Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Argentina Recommendations

Here are a few recommendations for our favorie hotels, restaurants, tour operators, etc.

Cafayate: El Balcon. Comfortable airy rooms, good kitchen, a really nice balcony (hence the name.....)
Chalten: Albergue Patagonia. We loved this cozy little lodge. Beautiful views, friendly staff. comfortable common space.
Ushuaia: La Posta. Clean comfortable rooms, good kitchen, friendly staff.

Mendoza: Tablao. The best lomito sandwich we had in Argentina... Lomitos (steak with fried egg, ham, cheese, and more) are heart-attacks on sliced bread but they are SO delicious. Ave. San Juan 165.
Buenos Aires: Cluny. Amazing food, service, ambiance. More expensive than your average Argentinean restaurant but well worth it...
Ushuaia: Rotiseria. This place has huge, deliciously cheap sandwich....great if you´re on a tight budget (together we barely finished one sandwich)

Tour Operators, etc.
Andesmar buses. Fully reclining leather seats (if you spulge for 1st class), flat screen TVs, decent food. Via Bariloche was great also.

Mendoza: Mr. Hugo´s bike rental for wine tasting.... A great reminder that it´s always best to go with the second most popular excursion company (Bikes & Wines is the most popular in this case). They´re scrappy and fighting to win your approval. Mr. Hugo was amazingly friendly, great bikes, and after our tour we were greeted with free carafes of wine while we waited for the bus. Carinae was our favorite vineyard. Small, run by a French couple.

Buenos Aires: Sabor a Tango. A wonderful dinner-tango show... Although more upscale than other shows if you´re on a budget. We recommend the lesson beforehand, it was actually very fun!

Saturday, November 22, 2008

November 15-22: Tierra Del Fuego

We´re now in Tierra Del Fuego, literally "Land of Fire", named by Magellan after observing the fires of the native "cannibals", when he first discovered his famous Straits, and finally a passage connecting the Atlantic to the Pacific. Ushuaia, our base for exploration of this remote part of the world, was originally a penal colony based on the example of Australia, as Tierra Del Fuego is actually an island and was very difficult to get to in those days. The town´s location is spectacular on the water and surrounded by mountains. These days it is an interesting mix of independent trekkers and people getting ready to take a cruise to Antarctica. As the southernmost town in the world it is the most common starting point for trips to Antarctica.

While not as difficult to get here as it was in the penal colony days, it is still quite a journey. After leaving El Chalten, we took a van across the country to the Atlantic going through some very remote and beautiful land. We didn´t see anything for six hours, except for condors, guanacos (a Patagonian llama) and rheas (a Patagonian ostrich - who knew?). Our first stop was the small sea-side town of Puerto San Julian. Way off the beaten path, we didn´t see any other tourists the two days we spent there. Even Argentineans gave us weird looks when we tried to figure out how we could get to this town. Somewhere along the way we had picked up a little flyer saying you could see penguins in this town, and we were determined to see them. It ended up being a sleepy little town, with exactly one little cabin by the water offering anything remotely touristic, which was our trip to see penguins. They had a four person minimum, so the guy running the place told us to come back the next day, which we did to find there were still no other tourists in town, so he took us out for a private tour.

The Magellenic penguins are really cute at only 40 cms tall. It was a week or so before their eggs were meant to hatch, so couples were protectively nesting over their eggs, while others wobbled around awkwardly looking for a lost egg. Others were out fishing; They´re much more graceful in the water.

From there we started an epic 20 hour journey down to the end of the world. Because of various land disputes between Argentina and Chile, the trip down involves going through a narrow strip of Chile´s land, which unfortunately means four immigration and customs checks, out of Arg, into Chile, out of Chile, into Arg. That along with a ferry crossing meant almost as much time out of the bus as in the bus.

But it was worth it. We´ve been blessed with some amazing weather down here, and went on two magnificent hikes. Tierra Del Fuego National Park is breathtaking with its soaring peaks, the glassy Beagle Channel, and its forests covered in old man´s beard and habitated by geese, rabbits and beavers.

From town if you hike straight up you can get to a glacier, while not as impressive as Perito Moreno, the hike gives you a great view of the surroundings as well as a chance to do some fun scrambling.

We also took a couple extra days to get our lives in order a little, catching up on the news and planning our upcoming time in Brazil. While we have loved our time in Patagonia, after a couple months in the mountains we are looking forward to some beach time.

Hope everyone is well and happy thanksgiving if we don´t write before then.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

November 8 - 14: El Calafate and El Chalten

After a wonderfully relaxing week with the Akhnoukhs in Buenos Aires, we boarded a plane for Patagonia. Our first stop was the town of El Calafate or, more specifically, the Glacier Moreno which is the main draw of this gateway to Southern Patagonia. 6 months ago, neither of us had ever really seen a glacier. But after our journey through Alaska, we now considered ourselves somewhat of glacier connoseurs and, as such, were a bit skeptical of whether this new sighting would wow us at all. It did. The glacier is larger than all of Buenos Aires and positioned in a way that makes it very accessibly viewed. Yet perhaps more impressive than its size is the high level of activity. While there we witnessed a massive calving that sounded like a huge explosion and created a tidalwave of bobbing ice for a good 10 minutes to follow. We were impressed. It was also our first introduction to the ever changing and often extreme weather patterns that are Patagonia. Rain, sleet, snow and driving winds blessed our day at the glacier. Quite a change from 80 degrees and sunny in BA!

El Chalten was our second Patagonian stop, and one that we happly settled into for 5 days. A tiny (though ever growing) mountain village set near the base of the Fitz Roy range, El Chalten only officially became a town in the 1980s. We stayed in a charming little hostel (Albergue Patagonia) where we could cook our own meals and enjoy cozy afternoons curled up with a book in their living room loft. It reminded Allison of some of the New England ski lodges of her childhood. View from the dining area shown below.

With it´s sole purpose being as a base for trekking, El Chalten is surrounded by amazingly gorgeous and well maintained trails. Our days were spent hiking the region and getting views of the nearby ranges... Well, that and dealing with the wind. We´d read about the ¨November winds¨in others´ blog posts but didn´t give them much thought. They were, without a doubt, the most intense winds that either of us had ever experienced. On one hike we had to sit down on the trail to wait out a particularly strong blow for fear of being knocked over. We had toyed with renting gear for a backcountry trip, but were very happy to settle into our hostel each night after the hikes!

Our bus out of El Chalten left at 5:30 AM on a perfectly clear morning (a rarity in these parts). We were blessed with an amazing sunrise over the Cerro Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre. We highly recommend an extended stay in El Chalten for anyone visiting the region.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Nov 1-8: Buenos Aires

We´ve spent the last week exploring the various neighborhoods of Buenos Aires with my (Nader´s) parents. It´s been a blast spending some time with them in this amazing city; thanks again for coming Mom and Dad!

As the locals will be sure to tell you, Buenos feels more European than Latin American, with it´s sophisticated shops, broad avenues and statue-studded plazas. While this might be true at first appearance the more you get to know the city the more the Latin in it comes out, especially in the passion of its inhabitents towards everything they do.

We rented an apartment for the week in perhaps the hippest block in South America, in the heart of Palermo Soho, which resembles its namesake with plush indoor/outdoor cafes, top-class restaurants and parks, but friendlier and without any of the pretense. We spent our days exploring the various neighborhoods, like Recoleta with its glitzy stores and very impressive cemetary. It´s a veritable city of large mausoleums and walking through it is the best national history lesson you can get as all the famous presidents, generals, poets, etc are buried here.

Dad lingered a little longer at Evita´s resting spot.

La Boca and San Telmo were other favorites, with the outdoor cafes and tango shows, and the old mansions giving a sense for what Argentina was like back in the 1890s when it was one of the richest countries in the world.

At night we wined and dined, and caught a couple tango performances. A little bit of luxury after a couple months on the road. (Thanks again Mom and Dad) We even took some tango lessions, care of the flamboyant and exceptionally talented Hugo; and yes it is as hard as it looks.

We also took a day-trip to the sleepy sea-side town of Colonia in Uruguay. The historic district dates back to the 17th century and is beautiful place to spend an afternoon with the tree-lined lanes and musician´s playing in the plazas. Highly recommended.

The highlight of the week for me - and I´m likely speaking for myself here :) - was definitely attending a Boca Juniors match at La Bombonera. They say this is the best place to watch soccer in the world and we were not let down. There was a little bit of a mix up with the tickets and the four of us ended up in the standing room only ´popular´ section, which are the cheap seats with the rowdiest fans. We arrived a couple hours early for both reasons of safety and because our section is herded in like cattle before the visitors section is allowed in the stadium. Boca was playing San Lorenzo another team from Buenos Aires and the two shared the top position in the league, so the atmosphere was unlike anything I´ve seen, including English Premiere League matches in London. The singing is raucous and continuous from well before the beginning of the match til after the end, and we must have heard over 20 different songs, all laced with curses, and sung while jumping up and down with arms waving in the air. The effect is that from across the stadium it looks like a continually rolling sea. The air and ground are littered with bits of paper and smoke. The full band that resides in the stands plays continually the entire match. An amazing atmosphere. We also successfully avoided the potential hazards like getting mugged, a beating for rooting for the opponents or the bags of urine that are flung from the visitors section which is directly above the ´popular´ section.

The other highlight was the local and global reaction to Obama´s victory. Being in Argentina, we´ve received a lot of global coverage and it cannot be overstated how excited the entire world is about this. I´ve got a bright blue shirt with Obama´s face on it that I wore around the day after the election and every where I walked I´d get a thumbs up from strangers. We´re both very excited to represent a country where from the depths of despair, the strength of a singular idea, that America can always redefine itself, is once again revealing itself to the world, as it is so easy for that to get forgotten in low times.

After an early morning flight we´re now in El Calafate, a gateway town to Southern Patagonia where we´ll be for the next two weeks. (Click on the link to the satellite map of the nearby glacier on the right-side of this page in the Status section.) We´re about to head into the Fitz Roy range to do some trekking so will likely be offline and unreachable for a week or so.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

October 23 - 31: Cafayate and Mendoza

Before heading to Mendoza (the heart of wine country), we journeyed to the more remote town of Cafayate. With a charming central square, a number of vineyards nearby (specializing in the white torrentes), and a beautiful country side, Cafayate was the perfect place to spend a few days... After three wonderful weeks in Bolivia, we definitely felt like we were on vacation.

We spent one day hiking (or, more specifically, scrambling) up a riverbed to a swimming hole nearby. Other than that, it was lots of chilling sprinkled with some wine tasting along the way. Having found a hostel with a decent kitchen (not a common thing in Bolivia), it was also great to cook some dinners at "home" after so many nights eating out.

From Cafayate we headed to Mendoza on our first of the fabled Argentinean "cama" (sleeper) buses. They lived up to all we had been told to expect -- flat screen TVs, dinner with wine, AND if you ride the super posh line (which we took down to Buenos Aires), seats that go 180 degrees back and champagne after dinner. After 14 hours, we could have easily stayed on for longer :)

Mendoza is a city of about 100,000 people located not far from the Andes and the Chilean border. Before even considering all the beauty surrounding, the city itself is amazingly charming. Treelined streets, tons of hip cafes, and a 420-hectacre park in the middle of town... we could have easily spent a lot more time in this town.

We spent a day biking around to some of the local wineries which was lots of fun. The route we were on featured mostly small family run vineyards. Our favorite was run by a french couple who moved to the area knowing nothing about how to make wine just 10 years ago (anyone looking for inspiration?!).

Our other outing from Mendoza was to the town of Potrerillos which featured beautiful views of the nearby mountains and a lake where Nader braved the chilly waters for a dip.

So far Argentina is treating us very well... Off to an ex-pats election party tonight in Buenos Aires. Here's hoping for change.