Wednesday, January 14, 2009
As our taxi pulled onto the autopista from Ezeiza International Airport, Gil turned to me and said, "It's been awhile since I've seen a four lane freeway."
After a few hoops thrown our way by Aerolineas Argentinas, we made it into Buenos Aires on Tuesday night and to the northwestern district of Belgrano, where we're "renting" a sixth floor studio apartment that's three blocks away from the Subte for $50/night. Buenos Aires is a shock after traveling through Patagonia... three million people, 48 districts in the Capital Federal, and a solid forty page section in Lonely Planet. I even experienced a bit of claustrophobia being caught in the noontime crush in MicroCenter this afternoon, trying to window shop while walking down the pedestrian Calle Florida.
Gil and I had a late croissant-and-dulce de leche breakfast this morning, bought our $90 bus tickets to Santiago for this Sunday, and spent the rest of the day walking through downtown Buenos Aires. We saw the Casa Rosada, the center of executive power in Argentina, famous for Evita Peròn's balcony appearances (as seen in Madonna's "Evita"!), we took photos in front of the Obelisk on Avenida 9 de Julio, and we contemplated buying gloves out of capybara and otter at Casa Lopez (oh yes, they felt nice.) All in all, we're glad that we're rounding out our trip in Buenos Aires, where we can eat and shop and sleep in to our hearts' content for the next four days.
Sunday, January 11, 2009
We crossed from Chilean Patagonia into Argentinian Patagonia yesterday, making it all the way to Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the Americas. The bus trip from Punta Arenas, Chile to Ushuaia, Argentina, is eleven hours long, but of that, only eight hours is on the road, since so much time is spent at the border crossing and on the ferry crossing the Strait of Magellan. (And, to our delight, a pod of Commerson's dolphins crossed with us!) Once our bus crossed the Strait, it drove down the entire length of Tierra del Fuego. What surprised me is the strength of the historic sheep farming industry on Tierra del Fuego -- after hours of sheep, Gil noted that Argentine sheep are much better groomed and shorn than Chilean sheep.
We've spent Sunday relaxing in Ushuaia, enjoying the admittedly better Italian food (yeah, Argentina has its advantages over Chile) and making plans for Monday and Tuesday. We even got an "End of the World" stamp in our passports, and we'll be sending out postcards to those who have requested them. Ushuaia's a surprisingly developed city, with lots of tourist offices, retail stores, and chocolate shops :)
'Til Buenos Aires, chau!
Torres del Paine National Park, the crown jewel of Patagonia (yeah, I quoted liberally from the guidebook, but it’s an apt description), sits six hours north of Punta Arenas. It’s absolutely stunning: jagged snow-capped mountains, aquamarine lakes, rivers you can drink from, glaciers, and green valleys filled with wild guanacos.
I planned our trip through Torres del Paine National Park with the theme “maximum results, minimal effort” – which isn’t to say that we didn’t put in a good bit of effort. However, since everyone comes to the park to see the mountains, even the most intrepid hiker can be stymied by the weather. Before we arrived, we’d heard that views of the famed Torres (Towers) had been blocked by twelve straight days of clouds. We, however, got off the bus and saw this:
Gil’s reaction was something along the lines of – oh, that was easy! But really, we were blessed to have clear, dry weather up until our last morning in the park. I couldn’t have asked for better weather on our trip, and nearly as our return bus pulled in to pick us up, the clouds were descending on the mountains again.
Due to time constraints (and the need for a little bit of comfort), we decided not to hike the entirety of the popular “W” route and we didn’t camp. Instead, we backpacked with our gear and stayed at two of the in-park refugios: Refugio Grey, at the base of a glacier on the west leg of the “W”, and Refugio Chileno, en route to the Torres viewing area.
We arrived in the park from Puerto Natales on Wednesday morning, caught a catamaran across Lake Pehoe, and had lunch at the Mountain Lodge Paine Grande. After stuffing ourselves with mashed potatoes and meat, we set out on our 11 km hike to Glacier Grey, on the far west end of the “W”. The views were spectacular en route to the glacier, as the trail sidled up against Lake Grey, finally arriving at the refugio near the glacier lookout. This hike – and the the following morning’s return – was our “slash” of the “W” hike.
We spent the night at the Refugio in sleeping bags on bunk beds, and set out early the next morning to catch the catamaran back across the lake. Again, gorgeous weather (see the first photo on this blog post, which I took that afternoon) means happy travelers. The weather got a little too hot on the hike up to the next refugio – which had a 500 M change in elevation over an hour - but we took our time getting there and enjoyed the views of the valley below.
Unfortunately, our luck gave out the next morning when the clouds didn’t clear in time for the sunrise hike up to the Torres. Gil was likely secretly happy for this turn in luck, since it meant skipping the nearly vertical hike up to the Torres viewpoint. It also reduced our second “slash” to a “half slash”... so while others may brag about having hiked the entire “W”, we are content with achieving our “slash and a half.” TdP is a park that merits visiting again and again, so hopefully we will be able to come back and complete the “W” someday.
Coyhaique, Chile apparently isn’t on everyone’s destination list, so Sky Airlines cancelled our outbound flight on Tuesday and instead booked us flying into Punta Arenas a day early. This robbed us of one more day with Marìa Inès and Joksan, and meant that we were going to have to pay for a hotel in Punta Arenas.
The fantastic thing about lodging complaints in South America, though, is that the corporate suits do something about it – we ended up spending a night at the posh Hotel Cabo de Hornos in the plaza of Punta Arenas. A free drink apiece in the sushi bar, complimentary bottled water and fruit, and unlimited internet and printing in the business center? We reveled in these creature comforts before our trek to Torres del Paine.
We also took advantage of the free time to visit Seno Otway, a penguin colony an hour north of Punta Arenas. The colony is inhabited by 10,000 Magellanic penguins, who use the beaches and dunes as their breeding grounds in the spring and summer. While we missed seeing the bulk of the colony (they were out to lunch) we couldn’t enough of the penguins that had stuck around to tend to their young. Penguins are every bit as hilariously adorable and personable in the wild as they are on television.
Sunday, January 04, 2009
You'd think that one million people, twenty minutes of fireworks, and truckloads of cheap beer and pisco would be a bad combination, but New Year's Eve in Valparaíso was stunning and surprisingly calm. We watched the fireworks from the terrace of Casa Carrasco, a residencial on Cerro Concepción (photos forthcoming!), and then joined the throngs in search of live music at 3 AM. We didn't have much luck, but we were amazed at how many people there were in the plazas - a human sea of revelers, drinking and wishing each other a Feliz Año Nuevo.
Carretera Austral, outside of Coyhaique