fried donuts), we went out to search for anacondas. Now this doesn’t mean ride around in a boat as our guide looks for anacondas…no, we put on our mud boots, and walked around in marsh, purposefully seeking massive predatorial snakes. As we got started, we asked Taz what we should do if we find one. “Uh…step on his head and grab him by the tail…or just call me and I’ll come over”. I just decided to blindly trust Taz with my life, and went in full steam ahead into the marsh. It’s one of those feelings where you don’t really know if you want to have a successful search or not, and since it was wet season and everything was flooded, it was truly like searching for a needle in a haystack. For better or worse, we left without finding an anaconda, but we also with all our limbs intact.
The afternoon excursion called for swimming with dolphins and fishing for piranhas. As we got to the spot to swim with dolphins, there wasn’t much activity, but we jumped in anyways to cool off. Taz, how do we know there are no piranhas in here? “No, it’s very safe here no worries”. Again…blind trust. After a quick dip, we went to the piranha fishing spot, which looked unnervingly similar to where we were swimming fifteen minutes earlier. There wasn’t much technique to piranha fishing – put some raw meat on a hook and throw it in the water. Not the smartest of fish. Due to the rainy season, we were met with limited success here as well (one fish between everyone on the boat), and after trying 4 or 5 different spots, we called it quits to go watch sunset with a few drinks. After the sun went down, we grabbed a few bottles of wine for the road and returned to camp. We split up the one piranha we caught as an appetizer, and it was a surprisingly clean tasting fish. After we had “finished” it, I watched Taz take literally every single piece of meat off the bone and give us back the skeleton. Apparently, he had plenty of experience eating piranhas. The post-dinner round 2 of caiman searching was a bit more successful – Taz pulled alongside a baby and grabbed it out of the water for us to hold. The moms only watch after their babies for the first year and then leave them to discover the world for themselves, so we returned him to the water and wished him luck. We capped the night off by enjoying the last glass of wine and good conversation in hammocks – a level of comfort that I wish I could bottle up and return to often.
Our last morning started with a 6 AM wake up call to experience the morning sounds of the pampas. Navigating just by oar, you got to hear the jungle awaken and the birds, monkeys, and other wildlife welcome the sunrise. Probably the most tranquil experience of my trip thus far, yet bittersweet because you knew it was coming to an end soon. We had a second go of swimming with dolphins, and had more success. Although it isn’t Sea World where they’re swimming up to you before doing backflips for treats – it’d probably be more appropriately named “swimming kind of close to dolphins”. And as long as you could ignore the peculiar smell in the water and not worry about long term health concerns, it was a cool experience.
One last boat ride back to the car, and we said our goodbyes to Taz. I won’t soon forget that man, he had such a fascinating story. He also only had a few years of schooling, but had somehow managed to learn five languages and travel the world helping research rainforest life and spread his knowledge. When I think of overcoming adversity and making the best of your circumstances, he will always come to mind. And when I combine the experiences I had with the great people I met, this week of exploration will be one of my favorite experiences of my travels, and the memories will stay with me forever.
Since I had to kill some time for my yellow fever shot to become effective, and didn’t want to spend all 10 days in La Paz, I made a short stop in Cochabomba, Bolivia’s fourth largest city, kind of on the way to La Paz. I took a night bus to get there, and like most Bolivian night buses, it got in at the convenient time of 4:30 AM. Luckily, the nice staff at Running Chasky woke up and let me hang out in the common area until the room was ready. After a quick nap, I woke up and met Angels and Peter (blog here), who turned into my mini crew for the next few days to explore the city. The highlight here was the hike up to the statue of Cristo de la Concordia which overlooks the city. It’s the tallest Christ statue in the world, just a few meters taller than the one in Rio after which it is modeled.
The next morning, Saturday, Peter and I hopped on a bus to La Paz, our home for the next week. I had heard a lot about the Wild Rover hostel in La Paz so we went straight there, and booked in a 20-bed dorm room, the biggest I’d slept in to date. Typically, the more beds in a room, the cheaper it is, and this was no exception, at $7/night. I wanted to be sure I was in La Paz by Sunday, which is when they have their weekly Cholitas Wrestling event. Cholitas are Bolivian women who dress in traditional garb (sweaters, long skirts, and a Charley Chaplin top hat), a tradition that is passed down from mother to daughter. And every weekend, you can watch these ladies come out, show off their best moves, and body slam each other for a few hours. We showed up and we’re given a ticket for entry, with vouchers for a free snack (popcorn), beverage (3 swigs of coke), souvenir (a mini Cholita doll), and two bathroom trips. Yea…if you had to go more than twice, you better start bartering your toy for an extra ticket. I hadn’t attended a wrestling event in almost 20 years, but it was a blast. They had 4 or 5 matches, each with an eerily similar storyline of good gal/bad gal, with an evil referee thrown into the mix as well. Definitely a worthwhile stop if you’re in La Paz at the right time of the week.
On Wednesday, I went mountain biking down Yungas Road, better known as Death Road. The voyage started with a 7:15 AM hostel pickup to drive the hour or so up to the top of the mountain. The first 45 minutes were on paved road, which was good, because I pondered for a while and couldn’t remember the last time I had ridden a bicycle. After that stretch, we veer off onto the dirt road and for the next two hours, road down the true death road, that weaved down on the side of the mountain, overlooking a picturesque green valley. The ride is only as scary as you want it to be. Ride with a company with decent bikes (and brakes), and you can control how fast you go and how close you are to the edge. They did have an incident the day before I went where one of the trail drivers (the van that follows behind the bikes with everyone’s stuff) got startled by a biker swerving in front of him and the van fell off the road to the valley below, killing the driver inside. Passing by the accident site as we rode down was a sobering reminder to not screw around and be fully aware of your surroundings. Aside from that tragedy, it was an incredible few hours – a combination of adrenaline and beauty that you don’t get to experience every day. And lucky for us, due to a mudslide, our trail van couldn’t pass a certain point until they cleared the road. This meant we got “bonus time” on the bike, or the last 20 minutes riding uphill on a road shared with everyday traffic. In a week that different feature a ton of strenuous physical activity, it was probably good for me.
La Paz is home to the San Pedro prison, famous in South America and the subject of the book Marching Powder. Originally designed to house around 600 prisoners, it currently holds over 2,000 inmates and their families. Yes, here, there aren’t any cells and few prison guards, and the prisoners can have their families including children live with them inside. An ex-prisoner, an American named Crazy Dave, gathers at the square every day to tell stories of his 14 years inside the beacon of drug trafficking and corruption. Certainly eccentric and possibly insane, Dave had some wild tales of his time locked up. Until a few years ago, they even used to offer tours to visiting tourists, until a reporter uncovered that young travelers would go for the weekend and turn it into a weekend coke binge…with the drugs produced at one of several labs inside. Just hearing of a prison system like this continues to underscore that Bolivia is as far from the US as anywhere I’ve been so far.
Now I knew that Wild Rover was known as a party hostel, but didn’t really have the full understanding until I got there. Our first night was Saturday so I thought maybe the multiple happy hours and bartenders standing on the bar yelling ‘FREE SHOTS’ was just a weekend thing. Nope. After more or less a repeat performance on Sunday night, I realized they played for keeps there. I also admitted that if I wanted to get a decent night sleep, I needed to get out of the 20-bed dorm (which also for some reason had a massive skylight in the middle for a nice, natural, 7 AM alarm clock) and into something a bit more normal. Not that it made us celebrate life any less – two other patriots and I still took home the ‘Drink for Your Country’ title on a Tuesday, and gave a stunning rendition of Jumper by Third Eye Blind on Karaoke Thursday, but at least I had a decent place to escape to when necessary.
When I arrived, my plan was probably to leave for the rainforest on Friday, but I arrived to discover Wild Rover was an Irish-owned hostel and Friday was St. Patrick’s Day. They had a full weekend of events planned, and I didn’t have that much time (or liver capacity), but I wanted to see it on the big day. The place was filled with Irish travelers (they stayed for free on SPD) so I felt like I was celebrating in Dublin South. They led a parade during the day accompanied by a Bolivian marching band and accordion player (no idea how you even find an accordion player in Bolivia), and yelled out Irish drinking songs that I tried to learn but mostly clapped along. I would’ve loved to know what was going through the locals’ heads as they watched a bunch of gringos march through the city. All we were missing was Guinness on tap (they had Baby Guinness shots which sufficed). It was a good way to cap off a week of pretending like I was still in college and my body was made for this type of thing, but I was more than content to pack my bags and hit the road. Next stop was to fly up to Rurrenabaque, the access point to the Bolivian rainforest. And of course, my cab ride to the airport had to be eventful in true La Paz fashion. There was construction on the way and I guess my driver was just trying to make good time (which I appreciated), but at one point he swerved into the construction lane to pass a few cars, and apparently cut off a motorcycle attempting to do the same. He slammed on his brakes and laid on the horn, and while passing him on the left, managed to kick off the side mirror of my cab. It was at this point I was praying my driver wouldn’t retaliate (and I’m not sure he didn’t want to), but the bike sped away. I had fun in La Paz but this confirmed it was time for me to get the hell out of there. On to the rainforest!
Last time I left I was walking into Bolivia, finally legal, and on my way to Tupiza. My initial plan was just to use this as an overnight sleeping spot before heading to Uyuni in the morning. But the way the transportation worked out, I ended up having a full day before I needed to catch the train. I took this time to ride my first ever horse. It’s weird to think I rode a donkey (as part of our annual donkey polo tournament in college) several times before I rode a horse, but it was time to change that. And like most other things in Bolivia, it was cheap (~$9/hour). I booked through my hostel, Hostel Butch Cassidy (highly recommended, great breakfast spread, including pancakes) and it ended up being just me and the guide and we went on a 3-hour journey through the canyons and valleys of Tupiza. She gave me an authentic sombrero to wear, but she didn’t account for the impressive size of my head, so it was flying in the wind most of the time. Me and my horse, ole Cara Blanca (white face), were a work in progress. She didn’t seem too upset to see me go, and I respect her more for it. Classic hard-to-get.
I went into town to grab lunch and wait for the train station ticket office to open, so I passed some time by people watching in the main plaza. Carnaval was still ongoing, and the little kids were the main stars on this day. And these 6/7/8-year-old boys were complete savages. They were armed with the same foam cans that I had in Tilcara, yet they seemed to use them much more like a weapon than I. They would wait until the innocent girls were about a foot away, then spray them straight in the face and eyes. The better part was the parents on the sidelines cheering them on. I was cracking up. When I had enough fun, I went to go get my train ticket for later that evening. There’s three options to choose from: executive, salon, and popular. They all were reasonably priced (especially from what I’m used to paying in Argentina and Chile), so I decided I’d go with the best seat they had to offer. Yet when I got to the front, the man informed me all they had left was popular, so I accepted without much of a choice, and pleased that I’d be able to take a 6-hour train ride for about $2.50. I’m not sure why that price didn’t cause me more alarm, but it very much should have. What transpired next was by far my worst transportation experience to date.
I load my bigger pack into the luggage hull and take my carry on into the popular cart to find my row and seat. Instead what I find is numbered 3-person benches facing each other. By the time the train departed 20 minutes later, our 6-person area had 5 adults and 3 kids. 15 minutes into the ride, a smelly drunk walks up, starts flirting with one of the ladies, and decides he’ll sit with us as well. Now we’re at 9 people. This cute little five-year-old kid is sitting in the legroom between the two benches, using my leg as a pillow. I couldn’t really be bothered by this – he was a cute kid and it wasn’t his fault we were in this situation. Then they pass him the 2-liter bottle of juice to pour himself a glass. Whyyyy? Of course, he spills some on me. He shoots me an apologetic look and I am quick to tell him it’s ok and forgive. But he does it again. Okay, that’s enough juice kid. Obviously with the current seating situation, any sort of iPad or laptop entertainment is out of the question, so I just try to close my eyes and sleep. A few times I wake up and look outside to see we’re not moving, but figure we’re just waiting for stations to clear. I find out later that we were waiting for them to clear the landslide over the tracks, and we didn’t move for three hours. When we stopped at a station around 1:45 AM (only 15 minutes from our original ETA), I optimistically got up and grabbed my bag. I asked a passing passenger if we were at the Uyuni station and she laughed. No, you have a long way to go. At this time, the gaggle of kids had left, but their seats had been easily filled with more Bolivians. One of them had a pretty strong funk but I couldn’t identify the guilty party. Though at this point, I was far past caring. Three restless hours later, we get to Uyuni a little after 5 and it’s time for me to find my hostel. Never will I step foot on a Bolivian train again.
The main (and really, the only) reason to come to Uyuni is to explore Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat at over 4,000 square miles. There are a few tour options, but I opted for the one day tour of the flats that returns you to Uyuni the same day. The town of Uyuni itself is tiny, and built almost entirely for tourism, which means overpriced, average restaurants, and not much else to do. The one day tour allowed me to see the main attraction, and still get back in time for the bus to Potosi that same night. First, we went to an old train graveyard, where trains brought by the British during early mining operations lie resting in peace. They were abandoned there in the 1940s when the mining industry went south. Interesting to see but I was ready to see the main draw. We arrived to the entrance to the salt flats around an hour later, and put on our boots like true salt flat explorers. Formed by the evaporation of prehistoric saltwater lakes, the flat contains a few meters of salt crust. When dry, it’s salt as far as the eye can see. But perhaps the coolest feature is when the area gets rain, the flat floods with a few inches of water, and turns into the world’s largest mirror. The combination of complete flatness and lack of surroundings makes the horizon disappear. It also has the wonderful effect of making you feel extremely small. Don’t get me wrong, I got some cool pictures, including the one featured in this blog, but I enjoyed just sitting in admiration even more. The original plan was to stay for sunset, but a storm rolled in and we decided to head back instead of try to wait it out, which was fine by me. It guaranteed that I’d get back in time to reach my bus (not train, never again) and we had more than enough time to take pictures.
I arrived into Potosi late that evening and checked into Casa Blanca Hostel without issue. The next day I used to relax a bit, but as I was thinking about dinner, I found out it was the hostel owner’s birthday, and they were making homemade pizzas if I wanted in. All I had to grab was something to drink. It turned into a classic great hostel night, where a bunch of people, who have nothing in common other than the location of their bunk beds, come together and share in tons of beer, wine, and laughter. We had fun, and it’s safe to say I slept through breakfast the next day. I finally dragged myself out of bed, and that following afternoon, I went on a tour of the mines of Cerro Rico. We went to get geared up with coveralls, boots, and a headlamp, then went to the miner’s store to buy gifts for the miners, which consisted of coca leaves, juice, grain alcohol, and dynamite. It was troubling that you could buy a stick of dynamite for under $3, but my inner masculine desire to see stuff blow up won, and that’s what I bought. We get to the entrance to the mine, turn our headlamps on, and get in to start exploring. Over the next hour, we climbed unstable ladders, tried to avoid breathing in too much silica, and helped some miners haul rocks to the exit. It’s pretty hard to explain how I felt about the mine tour. It was a unique experience and really cool to see it first hand, but at the same time it was eye-opening and sad. We ran into a 15-year-old kid in the mine, who had been working for three years. And the only reason he was working in the mine was to help his dad, who had developed lung disease from his 30 years in the mine. It’s a vicious cycle in a town without much other work. And our guide seemed to be encouraged that only 12 people died in the mines last year. Overall, I was glad I went but it certainly made you appreciative of the opportunities we are provided as Americans.
The next day I was off to Sucre, and I used yet another different type of transportation, a shared taxi. For a three-hour taxi ride, it worked out to $7 per person, so I decided to ride in comfort through the winding Bolivian hillswith three strangers instead of on a bus with 40 strangers. My four days in Sucre were relatively uneventful. It’s the constitutional capital of Bolivia, but most government business is conducted in La Paz, and Sucre is a much more laid back colonial city. I met up with some friends from Potosi my first night there, and woke up the next day sick, which curbed most of my appetite to get out into big excursions. One thing I was finally able to accomplish was getting my yellow fever vaccination. When I went to the travel doctor in the states, she surprisingly told me it would be much cheaper abroad, and it’s still the same vaccine all over the world. And since I plan to enter the rainforest in just over a week, I was running out of time if I wanted to be adequately protected. It took a silly amount of time due to typical South American bureaucracy, but $14 and a few hours later, I was immunized without any real side effects.
I haven’t written in a while, and I have some time to kill on a Bolivian bus, so this may be a bit long, but I feel like I’ve had a lot happen since the last post. I spent a few more days in Mendoza after Dad and Sarah left but I laid low for the most part. I stayed in Mora International Hostel , which had a cool open air layout. The downside of that is the inability to keep mosquitoes out. Add to that the fact that our room had no AC, so keeping windows open was necessary, and you get into a tricky situation. There’s not a much worse alarm clock than a mosquito biting you in bed. And I’ve always had blood that, to mosquitoes, is some sort of combination of honey and crack, so it was open season. No Zika contracted…yet. I went to the bus station the day before leaving to buy my ticket for the 20-hour journey to Salta. The lady showed me the options, and pointed out one bus that was offering a promo price. I always jump at a deal, not worrying to much about the quality of the bus at the time. This would be my third overnight bus, and I’ve had both good and bad experiences on the other two, so I never know exactly what to expect. But I walk on this bus and the entire bus is filled with luxury leather recliners. I’m talking an actual comfortable seat that belonged more in a home theater than an airplane. It damn near brought a tear to my eye. It may seem simple, but it’s hard for me to describe what kind of morale boost it provides when you get a little unexpected gift like that. So, I rode in style and got a decent night’s sleep as I continued to head northward.
Wide-eyed and full on average bus food (nice seating doesn’t mean complete first-class service), I checked in to La Covacha close to Salta’s city center. That afternoon, I just killed some time walking around the city’s main square. Here is where you begin to see the Spanish influence in Northern Argentina, as all the cities are founded around a central plaza, all featuring the main church on one side and the cabildo (city council) on another side. But the most interesting feature on this square was the MaaM (Museum of High Mountain Archaeology). It’s a small museum, but it is one of two museums in South America that share a common display. High in the peaks of the Andes near Salta, the Incas would perform rituals where they would sacrifice their best-looking children for the gods, and bury them on the mountain tops alive after a wedding ceremony. This museum actually has the mummified remains of three children (which were preserved well due to temperature and climate on the mountain) on display in their natural state. Definitely a bit creepy, but very interesting to see. And maybe the one time in history where it pays to be a little on the ugly side.
Salta is also the home of some incredible local quick eats. The empanadas were good as expected (probably the best I’ve had in Argentina), but their tamales were the true hidden gem. Corn (so it’s healthy) flour stuffed with meat, onions, and more wrapped and cook in corn husks – just a little small helping of greatness. They are certainly one of the foods I’m going to bring back to the States and figure out how to make at home. The last night, when I had no real plans, the owners of the hostel invited me to join their family in an asado on the rooftop terrace. Well…actually…a girl that was staying in my room invited me and at that point they kind of had to go along, but it was a nice gesture nonetheless. And as usual, it was an absolute feast. A potato salad and mixed greens accompanied serving after serving of grilled meat and plenty of red wine. Near the end of the night, the conversation switched to the women’s rights protest in Buenos Aires over their ability to sunbathe topless. As more wine was consumed, the speed of their speech increased as well, so I didn’t understand all of it. But ‘tetas’ is easy enough to translate and hand gestures universal, so I picked up on enough context. Everyone seemed to be pretty pro-sunbathing. I’ve always been a women’s rights activist and it won’t stop now.
The next day, I called a bit of an audible on my original plan due to some recommendations, and headed 4 hours back south to Argentina’s second biggest wine region, Cafayate. The drive down through Quebrada de las Conchas is known to be very scenic, but what they didn’t tell me was it was full of hairpin turns and the buses are still intent on making good time. This trip has had its highs and lows, and losing my lunch in a coach bus bathroom qualifies as the latter without a doubt. As I try to always look on the bright side, I just see it as making more room for empanadas, tamales, and vino.
I checked into Casa de Huesped, which was a simple hostel but had a really cool layout. Their outdoor seating area, featuring breakfast tables and a few hammocks, laid underneath grape vines which the hostel uses to make their own homemade wines. The next day I set out to do some tastings at some of the local vineyards. I hit 4 in total, with El Esteco being my favorite, but these 4 kept me much more sober than the three in Mendoza…these were actual tastings instead of full-glass samples. I enjoyed the wines and vineyards of Cafayate, but I still prefer the ones we visited in Mendoza if I had to compare the two. For starters, I prefer red wines, and Cafayate’s specialty is the torrontes grape, which produces a white wine anywhere from semi-sweet to dessert-levels of sugar. Secondly, the Mendoza wineries were more equipped to give tours and happily showed off their craft and knowledge, whereas the Cafayate wineries seemed to give the tours out of necessity, almost reluctantly, than out of desire. One advantage Cafayate had was its surrounding scenery. The town sits next to the base of the mountains, which allows for a great visual while sampling. All that said, I’m definitely glad I came and would recommend it for wine lovers and amateurs alike. Accomplishing what I wanted to, I left after two days to head back north on plan, bound for the northwestern most province in Argentina, Jujuy.
With Carnaval approaching, I knew I wanted to be in Jujuy to celebrate due to its reputation in Argentina. There are several towns in Jujuy that offer Carnaval celebrations, but I settled on Tilcara as it seemed to be the most popular from what I gathered. This time of year, people from around the country storm this otherwise small town, and it becomes very crowded. Online, I could only book a hostel through Saturday morning (the main party being Saturday) so I figured I’d just figure out that day as it got closer. On Wednesday and Thursday I went on a few hikes around town. I went to Pucara de Tilcara, which is a collection of ruins dating back to the 12th century, and were rediscovered in 1908, with a lady from Buenos Aires also traveling solo. It was cool to explore the ruins, but I did find it a bit odd that the highest point on the mountains was a monument, dedicated not to the ancient settlers, but to the archaeologists instead. The next day I hiked solo to Garganta Del Diablo, a rock formation created millions of years ago by shifting tectonic plates, with a waterfall at its peak. Although my favorite view was on the way down, looking across the valley at the multi-colored mountains (due to the different mineral types formed over the years).
Over Thursday and going into Friday, I experienced probably my first bout of real homesickness. Not to the extreme of ‘get me out of here now’ but I started seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. I was just kind of in a funk. It had probably been two weeks since I had spoken more than a sentence or two in English, and that wears on you. Due to some indecisiveness on my part, I had little success finding a place to stay Saturday night, and had started to plan to leave for Bolivia Saturday morning (thus missing the party and the reason I was there). Just a bit of a cold streak if you will. But as things tend to do, I got a little momentum on my side going into the weekend. On Friday afternoon, a girl at the hostel told me she saw another hostel with availability for Saturday night, so I was able to book that and stay as originally planned. A good crew checked into the hostel Friday night, and we had a blast at a local peña, a restaurant and concert in one with folkloric music, including some sort of horn that was 8 feet long. Plenty of cerveza and dancing to go around.
I checked out on Saturday morning to go to my other hostel, and Jan, a French guy from my previous hostel, joined me. He had to run around to chase down his friend so I was kind of just hanging out when a few of the others at the hostel invited me to join them at the party. I couldn’t turn that down…sorry Jan. We got there as it was just getting ramped up. It was situated in an open field with some big speakers and a bunch of vendors. Before long it was shoulder to shoulder and all hell broke loose. The best way I can describe it is I got to act like a kid again. It’s an all-out war, with the weapons being paint, spray foam, and handfuls and handfuls of powder. I’ve said it before but I think it’s important that regardless of how old we are, we still find time to let loose and play. This hit the spot. I don’t know anything about Brazilian carneval, but this would be tough to top.
Now all I had to do was take a bus to the Bolivian border, buy my visa, and then take the 2nd bus to Tupiza, about 2 hours north. Easy enough, right? I knew beforehand that this could be tricky for a few reasons. First, Bolivia is one of the few countries in South America where people from the US need to pay to enter (reciprocity for us charging Bolivians) and second, a yellow fever vaccine, which I don’t have, is technically required. I knew you could pay the fee at the border and didn’t have to do it beforehand. The tough thing is you must pay in USD and have exactly $160 because they aren’t giving you change. I did some reading and people said there was an ATM at the border that could give out dollars. Cool…just need to find that ATM. So, I’m going through the process, filling out the paperwork, and I get to the grumpy lady that wants the money. I tell her I don’t have it, I need to find the ATM, and here comes a lot of confusion. She doesn’t really understand me, I don’t really understand her, she has my passport and tells me I need to pay before I get it back, I tell her I completely understand I just need to find that ATM, she mutters something else. Eventually someone else in line says go ahead into Bolivia and get some money and come back. Looking back, I’m sure I was in the country 100% illegally (allegedly). So I wander in, without passport, to go find an ATM. Of course, the one in town only gives out Bolivian pesos, so then I need to find an exchange house to rip me off and convert them into USD. I go back to the office, cash in hand, and there’s someone else working there. Great. I tell him my passport is here and I need to pay for my visa and he starts looking for it, nervously, without any success. To make a long story just a tiny bit shorter, I end up jumping back and forth between two offices a few times, recompleting paperwork, and getting a new stamp because my previous one was annulled (which I’m sure will make me stand out to every future immigration officer I meet). Almost four hours after when I arrived at the border, I legally entered Bolivia again and got on my way. Stressed out, I went to buy a beer from a street vendor and it was about 65 cents. Then I remembered why I’m in Bolivia. Should be a fun few weeks.
But with that I say goodbye to Argentina. A country in which I’ve spent 5.5 of the last 7 months, and they’ve been a blast. Many Argentines that I met said I’ve seen more of the country than they have, and I just look back and appreciate how fortunate I am to be able to accomplish that.
Back to Buenos Aires
When my flight touched down in BA, I almost felt like I came home. Not quite the same, but after about a month straight of figuring out a new city every three days, it felt so comforting to arrive to a place where I knew where I needed to go and what I needed to do. I had a few days before Dad and Sarah arrived, so I used that time to catch up with old friends who I hadn't seen in a few months. My friend George put me up in a spare bedroom of his which was just what I needed. He also had two lovely ladies from Canada staying with him who kept great company (and made great finger foods for the happy hours). Thursday I met up with a few friends from my TEGOBA group for some shawarma and coffee. On Friday I met up with Candela and we went to a Mundo Lingo event, the language exchange at local bars. I had a great time and it reminded me that I should've attended more often when I was in BA before; it's such a great way to practice language, but in a setting where everyone else is open and willing to do the same. On Saturday, I grabbed beers with my old roommate Nestor, the one person in Buenos Aires who had to put up with me more than anyone else. Unfortunately, I didn't get to see everyone I would've liked to, but if any of y'all are ever in the States, my door is always open.
I welcomed Dad and Sarah Sunday morning, fresh off their long, miserable first-class flight spent eating 4 course meals and drinking champagne. Poor kids :) It was wonderful to see family in a foreign land and I had a great time introducing them to my second home. We stayed at a really nice hotel in San Telmo, where I slept in a huge bed for the first time in a while. They got to see some of the Argentinean culture: exploring the San Telmo market, taking a tango lesson and seeing a full tango show, and being amused at how late they eat dinner. They got to sample the food (steak, empanadas, choripan, provoleta) and were even adventurous enough to try mollejas (sweetbreads, or, more familiarly, gizzards). I don't believe they'll be repeat mollejas consumers. And they were able to see the beautiful architecture of Buenos Aires, and appreciate it much more than I could. Although once the two construction nerds start talking about the different concrete techniques, they start to lose me.
Wednesday morning, I said goodbye to Buenos Aires (at least for the foreseeable future) and we hopped on a plane together to Mendoza. We arrived at Casa Glebinias in Lujan de Cuyo, a nice wine region 20 minutes outside of the city center of Mendoza. It's a beautiful boutique hotel with an on-site restaurant, wine cellar, and pool. Not what I'm used to, but really nice. The first day we were responsible and only went to one restaurant before we came back to get ready for 1884, Francis Mallman's top-class steakhouse. Incredible meal. The next day was our full wine day, where we went to the first winery, Vina Cobos, at 11. We learned quickly that the "pours" at these wine tastings are more like "glasses". Not that we were complaining, but I was probably down 2.5 glasses of wine after the first winery at about noon. We went to a lunch/wine pairing at Bodega Lagarde, where they did a 6-course meal with a wine pairing for each course. Here they didn't even bother asking if you wanted more; they treated an empty glass as a nuisance, and they knew the solution. Really good meal, really good wine, really bad prep for going to our third winery. We certainly had a nice time at Carmelo Patti, but I'd be lying if I told you I had any notes (or memories) of the different wine varietals the little old Italian man offered us. So, Pro Tip for anyone planning a Mendoza vacation: two wineries per day is probably a safe bet. Not long after arriving back at our hotel did we cancel our dinner reservations and settle for a nice pool-side "nap". Friday was our day to take a driving tour of the Andes, all the way to the entrance to Aconcagua National Park. As tends to happen with these massive mountains, there was a collection of clouds surrounding the peaks which skews your view, but it was nice for us to see a different side of Mendoza province, and our driver Gino gave us some nice history of the region, the country, politics, and everything in between.
They flew back home early Saturday morning and I've moved to a hostel in the Mendoza city center for a few days. I really enjoyed having them here, having them experience a world and a culture much different from what they're used to. It was a nice refresher, a pleasant reminder of home, that should hold me over nicely the last few months until I return to the states for good.
I make some really stupid decisions sometimes. I'm just fortunate that it hasn't come back to bite me yet, but more on that later.
Puerto Natales and Punta Arenas
Leaving El Calafate, I arrived to Puerto Natales in the evening. Puerto Natales is a nice small city on the water that serves as the launching point into Torres Del Paine National Park, and not much else. Many people do multi-day hikes (5 or 8 days) but I elected to just a few day trips to the park instead (50% due to lack of camping equipment, 50% due to waiting too late to reserve camping spots). I arrived to my hostel, Hostel San Agustin, and was greeted by the hosts, three older local women with very limited English. They were nice ladies but real sticklers for the rules; and treated everyone there like they would their child. I witnessed one scold a German couple for trying to get seconds on yogurt for their cereal (probably to help wash down the stale bread), yelling "this is not a buffet!". Not a long-term model for success in my opinion but to each their own. I went off to the local market to get some stuff for sandwiches, and due to metric conversion error, I ordered entirely too much below average ham. So, I got to enjoy that for 5 meals over the next 3 days. The next day I went on a full-day van tour of the park, which allowed me to see most of the highlights in a relatively short span. I realized fairly quickly that I was the only gringo and English speaker on the trip, including the guide. He spoke clearly enough for me to get about 50% of his message. That's enough for context which is sufficient. But the park was the real star of the day. Absolutely gorgeous - you can tell immediately why it's such a popular destination for trekkers and tourists alike. Massive granite towers falling sharply to power waterfalls leading down to the distinctly blue glacial lakes - a powerful experience. Also, the weather pleasantly held out for us, which isn't a gimme around these parts. On the way back to Puerto Natales, we also stopped at Mylodon Cave, a massive cave turned archaeological site where the skins of the now-extinct mylodon were found, which led to a large-scale excavation and lots of new information about extinct species from 10000 years ago. The cave now isn't really anything mind-blowing, but I had previously read about the cave in Bruce Chatwin's In Patagonia, so it was cool to see in person. The next day I got to the bus station, backpack filled with the appropriate supplies for a day hike to the base of the famous towers, to catch the 8:30 bus to the national park. That's roughly when I figured out the bus actually only leaves at 7:30 AM and it was long gone. I had (incorrectly) assumed that they started at 7:30 and ran every hour. This was probably the most frustrated I've been to-date, simply because there was no one to blame but myself. Resigned to my fate, I went back to the hostel to regroup. As previously mentioned, the town is really a gateway to the park and doesn't offer much itself, so my options were limited. I used the newly-freed time in my schedule to catch up on some photos that needed to be uploaded, some emails that needed to be sent out, and a nap that needed to be taken. I also caught a local museum dedicated to the natives of the area, which was a cool exhibit and pleasant surprise. The next morning I left Puerto Natales to head to Punta Arenas, Chile's first major Patagonian sea port on the Strait of Magellan.
In Punta Arenas, I got to El Fin Del Mundo hostel to a more welcoming environment in a much larger city. A lot of people visit the Penguin colonies from Punta Arenas, but knowing I'd do a similar excursion from my next stop in Ushuaia, I passed and had a relatively relaxed 3 days. I took an early morning hike to the national park (I was the first person there) which had incredible views over the city to the waterway. I saw a ton of wild rabbits but my quest to find wild foxes or pumas continue to come up empty, sadly. I also met an Australian and a German with whom I could have a completely respectful and level-headed political discussion. It's refreshing to know those are still possible nowadays.
To get to Ushuaia, there was a 12-hour bus-ride. It wasn't too painful because it was broken up by a ferry ride across the Strait of Magellan, where we were able to get off the bus and stretch our legs a bit. It was also my last border crossing for a while (Thank God...because they always seemingly take way longer than necessary for the actual security measures that are performed). I stayed in an AirBnb, since the selection of decent hostels in town are limited, and it turned out to be a great decision. Javier was a very gracious host from his home in the hills above the city, I got some good Spanish practice, learned about his upcoming venture to take his rebuilt VW bus from Ushuaia to Alaska, and hang out with two really cool pups - a younger golden retriever named Amber and a 15-year-old warrior named Darkie. Darkie, almost completely blind and deaf, had seen better days but still gets around pretty good, even if at a much slower pace.
My first day took me to Tierra Del Fuego National Park for a hike along the Beagle Channel. The hike was cool, taking you through the forest and along the coast. The forests are a lot different down here, being comparatively very young (only ~10000 years since the last glacial period) and only feature plants that have adapted to the extreme climate. That said, it ended up costing over 40 bucks including the shuttle and park entry, so probably not worth it from a value perspective. I did get to be a super tourist and have my passport stamped from the End of the World (for a small fee, of course) so I’m still happy I went.
The following day I set off towards the Martial Glacier, a hike you can, or should be able to, reach from the city by foot. I didn't quite reach the glacier, per se. To make a long story short, I got lost and went in the completely wrong direction once I got up into the mountains. I'm not sure why it took me an hour to realize there was no one else on the path towards a relatively popular tourist destination, but by that point it was too late. To put a positive spin on it...well for one I didn't die. Secondly, I've seen several much more impressive glaciers in the last month, so going on my own unique path through muddy and abandoned cross-country ski slopes was probably a much cooler adventure. A few hours later when I got back to the internet I saw a map and saw where my route went wrong. It could've been easily avoided had I done a bit more planning beforehand. Where winging it goes wrong, I guess. No real worries though.
Monday was the highlight of Ushuaia and what I had been looking forward to for days now: my trip to Isla Martillo to visit the Penguin Colony. I avoided looking at pictures to keep myself pleasantly surprised and pleasantly surprised I was. We started at Estancia Harberton, where we looked around their museum of full skeletons of all kinds of marine birds and mammals. We also got a tour led by a local biologist. She told me that Killer Whales are really dolphins and after that my mind was so blown I couldn't really focus on the rest of her talk. After getting off our small boat that took us to the island from the estancia, it was impossible not to smile. Penguins EVERYWHERE. The guide estimates that there are 5,000 couples (not including this year's offspring) and, due to the years of tours, our presence didn’t bother them a bit. This allowed for some great photo and video opportunities, and the ability to get within a few feet of these little balls of joy. I'd say the one downside was the pesky "rules", like no petting, no hugging, no taking any back as souvenirs. Talk about the no-fun police. But all-in-all, an amazing experience. The tour company I used (Piratour) is the only one authorized to lead hikes on the island, where other companies must stay and take pictures from the boat. So as we were leaving and another rival company's boat pulled up as close as they could for pictures, I looked down my nose and laughed as pompously as you might expect, extremely happy with my decision to pay the extra bucks for this tour.
My final day I went to the Ushuaia Prison museum, where Argentina used to keep its most violent criminals in a penal colony, similar to how Britain used Australia. It was a nice activity for a cold and windy day, and it's very well documented in English. They even maintained one wing completely as it was when the prison was open, which serves as a healthy crime deterrent.
Now back to my really dumb decision making. For some reason, I got it in my head I was going to walk to the airport from my AirBnb. Even looking on the map it seemed a bit far but I figured I had a few hours this morning and could get some exercise while saving on cab fare. Dumb. Just really dumb. For some reason, I chose to ignore the maps navigation that suggested it was more like a two-hour walk, or the fact that I would be carrying between 40-50 pounds of luggage on my back, or the fact that it was up and down dirt road hills. An hour into the march, when I realized I was still nowhere close, I started to panic a bit. But I was too far away from the downtown area to find a cab at this point. I stuck my thumb out while walking, which every single car seemed to treat as me offering them congratulations on their driving, because no one even thought about stopping for this friendly gringo. I was positive I was going to miss my flight at this point, but thank God, the Ushuaia airport is tiny and I got their five minutes before the hour cutoff. I've had enough time on this plane to cool off (both figuratively and literally as my sweat-stained shirts start to dry) but I was self-loathing for a while there. Lesson learned, I guess.
I'm typing this on my plane back to Buenos Aires, where my journey first started. It will be great to see old friends, and then in 4 days, welcome Dad and Sarah to South America. Really excited to see some familiar faces.
Well, I survived the 24-hour bus ride. To be honest, it wasn’t as bad as I thought. I got lucky and the bus was only about half full; the seat next to me was open and gave me the proper space to stretch out. The ride was also baby-free which was a nice touch. I was able to get almost a full 8 hours of sleep, and with Netflix downloads (life saving for me these days), podcasts, and my book, I passed the time without too much heartache. The bus company (Marga/Taqsa) even gave me a halfway decent dinner…or my standards have just fallen. They first brought me a tray with a slice of ham, a slice of cheese, a dinner roll, and a container of orange jello. I was about halfway through that delicacy when he brought up a warm aluminum container filled with chicken and rice. I have no doubt the chicken was frozen at some point but it was a nice surprise nonetheless.
I arrived in El Chalten mid-afternoon. El Chalten is a tiny and relatively young town, only founded in 1985, and driven completely off tourism. It sits in a small valley surrounded by mountains, which creates a perfect path for hurricane-like wind gusts, which can be a bit frustrating as you’re carrying both of your packs and trying not to fall over. After checking in at Rancho Grande hostel, I got out and did a quick 90-minute hike to a small waterfall, and started walking back just as it began to rain a bit. This wasn’t a great sign as if you have bad weather, El Chalten becomes much less interesting. If you can’t hike, there’s not much else to do besides eat and drink. That night I met up with my friend Nacho who I met in Bariloche, and one of his friends who were also in town, at a local restaurant. We split a massive picada plate (think charcuterie), which included my first helpings of ostrich and wild boar. Not bad, but nothing to write home about. After a beer and a bottle of wine, we split up and I walked home in the now-much-stronger rain storm.
I woke up the next morning to surprisingly clear skies. A well-timed break in the weather, since this is the day I had planned to hike the most well-known trail in town – the hike to Mt. Fitz Roy. On just a granola bar for breakfast (which I’ll explain later), I set out on the four-hour hike. The first hour or so was a little tough, but when you reach the peak of the first hill, you have an amazing view of the mountain peaks towering over the valley below, and for the next few hours, you walk with constantly beautiful sights. The last hour was the toughest part, an even steeper climb over rocks, but absolutely worth it. Probably my favorite hike so far, with absolutely stunning views, and the finish didn’t disappoint. After a 30-minute break at the top, and refilling my water bottle with fresh glacier water that would make Bobby Boucher proud, I headed back towards town. The following day, I had another day of decent weather and hiked towards Cerro Torre, a slightly less taxing hike towards the other tall peak in the area, with another glacial lake at its base. I hiked with Isaac from Holland, and he worked up the stones to go for a dip in the lake. Crazy Dutch…When we got back, we went to a local happy hour, where a 5 piece Argentinean folk band surprised us with a live performance.
The one challenging aspect of this town was the complete lack of ability to get cash. I heard it was a pain but was cutting it to close to my bus departure in El Bolson to fix it, I figured it couldn’t be that bad. I was wrong. They had 2 ATMs in town; one doesn’t accept cards with chips (is the alternative even a thing anymore?) and the other one regularly runs out of money. I went down at 8 on Monday morning when the bank opened (or was supposed to), and waited till 9 before accepting that maybe the teller just wasn’t planning on showing up that day. Without a withdrawal, I had barely enough cash (when combining Argentinean and Chilean pesos with my $20 remaining in USD) to pay for my hostel and bus ticket out of town, so I was skimping on food hard. I found one restaurant that took credit card, so my plan was just to eat a big dinner there every night. Of course, on my last night in town, I was able to withdraw a little money from the ATM, and later found out my hostel did accept credit cards, so all the worry was for naught.
I took the 2-hour bus ride to El Calafate, and the first thing I did after checking in at iKeuKen hostel was find a farmacia for my cold. Heavy dose of Sudafed in hand, I went to Laguna Nimez, a wildlife reserve right on the coast of Lago Argentina. Upon entry, the guy at reception told me to watch out between stations 7 and 10 as the birds of prey were nesting and they could get protective. I figured he was just saying this to add a little excitement to a bird sanctuary. It’s rare, he said. Wrong. Not until station 13, but I swear to god this bastard dive bombed me. I’m glad no one was around to hear the pitch of scream I let out, but it was an effective enough deterrent to save my eyeballs from certain gouging.
The other highlight here, and main reason people come, was the visit to the Perito Moreno Glacier, one of the largest glaciers in the world, and one of the only glaciers in the region that is expanding in size rather than shrinking. It was amazing, and one of those things where pictures don’t really do it justice. Hard to capture the sheer size, and the best part to me is sitting and listing to the thunderous cracks and crumbling of the ice as it falls 70 meters to the lake below. It’s awe-inspiring, if not a little haunting. I capped off the afternoon in the café on-site, where they will serve you whiskey over a chunk of glacier ice, and it was 5 o’clock somewhere, so I partook. I ended the evening by meeting up with some old friends with Valparaiso over a few beers, and am about to get on the 5-hour bus towards Puerto Natales, Chile, the base to reach Torres Del Paine National Park. Hope the weather holds off.
After an easy 7-hour bus ride to Bariloche (I never thought I would just shrug off 7 hours on a coach bus but it’s not too bad with Netflix letting you download content now), I had one day to simply relax and get situated in the hostel as the weather was a bit rainy. I woke up the next day and set off to hike Cerro Campanario, an uphill but relatively short hike to, in my opinion, the best view point in Bariloche. Here, you can see all the surrounding lakes and mountains in the region, and fortunately for me the sky cleared just as I reached the top.
The next day, I went with 3 others from the hostel on the trek towards Refugio Frey. It’s a refuge at the top of the mountain where people can sleep, use as a base for their campsite, or simply grab food before the hike back down. The hike up was just over 3 hours, and was pretty mild for most of the way. The weather at this point was fantastic – I was able to rock just a t-shirt. We got to the top and enjoyed a better-than-expected ham and cheese sandwich, and watched a few psychos rock climbing up a ridiculous rock face at the very peak before starting the walk back down. I enjoy the random and sometimes ridiculous conversations that spur up on these longer hikes. For example, out of one guy’s refusal to believe in the marketing hype of trekking shoes (he wears his Vans to hike), we created the concept for a new product line: Vans Extreme, a potential rebellious outdoor shoe line. The working slogan: ‘F*ck trekking shoes. F*ck everything. Vans Extreme.” The nonsense you come up with to fill 6 hours of quiet without Wi-Fi is good for the soul, even if it doesn’t lead to profitable business ventures. Also, learned the basic rules to the Irish national sport of hurling around the dinner table one night.
The hostel here (Penthouse 1004) was fantastic as well. When you secure the top floor of an apartment building with a balcony overlooking the lake, it’s kind of hard to screw up. But they built out the space great as well. Huge and well-stocked double kitchen, great common area for socializing, and nice private bathrooms. Well worth the 5 extra bucks it’d cost you over some of the other hostels in town.
The next day I took a 2-hour bus ride to El Bolson, a smaller town to the south. I sort of planned for this leg to be a more relaxed leg, in between bigger hiking stops, and it was truly the perfect spot for it. The hostel here (La Casona de Odile) was recommended to me by someone I met at a previous spot with the caveat “it’s the kind of place that makes you not want to leave the hostel” and she was right. It has a ranch feel to it with several guest houses on a huge plot of land 3 miles outside of town that backs up to the river. Also featured: a wild lavender garden, an organic farm, hammocks everywhere, 2 dogs, 2 cats, 1 horse, and a new restaurant/bar on site with homemade beer and live music every night. Just an incredibly well-thought out and executed hostel. Everybody would be well-served to spend a long weekend here and unwind.
I did have one day out of the place, where I took a bus down to Lago Puelo National Park, hiked up to a great viewpoint and through the botanical garden, and finished with a meal along probably the bluest lake I’ve ever seen. I also saw what I believe to be the biggest wild pig I've ever seen, and immediately started scouting my possible escape routes. But we came to an understanding, he just wanted to eat and I was cool with that. Beautiful park with plenty of activities if you’re looking for a nice day trip from El Bolson.
I’ve had a really nice 6 day run in this region, and for the most part, I’ve had incredible weather (sunny and low 70s). Now the real adventure begins – in 2 hours I board a 24-hour bus ride down to El Chalten in the heart of Patagonia. There’s no way to spin it…this bus ride is going to suck. Terribly. But hopefully, with the aid of too much melatonin, I can get some decent sleep and wake up tomorrow refreshed and ready to go.
I took my first overnight bus of the trip from Valparaiso into Pucon, a 12-hour trip per their schedule. The buses aren't so bad; I had pretty much an airport seat that reclines a little bit more. And then right as the bus is about to depart, a mom and her newborn baby sit down in the seat next to me. I was ecstatic. But believe it or not, that baby slept silently the 2 hours until the family got off mid trip. Kudos to those parents. The bad side is when they got off, another family got on and sat the row in front of me. And that damn baby must have had a fear of the dark, because it cries for every ounce of nighttime (like when people sleep), but come sunrise, it quieted down again. Like some sort of sick joke.
I say I'm solo traveling, and technically that's true, but in the hostel world you're seldom alone. And in Patagonia, people typically either go from south to north or vice versa, taking similar paths. So, I've met several friends that we've kind of hopped around together on similar schedules. Marta and Thomas are two friends I met in Valparaiso who came down to Pucon with me and stayed in the same hostel, Chili Kiwi. The best-located hostel I've stayed at yet, it was right on the lake front in the heart of downtown. I only planned to stay in Pucon for 2 days, as the main thing to do was climb the volcano and get in another hike. The one tricky part about the volcano is that you need good weather to be allowed to trek. When it's cloudy, rainy, and/or windy, visibility drops and it becomes dangerous. So of course, the 2 days after I arrived were predicted to be rainy. At that point, I either had to decide to leave without doing the volcano or extend my stay. I chose the latter, removing Valdivia and Chiloe from my itinerary. My list of places to visit has already changed twice and will probably continue to change. Flexibility is the plus of not booking far in advance; the downside is lack of hostel availability. So halfway through my trip in Pucon, I had to switch to a different (non-lakeside) hostel, where my friends Tal and Ishai were already staying.
But in the two rainy days, we were still able to get some hiking in. We went to the national park for their “3-hour hike” and finished about 6 hours later, but it wasn’t too difficult outside of the footing becoming slippery due to rain. It stayed cloudy most of the time but we still were able to see a few waterfalls and get in some exercise. A highlight had to be listening to everyone sing Disney songs in different languages. Just thinking about “Bear Necessities” in German still makes me laugh. This was also the moment when I realized trekking in my year old running shoes wasn't going to cut it. Actually found some hiking shoes that weren't outrageous at the North Face store in town. I'll just have to settle with wearing last year's model. Ugh.
And finally, on day 4 in Pucon, we could summit the volcano, and it was well worth the wait. It started with meeting at 6 AM to get geared up and drive to the mountain to arrive by 7:30. The sky was clear and the sun was out. The climb went from about 1400 meters and 2800 meters straight uphill. I heard it compared to climbing stairs for 4 hours straight. They gave the option of cutting out an hour of the climb by taking a ski lift for about $15 USD. I turned down the opportunity because I paid to hike and I was going to hike. The sick part of it was: that entire first hour you're hiking on loose rock and gravel right underneath the ski lift. A passing reminder of missed opportunities with each passing chair. As we reached the top, we put on gas masks as the air is pretty toxic up there. The government only allows hikers to spend 10 minutes at the peak. I got as close as I comfortably could and was able to see lava, which is hit or miss on this hike as well. And then the real fun began...we got to sled most the way back down, either on our ass or this little plastic sled, using our ice pick as an oar. Awesome time. For someone who doesn't trek a ton, it was pretty difficult for me, which makes it that much more rewarding I suppose. I do wonder how anyone truly likes ice climbing. Like...I get it if you like the challenge, the validation at the end of the route, the views along the way, etc. But there's no way someone actually likes methodically plodding up a glacier. Or maybe I'm just too much of a city boy. Regardless...so glad I stayed and did it, and got the one day where it was perfect (the net day, people's trips got cancelled an hour from the top due to lack of visibility, so they didn't even get the satisfaction).
I then spent the next two lazy days in Puerto Varas, a nice vacation town on the lake.
Puerto Varas hostel recommendation - Margouya Patagonia Outdoor
I just relaxed (and ate) a bit here, and arrived to a rainy Bariloche this afternoon.
A child who does not play is not a child, but the man who doesn't play has lost forever the child who lived in him and who he will miss terribly - Pablo Neruda
When I was initially starting to plan this trip last year (that feels a bit weird to type), I didn't know much about Chile at all and started seeking out recommendations. So many things I read and heard pointed me towards Valparaiso. And now, after my last two weeks on the Chilean coast, I can confirm, every single one of those recommendations was spot on. Most people I met in Valparaiso don't spend anywhere close to two weeks, but I did intentionally to give me some extended time in one place, especially during the holidays, before setting out on a month of traveling around through Patagonia. My plan was for those 2 weeks to be relaxing and calm. While I had tons of fun, relaxing and calm wouldn't be the proper way to describe it. But with weather constantly in the mid-70s and sunny with a slight breeze overlooking the water, it's my type of city. I've found a direct correlation between proximity to water and my mood...I need to keep this in mind when I get back to the real world.
A few highlights from my stay in Valparaiso (at Mitico Hostel):
- I had several days aimlessly wandering the hills discovering the endless varieties of local street art. It's nice to see something more artistic than someone tagging their name with a spray can
- Rumbling, bumbling, and stumbling my way down the sand dunes, followed by getting my first surf lesson. As we were on the bus to the surf spot, I was secretly picturing myself being a natural. I have no idea why, it's not like my athletic prowess and shown itself in any other sport, but I had quiet confidence. Yea I was wrong. Shocker.
- Seeing sea lions compete with seagulls for dinner 20 meters off the beach
- On December 24th, had the privilege to sit through both a Christmas Eve potluck, as well as my first Chanukah dinner celebration. My Israeli friends even made a Hanukkiah out of a toilet paper roll, bottle caps, and candles. Traveler's creativity on display
- 5 days of lounging on the beach, with varying levels of sunburn
- Hanging out with Beto, our mostly-lazy yet effective guard dog
- Seeing the 2nd of Pablo Neruda's Chilean homes, this one high up in the hills overlooking the bay
- Getting more confident with my Spanish with each passing beer
- And the perfect way to end the stay, the massive New Year’s Eve celebration. There were 15 barges filled with fireworks along all the local beaches from Valparaiso to Concon, and through the hostel, we gained access to a 10th floor balcony for one of the best views in the city. After that, the party spills out onto the streets and lasted until sunrise when the military came to clear the streets (last part is strictly hearsay, I didn't quite make it to sunrise).
I met some amazing people through the hostel (seems to be a pattern developing, which makes me happy). But I can already tell how different the second half of my trip will be from my first leg in Buenos Aires. For the most part, the people you meet will be for a few days and then you say your goodbyes. It's not as much about trying to develop friendships as it is meeting new people, having some laughs, sharing stories, exchanging travel advice, and simply enjoying the company. I'm not sure one's better than the other, but there's a vast difference between the hostel/backpacking lifestyle and immersing yourself in one place for a few months.
And I suppose I should quickly reflect on the New Year, as people tend to do this time of year. It seems especially important for me, given the last 6 months I've experienced and figuring out what the future may hold going forward. 2016 was obviously the most unique and possibly the most impactful year of my life from a personal standpoint. I took a blind leap of faith that quitting a good job and leaving a good home was a worthwhile investment of my time and money, and I still expect that by the end of this trip, it will be my most worthwhile investment ever. I've never been a big resolutions guy, but I have a few general goals in mind as I look forward to 2017:
1) Always try to catch myself when I identify something as challenging, uncomfortable, or potentially awkward, and bust through the proverbial wall to see what's on the other side
2) Keep an open mind, and try to avoid saying no as much as possible.
If anyone has a resolution or something they're working to improve and wants someone to help keep them accountable, let me know. I love hearing about how people are trying to develop and happy to help in any way I can.
I hope everyone had a very Feliz Navedad and Año de Nuevo. Pucon summary coming soon.
Well, my return to Santiago was a successful one. I stayed in a different hostel than the first time around (Kombi Hostel) which turned out to be a great decision. The staff was just fine, the showers were inconsistent, but the location was right in the heart of the nightlife district and I met some incredible people in my 3 days there.
I had a few sights to see left on my list from the last time I came. I went and saw a few museums (Pablo Nerudo's Santiago home, the National History museum),both of which were good, and help highlight how truly different The last 500 years in South America are vastly different from our history up north. The fact that there are tons of people still alive who remember what it's like to have a dictator take power by force is eye-opening, and makes our political "crisis" seem tame. I also finally got to check out the Central Seafood Market and get a massive bowl of fresh ceviche for $6, which was incredible.
But I'd say the highlight overall was our day trip to Cajon de Maipu on Saturday. I hadn't planned on going, in fact I hadn't even heard of the place until the day before, but the beauty of not having a schedule is the ability to call audibles and change plans on the fly. I went with my buddy Will that I met in the hostel and three of his friends, well now I guess I can say my friends. We took the Metro -> Metro -> Bus route on public transport, about an hour and a half worth of travel, to this area on the outskirts of Santiago. We stopped to have a few empanadas for lunch and then arrived at Concada de Los Animas, a natural park of sorts. We ziplined twice over the river and then walked down to the riverbank. It was running to fast to swim (and it was more brown than I'd prefer) but cool to see nonetheless. Would've been perfect for someone who knew what they were doing in a kayak. After we left there, we simply started walking down the road and exploring. We found a shop that sold chocolate and massive hand-made wooden artifacts. Great combo. We stopped at a few random swimming pools to see if we could negotiate our way into a quick dip to cool off, with no success. And I was finally able to try Mote con huesillo, a sweet peach flavored juice served over a cup of wheat (a texture kind of similar to Golden Crisp cereal). Very sweet but pretty refreshing in these hot December days (still feels weird to say). And not to mention my three new friends didn't speak much English, so a great couple days of productive, yet tiring, Spanish practice. It's these little random adventures that I love, and it's why I try to say no as little as possible.
I got into Valparaiso on the Chilean coast 2 days ago. The city is absolutely gorgeous right on the bay, maybe my favorite city so far just from a scenic perspective. I'll stay here through Christmas and New Years before heading south. And I'm going for my first ever surfing lesson today. A day without broken bones that leaves me with a little bit of dignity will be considered a success.
Here I am, back in the comfortable confines of my Atlanta home(s), for a quick hiatus in my travels. I’ve had such a fun and long overdue two week stretch catching up with friends and celebrating Christmas a few weeks early with family. Now, with just a few days left before I fly back down south, I wanted to take some time and reflect on the last few months, and try to review what I learned, loved, missed, and regret.
I can start with the language. It ended up being more challenging than I thought for a few reasons. First, I probably thought I was better than I truly was when I left in August. Apparently, a few months on Duolingo 10 years after studying Spanish in high school wasn't adequate. Who knew? Secondly, Argentine Spanish (both dialect and accent) were more different than I expected. And lastly, understanding spoken Spanish is just hard for me. Unless I’m asking people to speak at an unnaturally slow pace, there’s a good chance they’ll be met with a confused look. One thing this trip has taught me is that I need to be a much more active listener. No multitasking when you have to dissect every word. I fully admit I wasn’t a perfect Spanish student over the last few months. I could’ve refused to speak English to everyone I encountered, and forced myself into the uncomfortable situations that make you grow more often. But when you’re living in a foreign land, there is a certain comfort to having a nuanced conversation in your native tongue. I think I found a healthy balance, while acknowledging that I possibly could’ve done more. I spent time every day studying at home, and while effective, being in a school setting may have been more productive. I took a few weeks’ worth of classes but at $200/week, I couldn’t really afford to continue that through my whole stay. I learned of free classes led by local schools a few weeks before I left, or in other words, a few months too late. Oh well…I’ll know for next time. So, in summary…sure I’d love to be fluent after 4 months. But that wasn’t a realistic goal. I’m comfortable with where I’m at right now, and look forward to building on the skill. The challenge is part of what makes this fun.
The other biggest challenge of moving to a new place is finding a new social circle. I never really moved as a child, and attended a college where my brother was already well established and several close friends came along with me. For the first time in my life, I had to start from scratch. And for someone that has some introvertistic (Spellcheck tells me this isn’t a word but I’m going with it) tendencies, it’s a much-needed exercise. Overall, I’d say I was successful. You’d think trying to make new friends while knowing you’ll be leaving soon would be tricky, and it was, but I just tried to have as much fun as I could and learn as much as I could with the little time I had. And I met some amazing people. The cool thing about traveling is you don’t necessarily meet people with whom you have everything in common. And from that lack of commonality comes a different perspective. In fact, for me and most of my friends, the trait we shared was a desire to see the world, seek new horizons, and learn from one another. This trip also reinforced my belief that people are inherently good. I constantly came to people looking for help, and I was given what I needed time and time again. And while there’s a good chance I’ll never see a lot of these people again (although I hope that’s not the case), the generosity and compassion of my newfound friends will not be soon forgotten.
Another reason I wanted to go to South America is I wanted to experience a life different from what I was accustomed. I’ve said this before but as a straight, white, upper middle class male in America, I think I’m a part of every majority group possible. I’ve always considered myself an empathetic person, but moving to a foreign land where suddenly, you’re the one that sticks out, has definitely given me new perspective. Not to say I faced any true plight, but it was still a valuable experience to see and I encourage everyone who can to put themselves in awkward or uncomfortable positions. The other thing living in South America taught me was that I took certain luxuries of living in a steady first-world country for granted. For example, the quality (or availability) of appliances makes life a little bit tougher. I felt like an idiot when I had to google how to hand-wash clothes. You can’t program your oven to stay at a certain temperature in 5 degree increments. And your heater isn’t controlled by a thermostat…it’s simply either plugged in or it’s not. I just try to remind myself that, while the US isn’t perfect, comparatively, we have it pretty good. With that said, they definitely have some things figured out down there. Buenos Aires has a ton of green space in the city and the citizens take full advantage of it. they have perfected the production of expensive ice cream and cheap red wine, and their mass transit options put MARTA to shame (living car-free was a great feeling).
Living without a job is probably as cool as it sounds. It’s amazing to be able to set your own schedule and be as selfish as you want with your daily plan. Life is generally less stressful when the only deadline you need to worry about is making sure you check off all the cool stuff on your to-do list before you move on to the next city. It does have some downsides though. I mean not getting a paycheck is not ideal, and I did sometimes find myself lacking a purpose. One takeaway is that even if I won the lottery tomorrow, I couldn’t go lay on a beach forever. I’d still need to find a place where I can contribute and make a difference. So eventually I’ll work again…still trying to figure out what that may look like, but luckily, I have some time.
The second half of my trip will be quite a bit different from the first. In contrast to the first leg where I stayed in Buenos Aires and set up shop, I plan to spend the next few months traveling around more, staying for a week or two per place as opposed to months. I’ll sacrifice the ability to get an in-depth understanding for a city, while gaining the opportunity to see a lot more of the continent. My rough itinerary has me spending time on Chilean beaches through New Years, in Patagonia for January, followed by moving north through smaller cities in Argentina, into Bolivia, northern Chile, Peru and possibly beyond. The timeline will be determined mainly by how my bank account looks, so fortunately I’ve become talented at living frugally. Hopefully this wasn’t too much rambling, but I wanted to provide some insight into what my life was like. As always, open to questions or comments, and I welcome any visitors that want to take a break from the daily grind and come down South.
It's been a while since I last posted, and in lieu of a post with a central theme, I thought I'd just give a brain dump on where I'm at mentally and emotionally as the first leg of my trip starts to wind down.
I've spent lots of time following the election and the aftermath over the last week, and part of me sympathizes for friends and family back home who have a harder time getting away from the wall-to-wall coverage than I do. On election night, I watched along on CNN (which they broadcast in English), and stayed up til about 5:30 local time until his speech was wrapped up and I had read an excessive amount of election coverage breakdown. In fact it was the first time I've seen the sun rise sober in a long long time. At one point, I had planned to write a long post based solely on politics/division/views from abroad/etc, but instead I'll mention a few quick things to ponder.
Even though I'm out of the US, I still feel fairly connected to US through social media and the like, and the split in our country truly worries me. Whether it's race, class, income level, or level of education, sides seem to be as far apart as I can remember in my young life (I can still call myself young for 27 more days). Across the board, regardless of affiliation, there's an increased level of defensiveness and a troubling lack of empathy. And while I don't think Fox News or MSNBC are going to be changing their programming strategy anytime soon, we can all make an effort to empathize and understand those who disagree with us. One method I'm using to do this, and one which I can highly recommend, is a series of podcasts called 'Intelligence Squared US Debates'. They have several years worth of topics on a wide variety of subject, and they bring in well-educated and (mostly) civil people to debate their side. It's a great way to get an introduction to subjects about which you may not think you know enough, and it's fairly heavily moderated so you can actually hear debate on policy, which we've been so sorely lacking recently. Give it a shot with an open-mind and let me know what you think.
Outside of that, I'm getting very close to the end of my stay in Buenos Aires, having 2 weeks until my feet will land on US soil. This whole time I've been so excited to meet new people, develop relationships, and so on. But as I get closer to the departure date, my mindset has started to change. I'm not sure I can even eloquently describe it but it is slowly starting to become me getting ready to leave versus living life day by day. I suppose it's a feeling people feel every time you move but as someone who has lived in Atlanta the vast majority of their life, it's not one I have often faced. My goal over the net two weeks is simply to have as much fun as I can, mark some final things off the Buenos Aires to-do list, and soak in the experiences unique to this place which I'm sure I will miss soon after I get off the plane. That being said, I am excited to see friends and family soon. The comforts of home will be welcomed, if not the cold weather.
Tourist Visa Renewal
Argentina is nice enough to allow anyone from the US to come here for free now. Your passport stamp acts as your tourist visa and it's good for up to 90 days. When an expat like me decides to stay longer than 90 days, one has a few options:
- Do nothing and pay a fine once you actually leave (a surprisingly common way to handle it)
- Go to the immigration office and pay a fee to get it extended
- Visit another country and then get a new stamp (and thus 90 more days) upon return
I elected to go with option 4. I would prefer my status to be legal in this country, even if they don't have an active deportation force. And if I'm going to spend money to renew my visa, I'd much rather see a new place doing so rather than just seeing the inside of a government office. A lot of people who take this route just go to Colonia, Uruguay. It's an hour-long ferry ride from Buenos Aires so it's an easy half-day turnaround. But from all accounts, it's a quaint town with not a ton to see. So I went the extra length to Montevideo and turned it into a mini-vacation (from my vacation).
From Buenos Aires to Montevideo
There are a few ways to get from BA to MVD. It's a real short flight, but it isn't the cheapest option. There is a ferry that goes straight there, offered by Buquebus, but it's 5 straight hours on an old converted cruise ship across choppy waters. Hard pass. So I elected for Colonia Express, which offers a hybrid trip (ferry to Colonia and bus to Montevideo). The boat ride was easy enough, and included a free cup of shitty coffee. At least I think it was free? If not, oops. The bus took us through desolate areas of farmland (much like Argentina, Uruguayan people are outnumbered by cows) and into Montevideo in about 2.5 hours.
I thoroughly enjoyed my 2 days in the city and I hope to spend more time there at some point in the future. I think part of the enjoyment was its sharp contrast to Buenos Aires, so it truly did feel like a vacation for me. It's much less populated, the people seemed to be friendlier, and it sits right on the water, which has a way of calming anyone down.
I checked into my hostel (Buenas Vibras on Maldonado), which was a really pleasant stay. Ordinary rooms with bunk beds as you'd expect, but probably the nicest hostel bathrooms I've come across, and all of the staff were great. There weren't many other guests there (probably as it was Sunday - Tuesday), so I hung out with the staff and watched a few movies after sundown. I would highly recommend staying at Buenas Vibras if you're looking for a budget option with an upscale feel.
Two days gave me enough time to get a feel of the city and a little bit of the culture. For one, I thought the porteños of Buenos Aires liked mate until I arrived into Uruguay. They take it to a completely different level. I'd estimate 95% of the people I saw in public had their mate and thermos with them. And as a Uruguayan explained it to me, it's not just that they're passionate about the drink (or that their coffee is awful across the country). They view it as always having something to offer and share with another, whether it's a friend or a stranger. I tried their famous sandwich, the Chivito. It's more or less a massive steak sandwich topped with ham, egg, cheese, and anything else you can imagine. I also bought a small bottle of the preferred liquor - grappamiel - a spirit made from grapes and grains. Somewhat similar to whiskey, and then infused with honey, served over ice with a lemon. Pretty refreshing and a nice good bedtime kick.
Honestly, my favorite part of the trip may have been the free walking tour. Sometimes these things aren't worth your time, but I would highly recommend this one to anyone stopping in Montevideo for a few days. The guide, Valentino, was very well educated, spoke four languages, and was very interactive with the guests (maybe because he was working off tips). The tour gave some history of the monuments in the Old City, which gives some context instead of you simply taking a picture and moving on. But more importantly, he gave a lot of insight into the culture and how it developed due to their circumstances. For example, Uruguay is entirely a country of immigrants now (all native tribes are either no longer or moved), which explains why the people are more welcoming to tourists and/or outsiders. Also cool to hear how they balance their liberal laws, like legalizing marijuana and gay marriage, with keeping their much more religious and conservative neighbors Brazil and Argentina happy.
All in all, I'm very glad I took the few extra hours to come to Uruguay's capital in lieu of a quick visa run to Colonia. I saw a much more interesting city and learned a bit along the way. Now that I'm back in the big city, I'm prepping for the Halloween Run 5k on Saturday night. It will be my first race that doesn't involve drinking before and during competition, so I'm excited to see how it goes.
Getting to an Argentine soccer match has been near the top of my to-do list since I got to Buenos Aires. However, due to some security concerns, it has become seemingly harder for tourists (or anyone that is not a fan/club member of the home team) to get into games for Boca or River Plate, 2 of the more popular teams in the country. Luckily, I continue to run into great people willing to help. Two friends, Bianca and Nahuel, whom I met at the running group mentioned in my last post, invited me to join them at the Racing Club match last Saturday as they faced Arsenal. Racing Club is one of the biggest and most popular clubs in Argentina, and their stadium is located on the outskirts of the capital of Buenos Aires. A few legs on buses later and I was there. I met up with them and Nahuel's brother and we were ready to go.
We got there over two hours early due to notice online that they would stop selling tickets at that time (which turned out to be false). After we bought tickets (About $22 USD), we had some time to kill, and there's no better way to pass time then a little cerveza in a nearby park. The tailgating scene didn't really line up to SEC football Saturdays, but it was a perfect day outside so it could've been worse.
Even though our tickets were the cheapest option, they got us to to the best section in the house: right next to the hooligan's section. The flags, the banners, the chants, the screams, the jumping, the yelling, I got to see it all. I'll be damned if they didn't sing or chant for almost the entire game...impressive stamina. I just wish I would've studied up and learned a few songs beforehand. We (yes I'm already speaking of them with 'we') won 1-0 over Arsenal in a game controlled by the home side. Considering that Racing are undefeated with me an attendance, I'd be surprised if some sort of marketing deal doesn't arise for me.
Let's Go, Racing!
Not drug-related, I promise.
Hash House Harriers
I was googling around for a running club in Buenos Aires to have another way to meet new people and give me some added motivation, when I saw a recommendation for some group called the Hash House Harriers. I started doing some research on the group, and saw their motto: "A drinking group with a running problem" - I figured I'd fit right in. I found their corresponding Facebook group and reached out, seeing if there was anything I needed to know. The response:
Do you like to run (doesn't have to be fast, and you can walk if you need to, nobody minds), can you follow a trail of flour, and can you drink beer - Oh, and you must be able to enjoy a good laugh, and great company
Say no more. I'm actually fairly proud of myself for making it...old Ryan wouldn't have made the trip for a few reasons. Each run is hosted/planned by a different Hare every time, and this time it was hosted in a bit of a suburb outside of the city. For me, that meant a 20 minute bus ride followed by a 40 minute train ride to get there. To add to it, when I woke up at 8 to start getting ready, it was raining pretty steadily. I did a quick check to confirm it wasn't cancelled (it wasn't, they rarely are, apparently), packed my bag, and headed out.
Before the run started, all of the visitors and virgins (first-timers) introduced themselves to the group, and luckily, I wasn't the only one. Typically the person planning the path will go out ahead of the group and drop flour on the ground marking the route, but rain makes that ineffective. Therefore, this was a "live hash" where the leader runs with the group. This means one thing...you better keep up.
One thing I didn't know before we took off - how long the run would be. I found at at the halfway point, after running for probably 3 miles and doing my damnedest to keep up with the fast group, that this group usually runs about 10 Km...which is excellent news for the guy who has been running 3 miles at a time recently. It was all doable as there were a few breaks to let the back group catch up, and the one beer stop halfway through. I joined the back group on the second half because I'm aware of Einstein's definition of insanity. We got a tiny bit lost but we eventually made it back to the house with ice cold beer awaiting.
After each run, they have call outs for virgins, visitors, the leaders, and anyone else who may have broken a rule (some of which seem made up on the spot), where everyone in the middle drinks while the others sing and shout. It had the feel of an English pub during a soccer match. And of course, when the run was over and we were wrapping up, the sun was shining bright.
All in all, it was a great experience, and I hope to catch at least one more run with the group before I leave. There are hash groups all over the world, so it gives one a great way to meet some friendly faces in a new place, as well as developing running friendships in your home city. I continue to be amazed at the warmth shown to me by strangers. There have been so many times in this journey when I've gone into a group knowing absolutely no one, and time and time again, I'm greeted with warm smiles and great conversation. Definitely something to keep in mind if you're ever on the other side of that scenario: be as welcoming as you can to strangers...it will mean much more to them than you realize.
From what I've seen, potentially nothing is more authentically Argentine than a Sunday asado. An asado is a gathering of friends and family with its key component being meat roasting over a fire. They love their beef here, and for good reason. I mean the country has more cows than people. Along with ample amounts of slow-roasted dead cow and pig, you'll find baguettes for making sandwiches, provoleta, picadas, and usually a nice Argentine malbec to wash it all down. For many around the country, it's a weekly tradition - rain or shine, and something they take very seriously.
National Asado Championship
Yesterday, the city of Buenos Aires hosted the first official Asado Championship in the city center. There were representatives from each of the 23 provinces as well as from the capital city of Buenos Aires. Blessed with a beautifully sunny 70 degree day, the festival was packed with thousands of people. Along with the competition, they had street vendors, live music, and many different grilled meat options for consumption. I went with a tapa de asado sandwich (meat, bread and sauce - straight to the point). The team from the province of Mendoza emerged victorious, but, honestly, no one loses on a day like that.
And now I'm hungry.