Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Traveling, Part II

OK, so where did I leave off...?
Chalten. Dusty roads and windswept scenery and all that, huh. I spent my twenty-fifth birthday in that town. Alone! Well, I went hiking alone and then went to dinner alone, and then was approached by a group of 6 or 7 Argentine dudes who wanted me to take their photo. I ended up sitting with them for a bit, we had a toast to celebrate my birthday--with a banana/dulce de leche liquor--and watched a sci-fi flick on a projector screen in the restaurant while half the town packed in around us. So, I guess I technically cannot say that I spent my birthday alone ;) The next day two friends that I had met hiking--Sarah from Texas and Niamh from Ireland--showed up in Chalten and took me out properly for the 25th. We had dinner and lots of red wine--and really good conversation. I overslept my 6:30am bus the next morning which was a bit scary when I woke up panicked at 8am because there really aren´t too many options for public transit when you´re this far out and all the roads are dirt for 200km or so--and I had a flight to catch that evening in a town 5 hours away. Lucky me! I did NOT have to take a 450 peso cab ride, but was able to squeeze onto the only other departing bus that day back to El Calafate. This gave me the rest of the morning to hang out with aforementioned wonderful girls and share a pizza for breakfast while discussing politics--does it get any better than this? That night I flew from El Calafate in Patagonia region up to Buenos Aires--the capital city of Argentina and well-known as the ´Paris of South America´. I met up with Yana at a hostel in the San Telmo neighborhood of town...a bit dirty and sketch on our end, but generally known to be the quaint, cobbly-street section of B.A. On Sundays they have a huge antique market out on the street and plenty of hippies show up to sell their jewelry, photographs, handmade clothing...Yana and I hit this up one day and spent 2 and a half hours at lunch in a little French cafe and then wandered down the street buying earrings and listening to live tango music. Definitely a lot of fun. What else...? We ate, a lot. Steak, Asian infusian, red wine, gelato, steak, chorizo, and steak. We met up with a friend of mine from university in Virginia--she´s a BA native, Alejandra. She showed us around the city a bit, we went to the modern art museum, out to the bars with her boyfriend and his friends, and celebrated her birthday with her whole family and a huge asado (which means really amazing barbeque). We even had a strawberry shortcake theme, complete with piƱata. After a week in BA, we caught a flight up to Iguazu falls which is on the border of Argentine and Brasil. We stayed at a hostel with a swimming pool and teepees out back, which apparently used to be a casino, back in the day. We signed on to take a tour of the Brasilian side of the falls---our tour guide had to sneak us into the country, though, because of our lack of Brasilian visas. All went well and we spent 11 hours trekking through iodine-rich red mud, dodging thousands of butterflies and even kayaking in what could only be described as a monsoon. The falls are incredible...I can´t come close to doing them justice by trying to explain what it looks like, but for a short intro--it´s basically a huge wall of water that stretches for maybe half a mile. One VERY large waterfall at the far end, called the Devil´s Throat, and then a series of smaller falls up until the other end where there are at any given time between 10 and 20 enormous, enormous waterfalls. And then jungle everywhere around you with 180 pound super-rats and monkeys and whatnot. Like I said--crazy. From there we flew back to BA for a couple more days with Alejandra and her friends--wonderful people--and then hopped on an overnight busride to Mendoza, Argentina. The busride took about 13 hours direct and is intended to be a decent night´s sleep IF you´re able to pass out in a semi-reclined bus seat. Despite the fact that I was exhausted, there just happened to be a captivating heat storm taking place off to the South somewhere, so I stayed up most of the night watching the bus advance on bright, crashing bolts of lightning. Mendoza is a university town tucked into the pre-Cordillera (foothills) of the Andes mountain range and the Eastern frontier with Chile. This region is famous for its production of Malbec wine and also supplies 70% of the Argentine wine market. Yana and I spent a week here--I almost stayed forever here. We took an all-day tour of the wine country which included 5 wineries, an olive oil farm, a liquor production farm (grappa, triple sec, etc...) and a chocolate factory. We also had an amazing lunch somewhere out in the countryside beneath a huge canopy of grapevines. You guessed it--lots and lots of meat. The next day we went river rafting on the Mendoza river, and the next day rented a car to go check out the rest of the countryside. We headed south about 200km to San Rafael which we had heard was stunningly beautiful. The entire drive down there we were convinced that our recommendors were crazy--nothing but scrubland in every direction. When does it get beautiful? The city was also, mmm, well, not too exciting. We found a map which pointed us toward a canyon just out of town and headed that direction. WOW. First we hit the river and followed that toward the dam, behind which was an amazing, amazing lake. Again, turquoise water, rocky cliffs, small patches of sandy beaches. It looked like what I imagine Greece must be like. We stopped to take a lot of photos (by the way we had with us another gringa--larissa from Alaska) and then ended up at this little cafe/boat rental shop which hung out over the edge of the cliff on stilts and was run by a well-tanned Argentine guy who lived beneath the building in his tent and spent winters teaching snowboarding at Lake Tahoe. What a life. Between him and the rafting guides we met the day before, I was convinced that I was not going to leave Mendoza, ever. I will set up my tent, learn to raft,
and beg, plead and borrow until I find myself an income. This place was gorgeous. After having a beer and a popsicle, we headed further into the canyon with many pitstops for photos...gorgeous. The road keeps going into a red rocks canyon that the Argentines compare to the Grand Canyon. OK. I have not been to the Grand Canyon, but I really don´t think they´re right on this one...not really possible they compare in size anyway. But, it was a really incredible sight--and a rough ride. We made it 30km in and then realized that we wouldn´t make it out the other end before nightfall, so Yana took the wheel and hit the gas. I was only partially afraid for my life as she gunned it over boulders and around blind turns...Apparently she was racing both the sunset and her very full bladder. An absolute lack of portipotties in the Andean foothills...Anyway. We made it back alive and that night began the festivities for the annual Mendoza Wine Festival!! We watched the parade the next morning, complete with drag queens, belly dancers, floats passing out grapes and chunks of meat which were being barbequed ON the float, and lots of men on horses. Wonderful. That night the city hosted a show up on the big hill outside of town. They set up a huge stage and amphitheater which you can buy tickets to, or else join in with the rest of the town and go perch yourself in the hills behind the ´pay seats´. Literally thousands of Argentine families with baby strollers and a few odd tourists tucked into the scrubbrush and dusty boulders, with popcorn and cotton candy vendors wandering through the mess of us. The show featured 2 hours of acrobats, choreographed dance numbers and even giant dancing objects, like a set of hands and a rolling pin. Sounds strange, but it was pretty incredible. After that we went for beers and pool and then caught a bus the next morning to Santiago. This bus is definitely one you want to stay awake for. Six hours through one of the highest passes in the Andes mountain range. You even get a glimpse of Aconcagua, which is about 21,000 feet tall--the highest peak in the Americas. Yana and I struggled on this one--I think we managed 3 hours of sleep, maybe, the night before...;) And then we had trouble with border control for accidentally trying to smuggle grapes across the border--luckily they pegged us for ignorant tourists! So. Now. Santiago, Chile. Well, actually not now--later. It´s about 2am here and I need to sleep. So...I will share thoughts on my first few weeks here--orientation and meeting the girls and seeing the city and whatnot--for a later time. But soon--I promise.

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