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The Other Deep South: Patagonia

The Other Deep South: Patagonia

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.

Ushuaia

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.

Pucon and Puerto Varas

Pucon and Puerto Varas

Need a hostel in Pucon? I HIGHLY recommend the Chili Kiwi hostel.

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. 

Two Weeks in Valparaiso

Two Weeks in Valparaiso

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.

Santiago, Part II

Santiago, Part II

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.