A Travellerspoint blog

Jungle, Jungle Fever!

Lagunas and Iquitos

sunny 32 °C


Part One: Getting There is Half the...

I started my 3 day journey to the Amazon basin on a combi bus from Chachapoyas to Pedro Ruiz. The combi looked promising which should have been a warning sign because it:

1. Stalled for 2 hours to wait for more passengers (Peruvian combis can't start their journey until there at least 6 people hanging off the roof)
2. Stalled for another hour because there was some kind of bizarre sea street festival going on with pirate men dancing with white horses.
3. Tried to bypass a truck on a windy cliff with everyone screaming for the driver to spare their lives.

Six hours later, I found myself in dusty Pedro Ruiz trying to flag down a bus for Tarapoto and all the buses kept flying past me (can you give a girl a BREAK?) until a local felt bad for me and showed me how it's done...stand in the middle of the road and yell at the top of your lungs for the driver to stop at which point he will either: stop, run you over, or try to pitch an empty soda bottle at your head. Luckily, the first happened and probably the third too and I got the next bus out. At 8 pm, right on schedule, we had the obligatory flat tire and I ended up in Tarapoto in the middle of the night instead of at noon, jumped in a mototaxi and flopped down to sleep at a nice family hospedaje with clean rooms and cold water.

The next morning, I tried to will the Peruvian transport system to be more efficient but that's like asking me to not be long winded. I thought I outsmarted the system by taking a taxi to my next destination, Yurimaguas, and although the driver promised me every half hour we would leave "pronto!", we left four hours later. No matter, in the meantime fellow taxi driver Johnny took me on a cab tour of Tarapoto, where we visited Grandma Elvira's garden where she has 60 different types of orchids and ate some delicious 3 sol ceviche. My taxi finally left and what was supposed to be a two hour journey lasted eight because there is a bridge in the middle of the way that is only open 1 hour in the morning and 1 hour in the evening. So I got to port town Yurimaguas in the evening to yet another family hospedaje. There, I was supposed to catch a cargo boat to Lagunas which is is a jungle town departing point for Pacaya Samiria National Reserve, a tranquil non touristy alternative to the jungle tourism mess in other parts of the country. I was luckily helped by a little Brazilian old man that had taken a liking to me, Sisan, who helped my buy a cheap hammock for the boat, helped me pick a boat, and helped calm my nerves when I realized I had no idea what I was doing by myself 3 days from the nearest city and heading on a cargo boat to the middle of the Peruvian jungle. Well, he actually just bought me an ice cream cone but that always seems to do the trick.

I caught the boat Linares the next day, hung my hammock next to 200 flapping chickens (the cow section is smellier, trust me), and settled down for the 1 day journey. I hadn't seen a single tourist for 3 days but then last minute, a group of British and French people got on and quickly convinced me to go on the jungle tour with them. We ended up in Lagunas that night where we fought through the crowd to scramble up a muddy cliff to meet the tour guide who led us to EcoLodge, a friendly and basic hostel in the middle of port Lagunas which has a total of 3 cars and no restaurants for 9,000 people.

Part Two: Where's My Mommmmmmy...

The next day we headed off, seven of us, with four guides down the Tibillo River which meets the Amazon River further up north. It was Andy and Ally, a British couple; Edward and Pamela, British singles; Pamela from France; and Ana from Lima with Cesar, Rupert, Hill, and Esteban as our guides. We sat in dugout canoes built by Cesar's dad with machetes and fishing spears fashioned by our guides rolling down the jungle river, strange trees and plants hanging over, monkeys all around, and insects the size of your head buzzing toward your head. Brilliant! On the way, we stopped to chop some fresh pineapple and saw a 3 toed sloth, otherwise known as "perezoso" (lazy) whose fastest speed is 3 meters per minute when its young is in danger. We ended up at camp that night where our guides quickly put up a makeshift shelter out of materials in the forest and we slept on the hard ground surrounded by basic mosquito nets. Esteban woke us up in the middle of the night to show us a cute baby crocodile that I cutely stayed away from.

The next day, we found a giant tarantula in someone's backpack and continued downriver deeper into the jungle. We went fishing along the way and I had no luck, just caught a billion piraniahs that chomp at you as they swing from the pole, which sent me off screaming almost capsizing me and Esteban from our canoe. That night, me and Ana helped with dinner, chopping vegetables on the canoe oars (for the record, I WON rock, paper, scissors but still let Ana chop the potatoes instead of the onions). After dinner, we went out on a pitch black canoe ride crocodile hunting. You wave your flashlight around until you see a pair of red eyes staring back at you. Creepy!

On the third day, we went for a walk in the jungle with Rupert and Esteban while they explained the medicinal uses of so many jungle plants, like the Tangarana Negra which cures malaria and the Heyho tree which has snake anti venom. Here is what I learned:

Recipe for a Snake Bite

1. Kill the snake that bit you. Chop up its meat.
2. Mix the meat with the flesh of a special kind toad
3. Apply it to the bite and, voila, venom out!

It was interesting the way the local people combine different world thoughtswithout a second thought. In the same sentence, Rupert would say that a certain tree aids diabetes and that its vines are made out of ant legs. It's a mix of western and indigenous science, really cool. On the way back, we met up with the highly venomous ergon snake and the choro monkey which shook the branches violently until we were forced to retreat. After that, me and Esteban left the group which was doing a 4 day trip while I wanted to go for six days into virgin, untouched jungle.

Me and Esteban headed off on our single canoe further downriver. On our way to camp as the sun was setting, Esteban taught me how to spear a fish. You find a nocturnal fish sleeping deep in the river marshes, stand up nice and tall in the canoe, aim the 8 foot spear and lunge at the fish. He first showed me how it's done, effortlessly spearing an 18" monster and then handed me the spear. Now mind you, after 3 days of jungle life, I was hoping I'd be a real jungle woman, but the only sign of this were my unshaven legs. I was still squealing like a girl at everything and was scared of even the little baby fish. So it was safe to say that both me and Esteban were prepared to laugh at my idiotic efforts. But then, alas, a miracle happened. I poised my spear and lunged at the water...and speared a one footer! We were both amazed enough to look at it in wonder for a moment and from then on, I was true jungle woman. When we got to the campsite to cook dinner, I scaled both fish and fed the guts to the swarming piraniahs. I'm sooooo hardcore, man.

The next two days, Esteban and I rowed deeper and deeper into the jungle. We met up with pink dolphins, giant otters, a paiche which is the largest freshwater fish in the world, and an anaconda. On the last night, I built the fire by myself and we slept right out in the elements with no tarp: a huge sky of stars above my head and unidentified breathing on all sides (apparently, a group of foxes). We rowed upriver back to Lagunas tired, dirty, and eternally happy.

Part Three: Is There a Taxi Around Here??

Getting off Lagunas was another story. No one in the village knows exactly when the next cargo boat will come and speculation runs high all day. At 10 o'clock, someone came racing to the hostel and told us the boat was here(!!) but when we scrambled down to the water, we still had to wait 6 hours and then push through the rioting crowd to get a hammock space. Crammed with 100 people, we ended up hanging our hammocks on top of each other and then 30 minutes later, there was a huge crashing sound. We scrambled to the deck to see our boat crashing into a cliff. Noone looked too concerned so we went back to sleep.

It took a day and a half to get to Iquitos, the largest city in the world only accessible by air or water. It's cool, nothing but jungle for 3 days and then a huge bustling town right on the AMAZON RIVER! I spent a few days there browsing the witches' markets full of bird and cobra blood potions and the floating shantytown of Belen and then bid the gang goodbye to fly back to Lima, shopped til I dropped (too much money), and then almost missed my flight home because of a little too much salsa dancing mayhem. That's right, home. Can you believe it? From the jungle of Peru to the jungle of New Jersey. I guess it's all the same in the end. :)

Posted by syosef 13:46 Archived in Peru Comments (1)

Witch Spells and Some Dentists from Omaha

Trujillo, Chiclayo, and Chachapoyas

sunny 29 °C

After a night bus ride being thoroughly entertained by a 1970's Mexican Western playing on the scratchy tv, Jacey and I arrived early morning in Trujillo, a bustling coastal town that starts the majestic ruins of Northern Peru. We joined up with Mary, a French Canadian who had trekked with us, to take a cab to Casa de Clara, a family run hostel with comfy beds and hot water, but a creepy dysfunctional family atmosphere. That day, we visited Chan Chan (meaning Sun Sun), the religious and political capital of the Chimus where nearly 100,000 people lived in the largest adobe citadel in the world. We walked for hours along a dizzying maze of tall adobe walls engraved with geometrical figures and mythical creatures, dead end pyramid passages, secret tunnels... so cool. This is all found in the middle of the city of Trujillo...the city just developed around these amazing fortresses. After that adventure, we went back to the center of town and started an official ceviche hunt. Ceviche is my favorite Peruvian dish, raw fish marinated in lemon and herb juice that cook it, making for a citrusy seafood feast. We asked the first person on the street where we should go for ceviche. A local favorite, Mar Picante. How far? 4 blocks. Great! After having walked 6 blocks, the restaurant was nowhere in sight. We asked a second person. Oh...3 more blocks. Fine. 3 more blocks and still no sign. This episode repeated itself 3 more times, until we had walked about 20 city blocks to reach Mar Picante. Tired, ravenous, and forever suspicious of Peruvian estimates of distance, we feasted on fish, crabs, lobster, clams, octopus, and snails, all raw but marinated in a delicious sauce. Yum!

The next day, we feasted on a breakfast we made consisting of quail eggs we had found, fresh fruit, cheese and crackers and avocado. I love food. We then hopped a cab to go visit the Huaca del Sol y la Luna (Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon), two huge pyramids crowned with mysterious tombs and ceremonial grounds . We entered Huaca de la Luna which was comprised of overlapping temples built right over each other. The first temple was built and painted with beautiful facades and then 100 years later, they built a second temple right on top of the first one, hiding the original facades with new ones. And so on and so forth to make 5 different layers. The brilliant thing about it is that archaelogists cannot see the previous layers...they would have to destroy each layer to see the previous one. Like the Russian babuschka dolls. The last layer is painted with beautiful red, blue, and green facades of warriors, mythical sea creatures, and scary serpent gods. And the previous facades...well, that will remain a mystery forever.

Feeling like true Indiana Joneses, we left Trujillo in the late afternoon, me, Jacey, Mary, and a Dutch filmmaker we had picked up named Peter and headed north to coastal Chiclayo, arriving late at night at Hostal Lido where we all got private rooms right on top of the roof overlooking the city. Well, the rooms were more like stuffy and unsavory closets but the view was worth it, and the family running the place, so nice. While we were in Chiclayo, there was a parade celebrating something every hour (save the rainforest, vote for Ollanta, hug Mickey Mouse, you want it, we got it!) so it was cool to have a bird´s eye view of it all. We got up early in the morning to continue our archaelogical adventure. We visited Tucume, a vast area which has 27 covered pyramids! They are just starting to excavate the area and they recently uncovered warrier tombs with pottery and gold. We snuck onto the construction site (one of the workers yelled "quick! before my boss comes!") and talked to one of the archaelogists who explained the excavation and preservation process. There's so much left undiscovered, it's amazing to think of what it´ll look like in 20 years when it's all been excavated. I felt proud that we were the first tourists to ever see the tombs.

The real highlight of Chiclayo was the Royal Tombs of Sipan. In 1987, an archaelogical team discovered in a series of pyramids a royal tomb belonging to the Lord of Sipan, governor of the Mochica civilization (1700 to 1900 years ago). In his tomb, they found a breathtaking collection of gold jewels, necklaces, breastplates, helmets, bracelets, as well as semiprecious stones. The museum is absolutely amazing, you can see the actual bones of the lord and his burial party as well as all these amazing gold crowns and necklaces with scary bird-god figurines and geometric figures. One of the best museums I've ever been to. Jacey and I spent the whole afternoon gawking at everything. Then it was time to go home, at which point we did the next best cultural thing we could do... we went to see "The Da Vinci Code". Except for the fact that the sound was mixed in with the fighting sounds of XMen playing next door, ruining several dramatic parts, it was a great experience. We then decided to go clubbing. Chiclayo is supposed to be famous for Afro-Latino beats but we when got to the club, it was just the usual reggatone. The place felt like a wedding with one big dance floor and people sitting around staring blankly at the dancers. We were the only gringitas in the place which got us enough attention to not even dare start to dance so eventually we moved to the more private basement where we were finally accepted by the basement Peruanos and had a jolly old time learning cumbias steps. I of course convinced Jacey to end the night at the casino where we each lost 1 sol, approximately 30 cents. She convinces me to go rock climbing and I convince her to gamble. Am I the bad influence??

The next day, it was off to the bustling market where I think I ate goat soup but I'm not quite sure. After lunch, we visited the Mercado de Las Brujas (witch's market) which is an actual witch's market, not a tourist trap, where they sell so many things I've never seen before I can't possibly cover them all: llama claws, bottles and bottles of roots, strangely colored powders, insect pollens. I didn't really understand any of it, I don't think I was supposed to. Dutchman Peter bought something and went to shake the guy's hand and the man did some kind of motion with his fingers, apparently a spell, and lo and behold, Peter kind of frigged out 20 minutes later flailing his hand around and straight out ran out of the market. I didn't see him again. So strange, I don't know what to think of it. Jacey and I spent our last afternoon together looking at the caged guinea pigs and rabbits that would be someone's dinner and shopping for 4 sol clothes which I think might be more dangerous than gambling. I left her sadly and caught an overnight bus to Chachapoyas, home of Kuelap, a mysterious fortress in the misty cloud forests that is called "The Machu Picchu of the North".

I arrived at 5 am, settled in my hostel, and hopped on a tour of the fortress. I got there by taxi on unpaved mountain roads, crammed in the car with four dentists from Nebraska. The dentists got out to hike up the mountain but I was feeling tired from my Santa Cruz trek (ok, I'm LAZY. Is that what you want to hear?? It's a 3 hour vertical hike and I'm LAZY!) so I went up the mountain with taxi cab driver Rubio. We had a nice talk about food and family and arrived at the top at the same time as the dentists, the road was that bad. Rubio was a professional though and treated his ´87 Pinto like a Jeep Wrangler, tailgating huge trucks around the cliffs and trying to run over unsuspecting cows. We toured Kuelap which is a moss covered treasure, full of circle stone houses, a compass, irrigation ditches, and ceremonial platforms, all surrounded by a thick fortress wall that has not detoriated the least bit in 900 years. The Spanish tried destroying it but COULDN'T. The only way the Incas were able to vanquish the Chachas' palace was by starving them out. It uses 3 times as much volume of stone as the Egyptian pyramids. It's quite an amazing place and what was more brilliant was that we were the only ones there. This is more well preserved than Machu Picchu but receives 10 tourists a day while MP receives 1,500. That's probably a good thing...makes it more special. We went halfway down the mountain, ate a yummy lunch of chicken soup and corn, and drove the violently bumpy 3 hour ride back to town.

The next morning, I started a two day journey in a combi to Pedro Ruiz, one of 3 modes of transport I would use to get to my next destination, the Amazon jungle. Of course you have to end this trip with the Amazon, I'm no fooooool. :)

Posted by syosef 20:35 Archived in Peru Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

Sandboarding and Other Sportyish Things that I'm bad at

Ica, Lima, and Huaraz

sunny 26 °C

I know, I know. This route is just getting too hot to handle.

After a long bus ride pretending to have motion sickness so Lucas sitting next to me would stop asking for my cell phone number, I arrived in Ica at 10 pm and took a cab to Casa de Arenas (House of the Sands), a hostel overrun by loud Israelis and a few creepy employees. The next day, I woke up to a huge blue pool, a bar with fresh fruit, and some shady palm trees all against the backdrop of HUGE brown sand dunes, the biggest in the world. So needless to say, the first day in Ica, or rather Huacachina, the resort town next to Ica, was spent lounging by the sunny pool recovering from too much fun. Keep the hate mail coming. I made friends with Laura (UK) and that afternoon, we set out together on the sand buggy tour. They strap you into a jeep (you know you're in trouble when you have to wear a seatbelt in Peru) and floor it down the road right into the towering sand dunes. Then they rev the engine and you go careening up the side of the dune and flying violently, nothing but air, over the top. Like a rollercoaster ride but with no guarantee that you will live. We finally screeched to a halt at one dune, took out the sandboards, and skied down a 10 meter drop. When I say ´ski´, I really mean standing on the board for five seconds, and then falling into sand and rolling down the hill at maximum speed. Being the wuss that I know I am, I was so scared at first, whimpering ¨I'm going to die, I´m going to die¨ until some Canadian hippie gave me a pep talk with phrases like ¨conquer the fear¨ and ¨you're a winner¨ and I finally careened off the edge of the sand cliff screaming for my mommy at the top of my lungs until I was pummeling down the mountain, eating 3 lbs of sand. And after that, it was a piece of cake. I was actually one of the better sandboarders, who knew! We sandboarded down several dunes, the largest one at the end being a near vertical 30 meters!, and then watched the red sun set over the dunes. What a nice day. Unfortunately, one week later, I am still finding sand in places that sand shouldn't be.

The rest of my days in Ica were spent, you can guess this, suntanning by the pool and eating too much chocolate ice cream against-the-doctor´s-orders-because-I'm-a-rebel with Laura, my two Swedish roommates Stina and Yelen, and Paul (UK). All too soon, it was time to go. I packed up my bags, bid the gang farewell, and took a bus to Lima, the capital of Peru. After my initial culture shock of seeing KFC! and Dunkin Donuts! at every corner, I settled into Miraflores, the ritzy neighborhood of Lima, at Casa de Mochilero, yet another Israeli hot spot but much quieter. Since there is not much touristy stuff to do in Lima, it was nice to have some down time. For three days, I watched Seinfeld reruns with Maayan and Sharon (Israel), spoke hebrew with Walter, the Peruvian 15 year old who can say ¨sababa¨ with the best of them, and made hourly trips to the supermarket to cook for every meal. One night, I went out to Baranco, the bohemian neighborhood by the beach, to visit Paul from Ica. We went to a seaside video arcade where I kicked some five year old butt at ski ball to win a pack of Spiderman playing cards. Amateurs. After a a BBQ at Paul's hostel, I went back ¨home¨ where Maayan was waiting impatiently (¨where have you BEEN!¨) to watch a movie. At the end of my stay in Lima, all the Israelis congratulated me on having entered the Israeli travelling world, a compact circle that you can't leave until you've stayed in all-Israeli hostels, eaten at restaurants that have all-Hebrew menus, and have felt paranoid 24-7 that some other Israeli, somewhere in the world, has gotten a better price than you. Help me. Help me now. :)

I thought Maayan and Sharon were kidding but when I took a 6 hour bus north to Huaraz, the hiking mecca of Peru, I found myself at Casa de Jaimes, a hostel with 30 Israelis and 1 poor French guy who couldn't figure out how he had gotten there. This is what my cousin Tomer was talking about...Little Israel. Jaimes greeted me a ¨shalom, ma nishma¨ and asked me whether I was having dinner at the Casa Judea that night. I was no longer in South America... the nightmare was complete. Outside the hostel, I hung out with Sharon and, that night, we had dinner in honor of Lag Ba´omer with pita and salad and that was real nice. But back at the hostel, the music was blaring at top volume and the Israeli girls were yelling at Jaimes about prices of trekking. I had wanted to do the famous Santa Cruz trek, a four day trek that is supposed to be one of the top hikes in the world, but I couldn't figure out how to do it stress-free. I am Israeli, yes, but most of these kids, we just have different circumstances. They´re on a tighter budget than the Americans and Europeans, so they argue about every sol. And they're younger and fresh out of the stressful army life, so they like to party a lot. These are generalizations, of course, there are so many great Israeli travellers out there but travelling with them has a chance of being stressful. Make sense? So I snuck out the next day and shopped around the different travel agencies, finally booking the Santa Cruz trek at an agency that had a nice balanced mix of Europeans, North Americans and Israelis. I guess the one advantage of being in the Israeli circle was that I got the Israeli price, half of what everyone else pays. But don't tell them that.

The next day, we headed out for our trek through the infamous Cordillera Blanca of Peru on a public minibus to Cachabambas, a 4 hour journey along windey mountain roads with one flat tire on the way. The group was a total of seven mostly experienced hikers, most notably Jacey, adventurous Colorado mountain girl, and Jacky and Ido, two goofy Israelis fresh out of the army. Our entourage was led by trusty guide Frial and burro (donkey) caretaker Augustino. The first day was a tough mountainous hike at 3600 meters and I had to stop every ten meters to gasp for air since there's very little at that altitude. I was kicking myself for signing up for this...I was definitely out of my league. But I made it just fine and we camped at a cow pasture that night. The tour agency had miscounted and brought one less sleeping bag so that night, I had to use a summer bag meant for warm weather...slightly cold but not a killer. The next day was a mostly flat walk through green pastures all along the thunderous river. We were heading straight for Taliarhuho, a snowy majesty standing over 6,000 meters tall. That night, we camped at a chilly 4,200 meters in another cow pasture where me, Jacey, Ido and Jacky tried to catch trout in the river with a few sticks and some worms Jacey had dug up. When you're facing a dinner of potatoes and rice, served over a mysterioso ¨red sauce¨, you'd be hunting for trout too. At night, we played cards over hot tea and of course, true to camping rules, Jacky and Ido made donkey noises outside the girls´ tent and attempted to topple it over. The third day was the most difficult. We began to climb the frosty cliffs leading up to Taliarhuho. My competitive spirit kicked in and I kept at the head of the pack, finishing the hike in half the time. Was there ever any doubt, people! Just kidding. We had reached Punto Union at 4,700 meters to have a gorgeous view of the towering snowy mountains all around us. The last night, we camped at a sheep pasture while Jacey drew with the village kids and I tried to teach them how to play War with my new and shiny Spiderman cards. They weren't too impressed with my efforts. That night, there was a mysteriously creepy wild cat noise outside the girls´ tent. The next morning found me and Jacey trying to lead an unwilling donkey into the boys' tent until it finally tried to kick us and stomped away irritably. Ahh... camping. We ended our four day hike in the mountain village of Huaribamba handing out caramels to the cute little kids before catching a 4 hour minibus back to Hauraz.

Now that I had my new group of trekking friends, I finally found my opportunity to escape the Casa de Jaimes. I snuck into the lobby , grabbed my bag and ran like mad across town to share Hostal Angel with Jacey, Jacky and Ido. We had dinner that night with the whole group and our token quiet Swiss guy got a few beers in him and willed the rest of us to dance on the tables and pull waiting cab drivers into the bar to join the dancing mayhem. It was fun. The next morning had a slow start but by the afternoon, Jacey had convinced me to go rock climbing with these two Dutch girls with guide Javier, who agreed to do the whole thing for free since he got to be alone with four girls. I climbed a 50 foot cliff without too much drama except when I got to the top I couldn't figure out how to get down so it took some encouraging words and loud threats from the group to get me to start rapelling back down. It was great fun. We ended up at Javier's bar "Cero Drama" for some pizza and homemade pisco sours.

After five days in Huaraz, it was time to continue north. That night, Jacey and I caught a 12 hour bus to Trujillo where the great ruins of Northern Peru officially start. North Peru is considered to be the Egypt of South America, packed with 2,000 year old temples, huge pyramids, and hidden tombs at every mountain side. Three weeks of this trip left...stay tuned!

Posted by syosef 16:15 Archived in Peru Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Reed Meals, Condor Attacks, and Bad/Good Wonton Soup

Puno, Arequipa and Nazca (well, kind of Nazca)

sunny 25 °C

My favorite "travelling associate" and I set out from Cusco one early morning on an unrecorded day of the week (hell, I don't know what month we're in) and took the 6 hour bus to Puno, which is on the edge of Lake Titicaca. This lake is shared by Bolivia and Peru and each side claims that the other is caca. Hey...don't shoot the messenger! The bus broke down halfway through at a little valley right before the train tracks but we had bought two whole chaplas (Cusqueno sweet bread 1 foot in diameter) so that was enough to keep us quiet and happy as the driver carried water from the nearby stream to pour into our engine. That always seems to do the trick! We finally arrived at the bus station to Dan's favorite part of every journey...the part where all the hostel owners surround us at the station and frighteningly yell at us to come with them. I hate this part...it's too stressful...but Dan likes the excitment of this game, especially when it gives us attention AND lowers our price, so we finally went with one woman to Hostel Kukimimu or something like that. That day, we explored Puno, a small but busy market town. We ate at a rundown chicken and fries place where we had the most delicious curry soup until we found a chicken foot in the bowl. But it was still good...I licked the bowl clean...keep the chicken feet coming, Rosa! We booked a tour to Puno's famous floating islands for 7:30 the next morning and went off to sleep.

The next morning, at 6:30 AM, we were awakened by a loud pounding on the door. "The bus is here, the bus is here!" yelled our hostel host. Apparently, we had been given the wrong time. We quickly got dressed and ran down to meet the bus, which took us to the port where we got on a boat with 20 other gringos... and Ryan, our roommate from La Paz! While Dan and Ryan and other Dan (Ryan's friend) caught up on their futbol talk, I took a nap on the upper deck and got completely sunburnt. So I have flea bites on every part of my body AND a sunburn. Bueno. Our first stop was Isla de Uros, one of over 50 islands made entirely of floating reeds...you could swim underneath the island...I mean, if you wanted to. The Uros people built these islands hundreds of years ago to get away from the Incas and other aggressive cultures. They speak only Aymara, a pre-incan language, and their whole life revolves around reeds...reed houses, reed boats, etc. When in Uros, do as the Uros, so we ate some reeds (I ate everyone else's...no one seemed to like them) and then took a reed boat that looked like a dragon to another neighboring island. It stopped halfway between the two islands to get money from us. I wonder what happens to people who don't pay? Ponderings...ponderings. In the afternoon, we took a 3 hour boat ride to Isla Taqila, an awful tourist trap of a place where you have to meet with the "village leader" so he can tell you in which restaurant you can eat your lunch. During a nice lunch of fried fish and rice, we learned the 3 Incan rules: don't steal, don't be lazy, and don't lie. Someone mentioned that "don't kill" wasn't on the list but I think that person was promptly thrown into the lake when we weren't looking. And then it was a 3 hour boat ride back to dry land, playing 20 victorious rounds of cards with Dan, Ryan, Dan, and Amy (USA). I had planned on leaving Puno to go into the Amazonas but only one person had heard of this mysterious route and she had mysteriously disappeared. So rather than end up in a Colombian guerilla jungle base and lose my mother's love, I decided to join Dan and Ryan and Dan on an adventure to Colca Canyon, the second largest canyon in the world (the first largest is down here too). That night, we all went out for dinner while I tried to shelter 18-year-old Amy from 25-year-old guy conversation. Unsuccessfully. To see pictures of Uros, go here: http://www.peru-pictures.org/fotos-peru-fotos-lago-titicaca-fotos-isla-uros/fotos-peru-fotos-lago-titicaca-fotos-isla-uros.shtml

The next morning it was bright and early to get the bus to Arequipa. Dan let us take a rickshaw bicycle down to the bus and this ride remains one of my favorite memories of this trip, almost getting run over by the taxis as we got pedaled down the hill. I am easily amused. Arequipa, Peru's second largest city and home of Colca Canyon, is graced with beautiful architecture, pure white colonial churches and buildings. We settled in at Casa de Reina, in a beautiful corner room with an open air balcony overlooking the white facades of the city. With the sun setting, it looked a lot like Jerusalem! The following two days, we visited Colca Canyon. We stopped at various lookout points, trekked down a windy country road as the boys tried to skip rocks on the lagoons below, and soaked in thermal waters under a sky of stars. That night, we slept under a tin roof in the dusty town of Chivay after playing a very competitive game of "I spy with my little eye" -- which I naturally won. Unfortunately, I found out that British people play the game entirely WRONG. They don't know that you're supposed to say "something starting with blue or red". Instead, they say "something starting with ´a´ or ´b´", a completely ridiculous and wrong version of the game. At times like these, I have to remind myself that it's not their fault they were raised in this awful way. I shudder to think how I would have turned out if I had grown up in a world that encourages letters instead of colors. Get with the program people!

The next morning, we woke up at 5 am and sped out for our first view of Colca Canyon. There were about 12 HUGE condors flying around from our lookout point and some even perched on the cliff right next to us. The wing span of condors is 9 feet! They were so graceful and beautiful...and CLOSE it looked they were coming in for the kill! Well I thought so anyway, so I ducked but noone else did. Apparently, they're scavengers, but you never really know. After this close encounter, we trekked around the top of this deep, deep canyon, think 3 km deep. Back in Arequipa that night, we went out for a dinner on a balcony looking over the brightly lit Plaza de Armas, musicians spicing up the air and hundreds of people strolling in the evening breeze. After that, it was off to play pool where we met Veira and Jackie, two arequipenas who took us out to Deja Vu, where we danced to cumbias, salsa, and rock until odd hours of the night. I got accosted by a drunk gypsie guitar player who insisted on singing "Born in the USA!" at the top of his lungs while I buried my head in my sweatshirt.

The next day, I had to bid Dan farewell. He was going to New Zealand and I was heading out on my own to Nazca where there are huge 2,000 year old field drawings of animals and trees that some people believe were caused by aliens (because you can only see them from the air and 2,000 years ago, no planes) but were probably created as agricultural calendars. It was very sad, this farewell from Dan, my longest travelling friend yet, so I won't linger on it. But it seems that Dan was my good luck charm because after leaving him, I missed my bus out of Arequipa, missed my tour to the field lines, AND ended up in the emergency room after eating some questionable but still delicious wonton soup (damn you, senor Wonton, so tricky!). All in a day's work. In the end, all I really saw of the lines was a sad little steel tower that Petre took me to after our more official tour of the ER (where I made the two nurses rolling their eyes hug me while they gave me a shot in the tucchus!). The worst part was that they told me I couldn't eat chocolate. For five days! Ridiculous advice. Must be a mis-translation. As soon as the red spots all over my body were gone, leaving me with my much cuter flea scars, I got out of Nazca ASAP and got a bus to sunny and gorgeous Ica, home of some of the largest sand dunes in the world. Poolside and sandboarding, here I come!

Posted by syosef 13:31 Archived in Peru Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Machu Picchu in the Mist

Cusco and surrounding Incan ruins

sunny 23 °C

The latest image of my fabulous route.


Dan, Andrew, and I (Dan likes it when his name is the first word in my blog entry) took the 14 hour bus that left La Paz behind and barreled toward the Peruvian border, which happens to be right on gorgeous Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake on earth. This is the place where it is said that the first Incan king Manco Capaq and his sister queen were born right out of the water to begin the great Incan civilization. When we arrived at the border, we got our exit stamp from Bolivia and had to walk across the bridge to the town of Puno, Peru, to get our entrance stamp. This process was held up by 30 minutes because there was a ceremony celebrating the arrival of vaccinations to Puno, suited men making long speeches while on either side of the bridge, the impatient rickshaw motorcycle taxistas rang their ribboned bells as a hint to wrap things up. We finally crossed the bridge, were welcomed to lovely Peru, and got on the bus to complete the journey to Cusco. We arrived at the bus station at 11 pm and were surrounded by a crowd of loud hostel solicitors and, as we pushed our way to make phone calls, 60 year old Rene said to me, "Are you Israeli?". As a test, I said no, and she replied "well then, why so tough?!". Hmph! :)

We finally gave up on the public phone and went with Rene to a hostel on top of a hill, ate a sleepy dinner where Dan and Andrew corrected the waitress' English essay in pencil, and finally turned in for the night. Andrew got up in the morning to bid us goodbye, his family had come from England and he was embarking on a route none of us could ever dream of seeing: the 5-star hotel circuit. As I stupidly spend my money on finger puppets, I have to adjust my daily budget to new lows: I'm currently at $19 a day...jam sandwiches here I come! We sadly said goodbye, got up, and found a new hostel closer to the main plaza, Hostal Rojas. The next two days, Dan and I walked around beautiful Cusco, a dizzying mix of Spanish buildings built right on top of original Inca stone all along narrow cobblestone streets. I visited the enormous main cathedral, where you can see Christian paintings painted in Andean style ("The Last Supper" featuring hated conquistador Pizarro as Judas) and a black Jesus. Apparently, Jesus arrived white from Spain and the people started burning candles underneath him and saw that he was starting to look like them and so they burnt more and more candles until he WAS one of them. I love that story. One night, I met the owner of a restaurant in town, Alejandro, and went out with him and his friends to a local Peruvian discotech. We danced to Sonia Morales and other notables in a room with a big mirror, where everyone tries to outdo each other with ridiculous dance moves. I soooooo won. Any doubts, really?

One aim of being in Cusco was to visit one of the most famous places on the whole continent, Machu Picchu, the lost city of the Incas which the Spanish never, ever found. Being that there are no roads to Machu Picchu (after all these years, still so well hidden!), you are forced to take an expensive train, pay the entrance fee, plus hotels plus the bus up and down the mountain.

Tourist Train ..$105
Entrance Fee... $20
2 nights stay in Aguas Calientes...$40
Bus up-down mountain...$12

Seeing Machu Picchu? Damn expensive!

Needless to say, our sense of adventure and yes, laughable budgets, motivated us to find an alternate route. Here is what I found out from the trusty internet and interrogating random drunk people:

How to get to Machu Picchu the back way:

1. Take a local bus to Santa Teresa.
2. Walk across the draw bridge.
3. Hitch a ride to the hydroelectric plant.
4. Walk 2 hours along the train tracks or bribe the men driving VW's along the tracks to take you in return for 3 beers and some boiled corn.
5. Arrive in Aguas Calientes, the town below Machu Picchu
6. Climb up the mountain, after the third hut, make a right. This path will lead you to the ruins.

This story is of course bullshit. Sorry to all ye desperate souls who googled this entry in vain. Did I not learn from the Antarctica Chilean Navy ship disaster?? :) But nonetheless, desperate times call for desperate measures, so Dan and I set out early one morning with some hope in our hearts and coca tea in our stomachs, determined to beat the cruel, cruel system. We took a rickety local bus to lovely Urumbamba, ate "the best ice cream in the world" and then took another rickety local bus to Ollantantambo. We walked down to the train station to assess the situation. $45 USD to take the train to Aguas Calientes. I put on my best smile and asked a nearby local where the hydroelectric plant was and he chuckled and said, "Far." I guess that's a common question. So we vowed not to eat for the next week and bought tickets for the evening backpacker's train, leaving us the whole day in Ollantantambo. We had lunch in the sunny plaza with Marcelle and Natasha, a lovely diving couple from Holland. Every time we ordered something from the menu, we would see the waitress run like mad from the restaurant to the market to buy the ingredients fresh on the spot. I ordered a chicken sandwich and saw a naive little chicken being led into the kitchen, never to come out again. Sorry chicky! After lunch, Dan and I started climbing the Inca ruins in Ollanta, a mountain crowned with temples and irrigation channels built with the typical Incan stone craftsmanship: stones formed so perfectly, no cement was ever used. It is still a mystery how they did it. In the evening, we caught the train to Aguas Calientes, a touristy town with 800 restaurants at the bottom of the hill, and passed out in anticipation of waking up at 4:30 AM to beat the tour group crowds and catch the sunrise at the great Machu Picchu.

We did wake up at 4:30 (ok, fine, 4:55 am), jumped out of bed, and ran down the hill to buy student entrance tickets. We then caught the first bus up the hill, being among the first 20 people at the site (pretty good considering 1,500 visit every day). The gates opened at 6 am, and we entered and walked along the mountain where we could see nothing but heavy fog and mist. It was very mysterious and lonely...I rather liked it. We sat quietly on a rock for the next two hours. Surrounded by nothing but thick white clouds. Eventually, the mist cleared to reveal a great city of ruins below, temples and houses built on top of boulders, the whole majesty of it all hanging right on the steepest cliff I've ever seen. Completely surrounded by huge, looming mountains, it's no wonder the Spanish never found it. We walked through the jungly forest to see the Inca bridge, one foot of stone walkway set against nothing but cliff and a 500 meter pure vertical drop into the frightening Urubamba River. Can you imagine walking across that thing? We then walked down into the actual city with Marcelle and Natasha, admiring the perfect stonework built underneath huge boulders the Incas couldn't move, temples shaped like llamas and condors, water channels, square houses, torture chambers for dissidents. It is still unclear what Machu Picchu was actually used for, but there are clear signs of religious and agricultural activity, in the dozens of terraces everywhere and the stones shaped in honor of the Sun. Beautiful. Dan and I then decided to hike up Wayna Picchu, a huge mountain set in the midst of this. We hiked up a hard hour to arrive at the temple on top of the mountain, scary narrow stone walkways set against the cliff, absolutely nothing to hold on to. We had a lunch of M&M's and doritos on top, slipped back down the wet path and then decided to go down a lesser known trail to the Temple of the Moon. We only met 3 other people on the way, it was nice, and the path led us through green grottos, a real rainforest hike. We drank from the caves dripping pure mountain water and struggled along until we reached The Great Cave. Picture this: a huge dark cave hidden within the mountain. Right in the middle of the cave is a great big boulder shaped like a throne and 6 altars surround it, where people still leave coca leaves and offerings to the spirit of the mountain. Dan left a lemon sweet. The best thing about it was that we were the only ones there, so it really had a raw, unexplored feel to it. You know how I like things being all dramatic... definitely worth the arduous hike. Afterwards, I became convinced that the stone steps above the cave led to some other unknown place so I made us hike up for about 15 minutes until we realized we were just going up the same mountain we had already climbed so we returned to Machu Picchu. By this time, we were pretty much the only people left at the place so we got to explore it alone. So beautiful, I can't even describe it. Dan brought his juggling balls and that afternoon, he became the first person ever to juggle at Machu Picchu. This is a very important and distinguished title. At 5:30 pm, after TWELVE HOURS at Machu Picchu, we got kicked out by the whistling guards. We tried to board the last bus out but in our thrifty (and, hellooo, adventurous??) nature, we had not bought a return ticket so the bus left us in the dust to hike down the mountain in the dark. Stupid idea and we were so tired after 5 hours of hard climbing, our legs were shaking, but an hour later we were down the mountain and walking blindly toward the town of Aguas Calientes. We couldn't see anything but could hear the roar of the river to our right so we followed that (kendraly, just follow the river!) until we finally arrived into town, eating a hot pizza before COLLAPSING into bed at 8 pm. What a great day. It ended up costing $70 but to be honest, I would have paid hundreds anyway.

The next day, I woke up feeling like I had been run over by a Bolivian mini bus. Everything hurt! Plus I had flea bites again from the dodgy hostel bed. These fleas, they find me wherever I go. No one else seems to get bitten. I think it's because I'm extra sweet. Must be! We returned to Cusco, passed out at our hostel for a few hours, and in our delirium, met Marcelle and Natasha for a dinner of Indonesian and Malaysian food. Yum! Then we went back to sleep. This schedule of seeing incredible Incan ruins really wears you down, yknow?

The next day, we took a two hour local bus to Pisaq, home of a great outdoors market. Dan went off to call his sweetheart `mum` and I begged one of the Qechua market women to teach me how to do yarnwork. She tied me up in the yarn belt and I got a 20 minute lesson in pure Qechua (not of a word of Spanish) so I'm still a bit shaky on the logistics but I feel confident that I will soon be able to make Andean belts and sweaters and sell them on my newly established Andean-Belt-and-Sweater Ebay business. This is not like the others...I think I finally have the market cornered...will keep you posted. Then we climbed the ruins at Pisaq, which are supposed to be as well preserved as those at Machu Picchu. Dan took a sunny nap on an Incan wall while I struggled to the top and took pictures with random Peruvian teenagers. Because I made it to the top-top, I think this is the ultimate proof that I am a cooler and, overall, better person. That night, back in Cusco, I proudly found us a 10 sol ($3 US) restaurant menu but after we feasted on alpaca meat and pisco sours, we found out it was actually 10 DOLLARS. I'm still hearing about it :) And that was IT for Cusco. The next morning, we boarded a bus for Puno, home of the infamous floating islands made entirely out of reeds. You can eat reeds, they are a great source of fluoride, did you know that? I'll fedex some.

Posted by syosef 11:20 Archived in Peru Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

Danger and Daring in La Paz

La Paz, Bolivia

sunny 23 °C

Dan, Andrew, and I arrived in La Paz at 4:30 AM on Monday morning. We looked out the bus window warily. I expected to see men in dark hoods walking menacingly around with machetes in hand, but alas, it was just a boring old bus station. Well darn it! We hopped off the bus and walked to the information desk, which was closed, and began sneaking around looking for some hostel brochures, at which point, two men in dark green uniforms that loudly proclaimed “Policia Turistica” approached us and asked us what we needed. I eyed them suspiciously. Were they real cops?? Good cops, bad cops?? Did one of them just wink at the other?? I briefly entertained the thought of kicking them in the groin and fleeing into the dark La Paz night but then I realized that half the taxistas would be in on the scam so I thought better of it. We reluctantly explained that we were looking for a hostel. They explained that they were the Policia Turistica and were here for OUR protection, given La Paz’ reputation, and they promptly put us in a safe cab, wrote down his license plate number, and sent us off to Solaris Hostel. The hostel was booked and thus began our one hour night ride quest for a bed through the dark and menacing La Paz streets, jumping in and out of the cab, ringing doorbells in vain. At 5:30, we ended up at Hotel Torino, where we were met at the door by a grunt and then led to a beautiful private room with hardwood floors and glorious, glorious hot water. This little slice of heaven was quickly cut short when I realized that I had forgotten my purse in the cab. Being that I am the luckiest person in the world, I had used my money wallet for the first time on this trip that morning, putting my passports and credit cards in it, but still….MY PURSE. After a 5 minute panic attack, the 101 Dalmations bed sheets got the better of me and sleep took over.

The next morning, while British Princesses Dan and Andrew got their beauty sleep, I set out to single-handedly prove wrong all those stories about La Paz that speak of corruption, theft, and generally bad people. That’s right. I, Silvana Joseph, was going to valiantly and dramatically get my purse back. I marched down to the bus station and walked up to the group of Policia Turistica, who were indeed living and working, every day, solely for MY protection. I explained the situation and described the police personnel who had placed me in the cab the previous night. After much internal struggle, the Policia Turistica came to the conclusion that Officers Miranda and Jerez were on duty on the fated night. UNFORTUNATELY, they weren’t working right now. Would you please, Senorita Joseph, come back tomorrow during their working hours. And please, Senorita Joseph, have faith in us Policia Turistica. You do have faith in us, do you not? Claro que si! I spent the rest of the day walking around the commercial center of La Paz, chaotic streets of juice and pastry vendors, CD vendors, crappy-junk-that-noone-wants vendors, and loud colectivos (mini busses) threatening to run over all of the above. Our hostel was actually placed in the thick of it all so that was exciting. That morning, I had run into Jazz (UK) who we had hung out with in Sucre along with Kiwi Charlie, two of the most fun people around, as well as two of the most hard-to-keep-up-with people around. I’m trying hard to not be so lame, but as you all know, it's a daily struggle. :) We all had lunch at a Thai restaurant and then I headed off to the general hospital to get my two-week cough checked out (I keep insisting it’s a miner’s cough but I get called a drama queen). I ended up at the military hospital by mistake and it took an hour to get sorted out that I have no affiliation with the Bolivian National Military. After that, it was off to the general hospital, whose visiting hours were over, so I got sent to the emergency room, where I felt like the biggest jerk ever saying “ahhhhhh” as the poor souls next to me were getting their stomachs pumped. At the end of the day, my very serious condition was prescribed some very serious medication: ibuprofen. That evening, we dined with Jazz, Charlie, Ryan, Kate and some lively others at a nice restaurant with sushi and pasta and other non Bolivian things (shhh…noone has to know…being “cultural” gets tiring).

The next day, I woke up in high spirits, resolved to see Bolivian justice served. I took a colectivo to the bus terminal and went in search of my Policia Turistica heroes. I found Officer Miranda eating soup down the street. I explained the situation to him. He seemed very interested in my case and told me that Officer Jerez, his partner "on the beat", had indeed written down the taxista’s information. UNFORTUNATELY, Officer Jerez was in bed with a terrible cold. I considered offering him some of my ibuprofen but then realized this might be considered bribery so I scraped the idea. Should have gone with that one. Officer Miranda took down my information and told me that he would contact me if there was any "break in the case". Before he sent me on my way, he looked at me in a very serious way and asked me if I have faith in him. Do I have faith that the water in my shower will suddenly turn cold halfway through? Do I have faith that I will fall over every time I put on my backpack? Claro que si! That day, I walked around the tourist market in La Paz, which has beautiful arrays of brightly colored blankets, llama sweaters, Andean jewelry, really gorgeous stuff. And the people who live here are great too, so very friendly, you wouldn’t expect it from a big city. I guess it’s the Bolivian way. I ran into Olivier, my good friend from Ushuaia, on the street and we visited the Coca Museum together. There, we learned that coca, as in the leaves chewed by Andean communities, has a great many health benefits especially at the high altitudes found here, while cocaine, the synthetic mixture that was first used by US and French pharmaceutical companies (like Merck), is obviously the deadly stuff. I won’t go into the politics of the US-South American coca drug trade. My blogs are boring enough.

When I got back to the hostel, I had an exciting telephone message from the Policia Turistica waiting for me. It said:

“Senorita Joseph is asked to come down to the station immediately. Over.” (Ok, I added that last part).

I took the first colectivo that didn’t try to run me over and rushed to the office. I explained the message I had received. Everyone looked confused. Someone went out to find Officer Miranda, who was having ice cream down the street. He looked a bit confused and then, after some internal struggle, he realized that he had indeed sent me a message. Well, what was the news? Apparently, the news was that Officer Jerez would be back in tomorrow. What a break! I think I smell a promotion… :)

The next day, I headed to the bus station early in the hopes that Officer Miranda wouldn’t be hungry yet and be eating something down the street. When I arrived, neither partner was there, but the girls at the office had an amazing piece of information for me…two possible license plate numbers! Someone had obviously worked through the night on the Joseph Lost Purse case. The girls then told me that I should call the cab companies and ask them for my purse. I explained that I, Senorita Turista, had no power over a cab company and the only answer I would get would be a ‘no’. I told them that only the powerful Policia Turistica wields power over the lowly taxistas. They seemed taken aback with my brilliant argument (do you blame them?) and, after much internal struggle, the girls decided what must be done. We marched over to the office of the Bolivian National Police. We entered the office and saluted the Head Chief, Captain Ruez (Dan pointed out that I didn’t actually salute but did more of an awkward nod but he can bite me.) He listened to my case intently and, as I eloquently told my story in perfect, perfect Spanish, he seemed to get angry. How dare this happen?? Not under my watch, god damn it!! He grabbed the piece of paper with the cab company information and decisively picked up the phone. My heart jumped. There is justicia in Bolivia! He spoke sharply to the cab operator and ordered the cabbie to appear before the National Police the next morning at 8:30 AM. The Bolivian National Police, damn straight people! He then slammed the phone down and nodded gravely at me. Tomorrow, Senorita Joseph, we will close this case. Will you be there? I nodded gravely at him, saluted (=waved awkwardly) and walked out in victory. And then walked back in because I forgot my scarf. And walked back out in victory.

That day, we rented a car and drove an hour and a half to Tiwanaku, a pre-Incan ruins site. Charlie drove and did a fine job of outmaneuvering the locals, swerving buses and vendors and random people carrying doors across highways (what the…) with the greatest of ease. It was really great to see the beautifully green countryside, women in long braids and huge poofy skirts working in the fields, against the snowy mountainous backdrop. We toured the Tiwanaku site for an hour. The Tiwanakus were a highly advanced pre-Incan civilization (400-1000 AD) who built a huge pyramid and various temples, set up a remarkable water sewer system for their network of villages (so large, considered a country) and who prayed to great monuments of their sun and moon gods. When the Spanish came, they put Christian crosses on the Tiwanakus’ statue deities and used the rocks from their sacred temples to build Christian churches. The Tiwanakus buried the big pyramid under great amounts of dirt to hide it from the Spanish and so these days, the locals are just starting to excavate the site. The prospect of what they will find is very exciting. It was getting dark so we drove back and stopped right before the city to look down at the beautiful lights of La Paz. It actually is a very pretty city, it’s a shame it has such a bad reputation. For pics of Tiwanaku, go here http://www.geocities.com/Yosemite/Gorge/3147

That night, we went out for Jazz’ birthday. We ate a fine dinner at Mango’s, blew up balloons for Jazz, and tried our best to hold our ground (and table) amidst the crowd of well over 200 people in a very small place. We had drinks until the wee hours of the morning and met Niki and Joto, two fun La Pazians who fed me too many Cuba Libres. I found out that many drinks can make many Brits dance.

We got home at 6 am, sadly bid Jazz and Charlie farewell, and two hours later, I woke up to see justice served for the first and only time in the Bus Terminal of La Paz. I arrived at the office of National Police to see Captain Ruez sadly shaking his head. The cabbie had not shown up. I too started shaking my head and suddenly the Captain had a sharp change of emotion, got very angry and hastily picked up the phone. He called the cab company and, amidst yells, threatened to confiscate the cabbie’s car. Damn. This was going too far…I really had only lost $30 and my $5 camera….I didn’t want to be responsible for someone losing their livelihood. I started arguing but Captain was resolved. I went home feeling like a jerk and two hours later, the taxista showed up with his wife and told me he didn’t have my purse. I thanked him for his time, called Captain Ruez on his cell phone to thank him for his efforts and went back to sleep. Over email, Niki pointed out that the reason I didn’t get my purse back was because I had never attempted to bribe anyone. Oops. Andrew and Dan pointed out that I had spent the majority of my time in La Paz at the bus station (even though they had spent their entire time buying futbol stickers and putting them into sticker books with our dear roommate Ryan…to each his own, people!). And anyway, now I have Captain Ruez’ cell phone number. Now that’s going to come in handy someday, you better believe it. Do you have the Bolivian National Police Chief’s cell phone number?? Thought so.

We left La Paz early in the morning, feeling woosy from the stomach pains Bolivian food mostly gives you, feeling special that we had seen llama fetuses in the local market (put over doorways for good luck!), and feeling proud that we had not been kidnapped. Andrew got it in his head to loudly yell “I’m an American, goddammit!” every five minutes for no particular reason so that entertained us for the 13 hour bus ride that headed straight for the lost city of the Incas, Cusco. Which is of course in Peru. But you already knew that, didn’t you… :)

Posted by syosef 19:44 Archived in Bolivia Tagged backpacking Comments (4)

Coca Leaves, Silver Mines... and Dinosaurs??

Bolivian Salt plains, Uyuni, Potosi, and Sucre


We set out from Chile bright and early at 8 am and headed straight for the Bolivian border. There were six of us in the dusty jeep, all led by our trusty guide and driver Javier: an old Israeli couple, a young Swiss couple, a German girl, and me. All along the way, we munched on coca leaves to protect us from the high altitude, which reached nearly 5,000 meters at times. We drove through dirt paths until we finally reached the border: a one-room cabin made of rocks with a wooden plank serving for a gate crossing. We happily got our passports stamped and the one guy working the whole deal said "Bienvenidos a Bolivia" and that was it... Welcome to Bolivia! That day, we drove across various lagunas (lakes) where the water is so clear, it reflects the surrounding mountains and volcanos perfectly, making a double impression of everything around. We passed by the Dali rocks, a rock formation in the middle of the desert that looks strikingly like one of Dali's paintings, stopped at the Rock Tree, a rock that looks like a tree (my explanations are awesome, I know) and spent a few minutes climbing the other weird rock formations in the area. Then we arrived at Laguna Colorada. Picture this, an entire lake that is completely RED covered with 30,000 pink flamingos. Needless to say, we spent a few hours there. Then it was the end of the first day, and our crickety jeep rolled in to the refuge, a very simple (no running water, no heat) hostel run by an indigenous family. The people of this region were overrun by the conquistadores in the 1500’s and their language, quechua, almost died but in the last 10 years, they reclaimed their roots, including now teaching quechua in area public schools. It was hard communicating with the family because they didn't speak spanish but Javier taught me how to say good morning in quechua so I said that like a parrot about 50 times. I also became best friends with Emma, the 4 year old running the place, and we shared our lunch and dinner with her with pity until we realized that she mooched food off every single jeep group with those lovely puppy eyes. And boy could that girl eat: 3 servings of mashed potatoes, 3 sausages, the whole friggin tray of cookies. And then it was off to the next table of turistas...sigh...women.

The next day, we visited various other beautiful lagunas in the flamingo park of Bolivia, passed by herds of wild vicunas (like llamas), passed by herds of domesticated llamas with their pretty little head bows on, and fed bread to the elusive Andino fox who quite elusively waits every day for bread at the side of the road. We ate lunch in front of an active volcano and took a nap on the red rocks. We stopped in the pueblito (little town) of San Juan for a coke and then it was a 4 hour drive to the coolest hotel in the country: Hotel de Sal (Salt Hotel). Located in Altucha, an entire town made of loose rocks (houses, church, doors), the Hotel de Sal is made entirely of...cmon...you can do this. Tables of salt, chairs of salt, even all the walls were made of salt! It was very exciting. After we finished licking everything, we dined on chicken and rice (I had to ask for some salt). And then it was coca leaves and card games by candlelight for the rest of the evening. I suffered 4 humiliating losses in Backgammon (shesh-besh) to Shirga, my Israeli uncle, and one glorious victory in Yaniv, the Israeli card game, mostly because noone else had heard of it. We finally set off to sleep at 9 pm, in our salt beds of course.

On the final day of the jeep tour through southern Bolivia, we entered the Salar of Bolivia, the biggest salt flat in the world. In the morning darkness, we drove the first few meters of the entrance to the Salar, a white path surrounded by vast water, and then Javier, in his quiet Bolivian way, turned off the lights of the jeep and drove right into the water. I gasped...you could not see a foot ahead of you and we were driving a car in god knows how many feet of water. But Javier just smiled and kept driving for the next hour and a half in utter darkness, no horizon in sight, and as I looked out the window, I could see the huge sky of thousands of stars and one big moon reflected perfectly in the water. So in reality, we were driving in an ocean of stars. It was the most beautiful thing I've ever seen. Javier dosed off at the wheel a few times during the next hour, but it didn't seem to matter because we were driving in nothingness anyway. As the horizon brightened, we finally saw what was around us. A vast plain of white, white salt covered by six inches of clear water. You could not see anything else for miles and miles except for one peak. This was Incahuiso Island, where we parked the jeep and climbed up a hill of huge cactuses to watch the sun rise slowly against the white salt plains of Bolivia. Captivating!! We stayed at the peak for an hour, then came down to eat a breakfast of tea, bread, and eggs, and took pictures with all the rest of the tourists that had shown up for the next two hours. Thirty people standing in the middle of a white nothingness. Then Javier made us get in the jeep and we drove another hour, stopped again to do cartwheels in the salt, and finally completed the last two hours of the journey through the Bolivian salar. A half hour later, we arrived in Uyuni, Bolivia, a small railroad ghost town, where all the Bolivian women, short and stocky, walk around in their long black braids, poofy skirts down to their knees, and the traditional curved hat. We had finally arrived in the real Bolivia. I bid farewell to my dysfunctional jeep tour group and set out to get some Bolivianos (currency) but the line for the bank was over 4 hours long. This meant trouble, because there was no ATM in town and I only had enough money for one bowl of llama soup at the local lunch place (tastes just like CHICKEN...but not at all). Luckily, Luis the lawyer helped me get into the bank 2 minutes before closing (read- "help" refers to pushing the gringita past a wave of 100 angry bolivianos...I'm sure I did a lot for humble tourism that day) and we met up for dinner that night, where I tried several Bolivian national dishes (steak with salad on top with egg on top with salsa on top) and the unofficial national drink, Hauri beer mixed with coca cola. Hmmm.

The next day I caught a bus 6 hours north to Potosi, the highest city in the world, with Dan and Andrew, two hilarious English boys, and Steve-O, an Aussie who prefers to be called Steve. We settled into the Koala Den, a really great hostel with hot water, lots of books, AND Cat in the Hat bed sheets. Yessss. Alberto at the front desk bounced on the beds to show us how they bounce. We dined that night on filet mignon and llama and some wine, pondered the hamburger stand boy who could put ALL the condiments on in under 2.5 seconds, and went to sleep early in preparation for the next day, one of the most memorable days of this trip for me. We awoke at 8 am to take a beat-up bus to the Potosi silver mines. Potosi has huge mountains with large deposits of silver, which have proven to be more of a curse than a blessing. The indigenous people who lived here knew about the silver but refused to touch it to pay homage to the land but.. you can guess this...when the Spanish came, they immediately put them, along with captive African slaves from the Lima slave trade to mine the mountains, most working underground in the darkness for 6 months at a time. An estimated 8 MILLION people have died in the mines since they opened. We got equipped with plastic jackets, boots and helmets but these did nothing to prepare us for what was to come. We stopped at the miners´ market to buy the miners (they are an independent cooperative, they work for themselves) dynamite, fuses, soda, and coca leaves. We drank a bit of the 96% alcohol the miners drink every Friday to soothe the Diablo (Devil) they believe lives down in the mines. We then visited the silver refinery, one of dozens owned by Canadian companies who reap 99% of the profit from this mining. Then we finally arrived at the mine. We trudged through the mud at the tunnel entrance and then it was complete darkness. The air gets stale and dusty, you can hardly breathe but you have to keep on going. Don’t touch the exposed pipes 2 inches from your head, they hold a strong electrical current. Don’t slip into the 15 meter deep shaft next to your foot. Every once in a while, a silver cart comes flying by pushed by tired and dirty miners and you have to cling on to the dusty walls to not get hurt, praying that those walls do not cave in on you. We went in 20 meters, then DOWN 25 meters, where you have to crawl through a tiny, tiny shaft for 15 minutes, stale dust burning your throat, then another 6 meters down and another 6 meters down. Every few minutes, we would stop to gasp for air that wasn't there while Juanito, an ex-miner turned university linguistics student (how is that for a success story) described the hard lives of these poor miners, 12,000 in total. They work 6 days a week, take their breaks underground, and most die by age 28, if not before then from the biweekly cave-ins that claim so many lives. Because the Potosi mining is a cooperative, they do not have enough money to concentrate on safety (there are 30 different groups mining in the same mtn, and they have no idea where the other groups are blasting holes, making cave-ins very likely). The refining companies of course do nothing and are not pressured to do anything. Juanito quit mining after he had an accident and realized that he would die very soon if he didn't stop. Unfortunately, most of the miners do not have that choice...they need to feed their families. After being in that clausterphobic and oppressive hell for 2 hours, we were finally allowed to crawl back up. On the way up, a mining cart passed us by and the roof began to collapse. We all started screaming and running down the tunnel, finally making it out to the fresh air. The sky never looked so blue. A reckless trip overall, I completely know, but really important to get a glimpse of how other people in this world have to live. So you don’t get utterly depressed (you should be some though), we also got to blast some dynamite outside of the mine. Juanito made me hold the fuse and started to light it, at which point I freaked out and threw the dynamite at Paul who seemed to forgive me long enough to pose for some pictures (boys, boys, boys) before handing it to the miners to blast far far away from us. Two seconds before the dynamite exploded, Juanito threw a lit fuse at my feet. It didn’t have dynamite attached but I wasn’t going to stick around long enough to find that out so I ended up jumping about 20 feet and bravely cowering behind him. Crazy bolivianos (I’m hoping to have a chance to call every nationality crazy before this trip is over). That night, we went out for some drinks at a graffiti covered bar to soothe our nerves.

The next day, we visited the Casa de Moneda (House of Money) along with Paul (previously mentioned) and Karin (both UK). We unfortunately got a racist guide who insisted on describing in detail why Spanish, American, Peruvian, and Israeli people are awful and lowly people. He did very well, he managed to insult my two nationalities and Paul made him apologize publicly at the end of the tour. Que puedes hacer? What can you do, really, people… the funny thing is, 99% of the locals I have met on this trip are such warm and open people so it doesn’t even matter.

Dan, Andrew, Steve-O and I left Potosi shortly after and took a cab 2 hours north to Sucre, one of the capitals of Bolivia. I tried to enjoy the scenery but our cabbie was determined on flooring it at 80 kmh around mountain curves, school buses, and cute dogs sitting right in the middle of the road. So Andrew, seated in the passenger seat, put on his best poker face as we faced death, I buried my head behind Dan while he said “Look at that overturned truck! Oh wait, you don’t want to look at that. Don’t look, Don’t look..”. And Steve-O? Steve-O slept. Lucky bloke. (I’m picking up the Queen’s English instead of the Bolivian Spanish).

We arrived at Sucre, settled into Hostel Characas, a motel-like hostel, where Esperanza at the front desk insisted that we come home that night by 11 pm lest we be considered sinners on the eve of Good Thursday (is there such a thing…Good Friday? Something Easterish). We argued but came home by 10 pm anyway. That night was the first night of the 4 day Tournament of Cards 2006, Sucre, Bolivia. Being that it was Easter Weekend, there was not much else to do, so we played at least 4 hours and 5 games of cards every day, most of which I was great at until I actually understood the rules. Every night we would go to the local pub, meet at least 10 people we already knew (all Brits!), and play cards until the wee hours. I tried to follow along on futbol talk, nodding sympathetically, as well as Andrew and Dan’s comedic chatter but my most popular comeback was “I have no idea what you people are saying to me”. In good news, I learned that my pronunciation of tomatoes and potatoes is no-question-about-it wrong. Well, bullocks.

Before leaving rainy Sucre, we did manage to visit the huge open-air market of Tarabuco as well as the largest site for Dinosaur tracks in the world. I don’t know why I need to capitalize Dinosaur but it just needs to be done. In case you didn’t know, 65,000 years ago, Dinosaurs roamed the Earth. In Sucre, the cute little critters walked across a lake, and then there was a volcanic blast which preserved their footprints. Then some plates collided, pushing the flat lake surface vertically. So basically you can see all these Dinosaur footprints on the face of this vertical cliff…really great. And of course it’s Bolivia so you can get up real close and put your little wrinkly hand in a very big footprint. I’ve put my little wrinkly hand in a Dino footprint, have you? Thought so, sucker. ;)

After all this Dinosaur excitement and gambling excitement (Aalap, I only talk about gambling for you), it was time to leave Sucre. We sadly bid Paul and Karin farewell and took a quinua bus (I call it that because all the Boliviano women effortlessly carry huge sacks of quinua (of the rice family) onto the bus, leaving no room for anyone to move their body parts) east to La Paz. It was a hard 14 hour journey and poor Dan and Andrew had no room for their long legs but we managed to entertain ourselves by finding the one constellation we knew and guessing what the staticky movie on the screen was about. Oh, Steve-O disappeared. Did I mention that? Around the second day in Sucre, he just up and left. Maybe he really, really didn’t want to be called Steve-O. I guess we’ll never know. So at 5 AM, we arrived in La Paz, one of the most dangerous cities in South America, where you can’t take a cab lest you be robbed and killed by fake policemen. Are you proud, mom?? No, in reality, it is safe, you just have to be careful, like in every other city in the world. So no worries, very safe here. I am actually overly paranoid most of the time, you will be happy to know. So I will report on La Paz as soon as I get out of this car trunk. Besos!

Posted by syosef 14:41 Archived in Bolivia Tagged backpacking Comments (3)

Stars and Desert Skies

Horcon, La Serena, and San Pedro de Atacama

27 °C

Yet another high tech image for your enjoyment....

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I left the hubbub of the fish markets of Valparaiso and took a 2 hour colectivo to the town of Horcon, an isolated fishing village on the coast of Northern Chile. When we arrived, I was the only person left on the bus. I said "Horcon?", the bus driver nodded, and for the first time in two months, I had taken the right bus. I walked down the one hill, got settled into Juan Pancho Cabanas, where I had a whole beach cabana to myself, and walked around “town”. Horcon is a 3 street gig. There is one paved hill leading down to the beach and two dirt roads parallel to the beach. That’s it, Juan! I had a tasty fried fish lunch at Victoria Restaurant, four wooden planks on a dusty floor, as the spanish telenovelas playing on the old tv sucked me in. There was a Chilean version of The Nanny playing where the main actress was amazingly more annoying than Fran Drescher. Then I sat on the warm beach, watching the sun set on the fishermen pulling their small boats in after a hard day’s work. Whenever a boat would come in, the stray dogs would start barking as warning, and everyone, including the clams vendor and the girl selling seashell jewelry, would run down and help pull it in. After my evening nap, I went in search for hot soup. I was battling a cold and a recent bout of 100 FLEA BITES (gotta love those hostel beds) so I needed something homey. I finally ended at Rey pub where there was no soup, so owner Alejandro went HOME to get me some of his mom’s chicken and rice soup. I love small towns! He then made me promise to come back tomorrow. The next day, I ended up at the beach again. I mean, really, what else are you supposed to do...it’s a tough schedule, you have no idea! This time around, I got to see what Horcon is famous for. When the afternoon fishing boats come in at noon, 2 horses pull them onto shore in one big swoop. This is how they’ve done it for over 100 years I believe. I watched this process for about 2 hours while napping under the early afternoon sun and then went to Rey’s for some sopa de mariscos (seafood soup), where for the first time in my life, I ate a lot of things, squirmy and squishy things, that I could not identify. It was delicious.

Then it was time to leave little cute Horcon. Except I didn’t know how to leave, or where to go, because I had no guide book or a map. I have been mooching off people up to this point. So what to do, what to do. I resorted to asking some town people about what is in “the north of your beautiful country” which of course left me with 15 opinions, 5 different exit strategies and 1 big headache. I finally picked one version, which ordered to wait me in an unmarked empty field for a bus headed for Carola that never came. Two hours later, grandma Eli took pity on me and escorted to the other station (read: another unmarked empty field) where the bus came pronto. Eli got off in some bright green farm before Carola and I got off in Carola. I immediately walked into the bus station and attacked the poor 14 year old bus boy...”Chico, digame, donde estoy?” (tell me kiddo, where am I?). Don’t I sound so tough and demanding! I eventually got put on another bus, a 4 hour voyage, that dropped me off in La Serena, which happens to be a tourist hot spot. Not that I would know it, I guess. It’s hard being me. :)

La Serena is one of the greatest places in the world to go for astronomy. This is because it has a vast clear sky most nights of the year, where you can see thousands upon thousands of twinkling stars and some non-twinkling planets (I just learned that). I guess everyone in the world is suddenly interested in astronomy because I could not, for the life of me, find a place to stay. Taxista Luis drove me around for an hour until we could find a place I could afford, Residencia Central, where I got a small room with a TV (haven’t had one of those in 2 months!) and where they lock you in everytime you come in, so you have to ask permission every time you want to leave. That’s soooooo a fire hazard.

The next day, I walked around the impressive town center, with all its colonial style churches and museos still intact. La Serena was attacked by PIRATES in the 1700’s so that automatically makes it much, much cooler. That night, I took a trip out to Mamayuka (Mother Earth) Observatory where we fumbled around in the dark up the hill until we reached a small observatory with big telescopes. For the next three hours, we learned about nebulas and far off galaxies and how insignificant all of life is and how nothing we do really matters in the end in the big scheme of things. Oh, you didn’t know that?? :) I`m kidding, it was really interesting and so beautiful when you get to see the stars up close, some of them soft blues and reds, all twinkling in their twinkly little way. Luis fed us some hot tea and we drank it and munched on some chocolate chip cookies in the soft moonlight. Very tranquilo.

The next day, we headed off to Valle del Elqui. 50 year old prankster Jorge picked me up first, making me side passenger and partner-in-crime, and from then on, it was practical jokes the whole way through. He did a whole comedy routine all the way to our destination, would try to leave people from our group behind in random places along the country road, etc, etc. We drove through the gorgeous Valle del Elqui, where they grow grapes, olives, and various fruits, the rectangular green farms broken up by wavy blue streams from the mountains. All along, Jorge played Chilean folk music, which seems to be mostly communist, and every once a while, in between jokes to the rest of the van, his eyes would tear up as he would tell me about his life under the Pinochet era. Sad.

In the afternoon, Jorge took us to a pisco distillery, where I learned that pisco is actually 4 parts acetone, not 3. Sorry. At the end, we all had to take various shots of pisco-flavored pisco. I think this was done as a way of preparing us to buy more pisco at the end of the tour. I didn’t fall for it. After that, we went to another old pisco distillery that was owned by some guy who had 3 names that all started with the letter R (Roberto Rigonaldo Rivera?? Who knows...) so he named his distillery Triple R and put human bones all around the cellar to discourage stupid drunk people from breaking in. Jorge made us go down to the dark cellar and then started making scary ghost noises from a secret door. I fell for it and got the hell out of there, I don’t mess with alcoholic ghosts. After that, we had a lunch of roasted chicken and choclo (corn paste cooked in corn husk), headed to Montegrande, noble poet Gabriela Mistral’s hometown, and drove home as Jorge pretended to fall asleep at the wheel as we drove around dangerous mountain curves. Crazy Chilenos. To see the Valle, visit http://www.valledeelqui.cl/

The next day, I took the 12 hour bus to San Pedro de Atacama. I know I said Valparaiso was the most beautiful place, but now it has to be San Pedro. Picture this, you get off a bus, you’re in the middle of a brown plaza, brown adobe houses line the narrow dirt streets, all against the backdrop of 5 huge volcanoes, 2 bizarre looking valleys, 5 lagunas, and a vast plain made of pure white salt. Oh yeah, and you`re in the middle of the Atacama Desert, the dryest desert in the whole world. There are many areas of the desert that have never, ever seen a drop of rain. Wow is the only way to put it. I settled into Sanchek Hostel, a beautiful, beautiful rustic open air courtyard with wooden cabins with straw roofs and 2 shady hammocks in the back. I got a room all to myself. Me, me, me! That night, it was a homecooked meal at the hostel, spaghetti with fresh tomatoes and some white wine, while I chatted with Roxanna and played with her 5 year daughter Isidora. We broke her princess wand but finally (!) someone with my level of spanish. Maybe...

The next morning, I immediately rented a bike and rode my couch potato ass out 5 km to the Valle de la Muerte (Valley of Death). The valley was actually called Valle de la Marte (as in martyr) but the priest dude that named it had a really bad lisp so it got translated to death. There, I rode along la Cordillera del Sal, a path through bizarre looking rock formations (vertical with holes in them) and fields of cracked dirt covered with salt. So cool. San Pedro is the archeological center of Chile. Being that I am smart and know this fact, I then rode my couch potato ass another 10 km through the desert to Tulor, an archaelogical site that is 10,000 years old where the Atacamenos lived in small round huts before the Spanish conquistadores came and reduced the population by two thirds. Eduardo took me out to the site, explained everything, and talked about his Coyo community, which runs and preserves the place. San Pedro is one of the few places I’ve seen down here where the indigenous communities actually own the rights to exhibit and share their own history. On the way back through the village of Coyo, campesino (farmer) Pedro Adolfo Luis de los Reyes stopped me in front of his farm and made me promise to remember his name. I just made that name up, because it was very long and I don’t remember it, even though he made me say it 5 times before he let me speed off on my bike. I should have written it down. In the afternoon, I took the official tour of Valle de la Muerte with Paulo (Brazil) and Naomi (Japan) among others. We walked along the dramatically high slopes of sand, crawled around a cave made of salt, and finally climbed the Mirador of the Valle to watch the sun set against salt covered mountains and white sand dunes. It was absolutely beautiful...as the sunset turned everything around into red and yellows, the terrain looked like the surface of Mars. To see some pics, visit http://www.sanpedroatacama.com/galeria.htm. That night, I visited Chez Michel’s French restaurant that serves only Italian food while Chez Michel danced around and sang me songs about the USA and 19 year old waiter Eduardo, inspired by Michel’s performance, told me wide eyed that one day he “shall visit the great place of New Jersey”.

On Wednesday, I visited the museum which is probably the best museum I've ever seen. They have over 380,000 pieces of artifacts from the region and I learned a lot more about the Atacamenos that lived a quite advanced existence before being vanquished by the Incas (who treated them well) and then the Spanish (who did not). Roxanna from the hostel who is Coyo told me that they still find so many artifacts all around town, they don't know what to do with them. There were mummies, and beautiful pottery and spears, instructions on how to start a fire, everything you can imagine. In the afternoon, I decided to walk across the Atacama desert to Pozo 3, a natural pool by one of the great volcanoes. Walking across the desert... I don't know how that great idea came about...I think it was the heat. I got to the pool well enough but on the way back, I decided to take a shortcut and ended up getting lost in the middle of the desert with the sun setting, no water left, and no town in sight. After an initial panic attack, I petted some friendly cactus and finally decided to follow the stars (and also some trucks that were going toward town) and finally found my way back to San Pedro an hour later. One of my prouder moments, yes. That night, Paulo and I dined with a strange Aussie named Robert who wore a red plaid shirt with 3 bright yellow pockets: two in the front, and one big one that covered his whole back. Robert has been in South America for three months and refuses to learn Spanish so he resorts to yelling at the poor waiters in English and huffing loudly when they don't do what he wants. He also shot dirty looks toward the cute little kids running around. We made an effort to dodge Robert for the rest of the week.

On Thursday morning, we woke up at 3:30 AM and took a 2 hour jeep ride to the Tatio Geysers. As we climbed slowly up the mountains to 4500 meters (some people got sick), we could see dozens of funnels of smoke coming out of the ground, which were the geysers of course, formed from underground volcanic activity. The geysers are most active before 7 am. We spent some time staring in awe, jumped in the smoke some, tried to avoid the sporadic blowing up of two big geysers, and then had hot tea with some bread. Then we visited a pool of thermal water heated up by the 250 degree Francisco geyser where 4 people have died by simply falling in. Naomi and I crept into the pool with a little too much drama while Paulo disappeared rather conveniently because it was too damn cold to swim in thermal waters. The water was hot but once you got out...woowee.

On Thursday night, Paulo and I visited the local restaurant where we dined on mojitos (cuban drinks) and listened to the Atacameno band play their drums and flutes festively. We got offered some peyote (the hallucinogenic cactus drug that all the young hippie travellers come to try) and got invited to a cocaine party, both of which we refused. San Pedro is the main entry point for the coca drug trade from Bolivia. Mojitos are enough for me, thank you Jose! The next day, we rented bikes again and rode out to the desert to watch the sun set against the volcanos. Ahh...Atacama Desert. Because I could now follow the stars, I thought I could show off to Paulo that I could also start a fire, based upon the museum instructions, but after twenty minutes of cursing and kicking, with Paulo silently shaking his head, I gave up and we rode our bikes home to eat some chicken and french fries. Then Paulo headed off to Peru (he missed his bus and we had to throw him into a makeshift taxi that chased the runaway bus down for 10 km) and I ate the last remains of my homemade chicken and potato soup, hugged Roxanna goodbye, played with Isidora one last time, and went to sleep early on my last night in Chile. The next day? A 3 day jeep tour into the wonderous salt plains of Bolivia.

Posted by syosef 13:28 Archived in Chile Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Chile, Chile!

Santiago and Valparaiso


You know, you try to be a responsible "journalist" and write an educational blog about history and nature and new cultures but then, in the end, all the uneducated masses really want is toilet humor (see previous comments). You should all be ashamed of yourselves. For all the people who wanted more about the girl with the digestive problems, thanks a lot, because you jinxed me. I walked into my random hostel in Santiago, Chile, and who happens to be my friendly dorm neighbor, but Toilet Girl TG herself. Nooooooooo! We ended up going out for meals together and, over a nice dinner, I got the full and uncensored details of what south american food can do to your stomach. I will be happy to email these details to any jerk that wants them. :)

Santiago is a relatively normal city with a beautiful centro of European style buildings and plazas that seem to succeed in covering its troubled past. The Paseo Ahumada, a long cobblestone pedestrian walkway, leads up to the Plaza de Armas, a large open air plaza with benches, trees, and artist stands, all bordered in by a gorgeous iglesia (church), the national post office, and various impressive museos (museums). Santiago is in the unfortunate position of having to compete with Buenos Aires, backpacker-wise, and most young tourists wave it off but I actually liked it. I arrived in Casa Roja, a mansion-converted hostel with high renaissance style ceilings and walls of bright yellow and blue, got settled in, and walked down the street to the vegetable stand where the old lady sold me some tomatoes and peppers (for Israeli salad of course!) and a bag of her homemade cabbage salad and sent me off, but not before lecturing me about: 1) carrying Argentinian money, and 2) travelling alone. Don`t worry, mama, I seem to have 150 different mamas yelling at me down here. :) The Chileans are mainly mestizos, a mix of the Spanish colonizers and the indigenous people. This is very different from Argentina, where 90% of people are of European decent and which has a very small indigenous population because of the Conquista del Desierto which killed most of them.

So the first day in Chile was spent walking in the centro, eating pineapple popsicles while watching the townfolk dance the cueca, the traditional dance of the country. It is a folk dance where all the old people twirl a white handkerchief in the air while courting each other in dance as huasos (cowboys) strum guitars in the background. It is very festive. After two (2) pineapple popsicles and one (1) bag of potato chips (ahhh...vacation), I walked to the end of the centro and climbed the Torre Mirador, a castle turned into a lookout point that oversees all of the city. I eventually met Michael, a French nurse overseeing health projects in rural Chile, and we had some hot chocolate at the intersection of Paris and Londres, two charming cobblestone streets that are blessed with nice big trees that sleepily protect you from the afternoon sun. It was getting dark so I headed back to the hostel, had some sushi with TG (see above), and then went out on the town with TG and Michael. We walked around Bella Vista, the boheme part of town where all the young people get drunk on pisco, the national alcoholic drink that tastes like a mix of 3 parts propane and 2 parts acetone, roughly. Please don`t try to make it at home.

On the way back, we ran into huge groups of skinheads and Michael explained that this was quite common in Santiago ever since the fall of the dictatorship. The young people were so desperate to express themselves that many turned to radical and/or facist movements as an outlet, without a real understanding of what these movements signify. At times like these, it's difficult for me to decide what to tell people my nationality is. Having my pick of the US and Israel, probably two of the most hated governments in the world, I always have to gauge which country will draw a less strong response. But most people I talk to are smart enough to know the difference between politics and people. That is, they like Americans but not the US govt...Israelis, but not the Israeli govt.

The next day, I visited the National Museo and got my first real sense of the strange identity of post-dictatorship Chile. The museo covered the country`s history from indigenous times of the Mapuches and Aymaras right up until 1973 when the Moneda (presidential headquarters) was bombed in a military coup, killing President Allende (this was also ALLEGEDLY backed by the CIA, you´re right Mr Sarat, I do have to be a responsible journalist). After that, the exhibit ended. The history museum ended its history in 1973. Absolutely no mention of the last 30 years and the only place where I saw the name Pinochet was on a plaque at the entrance dedicating the museum to him. So in the end, it seems that a surprising number of Chileans are still pro Pinochet...if you walk into some old people`s homes, you will see a picture of him hung on the wall. And the other Chileans, well, those that were not exiled, tortured, or disappeared during his term, remain quiet on the subject. In reality, neither side talks. This is just my sense of the country from talking to foreigners living here (you can`t exactly ask the locals). Of course, I`m an outsider who doesn`t know a whole lot, AND I`ve been here one week. Not exactly an expert :)

This blog is getting more and more serious, huh. Okay, let`s go back to fun things! I visited the Chilean stock exchange which I was expecting to be a flurry of sharp stockbrokers yelling angrily into white phones but was actually two old guys having coffee in a big empty room full of Dell computers. I was going to sit and watch them for a while to see if anything would happen but it was a bit awkward, just the three of us (can YOU guess which one was the third wheel?) so I left. I also ate Chinese food on my last night in Santiago. It took me exactly 12 minutes to describe Chicken Chow Mein. This is what happens when you have an Israeli American girl trying to speak spanish to Chinese Chilean old people. In the end, I got fried noodles with mushrooms. Hmmm. :) The next day, I caught a bus to Valparaiso, 2 hours north.

Valparaiso is easily the most beautiful city I've seen on this trip. A historic port that has survived many natural disasters, its colorful flurry of little houses were randomly built on steep hills that overlook the gorgeous bay. A great way to access these historic neighborhoods at the peak is to, get this, take these ancient ascensores (outdoor elevators) to the top. The elevators are pulled up the hill by a creaky pulley system and when you get to the top, you can walk around the cluster of sunny old houses, hippie art galleries, and cobblestone streets. This is exactly what I did my first day in Valparaiso, taking in the great views of the port and fish markets below. Back at hostel El Yoyo, owned by 22 year old Californian named Russ, we cooked, watched movies, made fish dinners, and just relaxed, which was so nice after so much travelling. Russ and employee Alejandro (Colombia) entertained us nightly by telling us funny stories of the hostel-renovation process: painting and hammering by day, protecting the palace by night, chasing burglars down the street with no clothes on, broken wine bottle in hand (Valparaiso while beautiful is one of the most dangerous cities in Chile). See this link for photos.

The next day, I went with Alejandro to La Sebastiana, one of poet Pablo Neruda's lesser known houses. The house was at the very top of a hill, facing the glorious bay leading out to the Pacific Ocean. Each sunny room had an eclectic mix of everything Neruda had collected during his travels around the world: seashell tables, marble plates, wood carvings, glass goblets, and everything colorful you could imagine. Every room had huge bay windows that let the bright sun in, illuminating strange paintings, interesting corners, inverted bathroom mirrors. It was really awesome. Neruda loved the house so much that he wrote a beautiful poem for it, laying it on top of his table in the attic that served as his study. http://www.lasebastiana-neruda.cl/

After La Sebastiana, I went with Peter (Germany) for some empanadas and then a boat tour of the harbor, where Peter almost succeeded in getting us a free tour of the Chilean navy prison by taking pictures of the Chilean navy boats (strictly prohibited. stupid boys.) At night, I went to a karaoke bar and watched some pisco-drunk Chileans sing tearfully along to cheesy spanish love songs. I was able to follow along after a while and we sang with all our heart, until it was time to go home. And then the next day, after spending 3 whole days in Valparaiso, it was time to move on. Next stop, Horcon, a desolate fishing village 3 hours north. This was where my strategy of not having a guidebook, or a map of the country, backfired in a major way...whoops. :)

Posted by syosef 08:31 Archived in Chile Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

A lot of Penguins, a little politics

El Fin Del Mundo

all seasons in one day

(Sorry! Long entry...)

The final leg of my journey toward the end of the world, otherwise known as Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire), set out from El Calafate at 4am on Thursday. The plan was to take a 4 hour bus east, switch buses south for another 10 hours, and then take the final 3 hour bus to Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world. There, I had a very important mission: to get myself on a boat to Antarctica. More on that later.

For once in my world of south american transport, everything went ALMOST according to plan, but of course with a few aventuras along the way. First bus, no hitch. But on the second part of the journey, we had to travel through Chile for a bit of 2 hours, which necessitated going through FOUR border checks. Argentina customs-Chile customs-Chile customs-Argentina customs. Note that the Argentinian and Chilean customs people cannot even be in the same building together, the hatred is that strong (usual land wars), so they build two separate buildings at each border, making us poor travellers go through the one hour process four times. The rules are that you cannot bring fruit and vegetables to Chile, even en route, which is followed in a ridiculously strict way if only to simply piss off the Argentinians…hehe. This poor French couple had just bought bags and bags of fruit and had to enlist our help in hiding it in our clothing. Imagine a bus full of old ladies with bananas and apples in their sweaters.

The landscape looked more and more menacing as we continued. No more guanacos. No cute roadrunners. Just barren mountains. We finally drove until we could drive no more, that is, until there was water in front of us. What water, you ask? The infamous Strait of Magellan, which connects the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean, and was actually not discovered by Magellan but rather by his surviving crew of 18 men. (Do you like how I insert historical tidbits in fun paragraphs, just so you continue reading? I´m so clever.) We drove the bus onto a large ferry boat, along with 3 scary looking trucks (I asked in a very important way about weight limits and the captain pinched my cheek) and set out across the strait. The 3 meter high waves made for a rocky ride, but the gorgeous dolphins somersaulting next to us made it awesome. We finally arrived on the other side, drove through a snow storm in the dark, stopped at a weird pastry shop with beavers playing with a hose in the back room (what the…) and arrived in Ushuaia at midnight.

Ushuaia is set along the icy Beagle Channel and is completely surrounded by spectacularly white mountains, with a large port holding huge European cruise ships carrying wealthy people to Cape Horn and Antarctica. Up until 1947, it was home to a jail where many criminals, including political prisoners, were sent to suffer in the cold. You can still visit the old Presidio, creepy. My hostel was set on Avenue Antarctica Argentina (noone owns Antarctica....definite political play on words). Let´s talk about Antarctica for a bit.

In the world of backpacking, there is always a slew of mysterious rumors flying around… mysteriously. Exhibit A: Before arriving in Bariloche, an adamant Brit named Kip (why would I believe someone named Kip??) told me that I could take a 10 hour fishing expedition completely FREE of charge. Unless that is, I caught a fish, in which case I would have to fork over $250 US. Upon hearing this ridiculous story, I excitedly added fishing to my itinerary even though I have no interest in it with the plans of throwing back any fish caught before Sir Captain had a chance to see it. When I arrived in Bariloche, of course no free fishing, ma`am. Sigh. But I´m an optimist, right? So when I´m told in hushed tones in a dark corner of a hostel that I, cheapskate backpacker girl, can get to Antarctica, I know that finally only I, Silvana Joseph, have the scoop. This is purely underground knowledge. So here´s the plan, man. There are two ways of getting to Antarctica on the cheap. One: get a standby ticket on one of those $5,000 cruises. Someone always cancels. You then take a $900 15-day cruise with a lot of old people who have been researching snowboots their whole lives. The second? You contact the Chilean navy who will escort you to Antarctica and won´t even make you scrub the deck. Well, both of these sound great. A cruise is preferable but I know the chances are slim, so I prepare for the Chilean navy experience by recruiting two Canadian mountain boys named Clayton and Peter (!) to escort me onto the Chilean navy ship. The deal is that I charm us onto the boat and they provide us protection as only Canadian mountain boys can do (I don´t know what that means). We talk about this in a very excited way but we make sure not to tell anyone, because from this point on, everyone is…competition.

So what did I do my first two days in Ushuaia? I ran from tourist office to tourist office, trying to get us standby tickets to Antarctica. Which do not exist of course :) On to Plan B! I acquire the email address of the Chilean navy (the whole navy has ONE email address?) which bounces back, leaving me to wander around hassling every person dressed in a navy uniform and/or costume. No luck. What would you do at this point? Well, first I had some chocolate of course. And then I went to the only place that could give me comfort during this hard time. The Isle of the Penguins. Woohoo! We set out on a 1 hour bus through entirely dead forests (the gusts of winds are too strong for the trees) to arrive at Haberton Estancia, an historic ranch with access to the island. We got on a speedboat and cut through the icy waters to arrive at the island, where all the penguins were waiting for us with open…wings. They were so cute…waddling around…. swimming… looking all cute…you know, doing what penguins do so well. I wish I could tell you some facts about penguins but I actually wasn´t paying attention to the guide, they were just so damn cute. We crawled around the island taking pictures and then crept along the nesting grounds where all these stupid tourists kept trying to pet the penguins. And then it was time to go. They waddled goodbye to us and we sped off. I got to talking to our guide Luis who leads protests in Cordoba against the American companies that have been seizing farmers´ lands with the aid of corrupt local police factions…very depressing but important to hear. Unfortunately, I´ve heard this type of story one too many times from the locals in the last 2 months.

The next day, I went to the National Park with Olivier (France) and we hiked along the still lake, chased the hundreds of rabbits everywhere, took a nap on the pebbly shore, and then climbed small green hills where the rabbits dig their holes, which wind their way along dead forests and black lagoons. Absolutely gorgeous. The following day, I went with Eyal (Israel) to the Museo del Fin del Mundo to get our passports stamped with the official “End of the World” stamp, which is indeed very official and may get me banned from several countries. And other than that, I guess there´s not much else to do in Ushuaia. But a beautiful town and definitely worth the journey.

I calculated that I had taken over 70 hours worth of busses down here to Ushuaia and that it might be worth it to spend the extra $20 and take a flight back north. I was lucky enough to get a flight out that week (they say that the first thing you should do in Ushuaia is get a flight out of Ushuaia) and arrived in WARM Buenos Aires at 2 in the morning, with my taxista flying down the street at 70 mph, “skillfully” avoiding city buses and small children who shouldn´t be out. Ahh…Buenos Aires.

I had arrived just in time for the 30 year anniversary of the military coup that had seized the country on March 24, 1976. This coup (which was by the way supported by Kissinger and the US govt, in the name of “regional security”) led to the atrocious years of terror during which an estimated 30,000 Argentinian citizens, everyday people, were made to “disappear” by the government. This is the central part of the Argentinian identity….hopeful but eternally distrustful of government, wary of what the future holds. In observance of this sad day, there were demonstrations all day at Plaza de Mayo (where the head of government is located), by various orgs including the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo (You may have heard of Madres de Plaza de Mayo, who protest in the plaza every Thursday in memory of their disappeared children). I watched a radical org covered in head rags and carrying bats burn down dummies of policemen in the plaza and the more hopeful Movimiento Popular lead songs about el Peronismo and Che Guevara. Politics aside, it was a very emotional day, even for us outsiders. A news team came to interview me (why me, why me) and I`m hoping that my Spanish mess made more sense than my famously dumb newspaper quotes back home. (October, 2002-- “I think literacy is…good.”) That night, we all went out on the town and got home at 7am, and a few hours later I caught a bus to Santiago, Chile.

Yes, Argentina is complete. What a trip! It´s time to start exploring the rest of this incredible continent.

Posted by syosef 12:37 Archived in Argentina Tagged backpacking Comments (2)

Glaciers and Ice Cream and Everything Cold

El Chalten, El Calafate, and onwards on Ruta 40

all seasons in one day

Drawing upon my many years of technical experience as a Marketing Coordinator for the lovely VSUW, I have provided you with a high tech map of my route. Rebecca, are you proud?? Beto and Corrinna, I couldn´t figure out the whole editing in Paint...as usual.


I left Bariloche at 7 am, just when all the bars were letting out streams of loud young people. The sun was just coming up over the mountainous cordillera of Bariloche and it was absolutely beautiful…and cold. Thankfully, I had bought not one but TWO ski jackets from the thrift store down the street so I was able to burrow myself in. The minivan that was to take me for a 2 day journey toward the south squeaked down the street. It was a block of rusty metal with two bullet holes in the windshield. The first bullet hole was at the eye level of the driver, and the second was at the eye level of the passenger (in case he felt left out). Neither party looked too concerned.

We boarded the limo and headed down the infamous and unpaved Ruta 40, which actually goes all the way from north of Salta (very northern Argentina) to the very southern tip of the continent, Ushuaia, a mere 4,000 km from the South Pole. Once out of the city, we were pretty much in the middle of vast, endless plains, with snowcapped mountains looming over the horizon. The whole ride was bumpy on gravel and mud, and at many points, we drove on the ditch of the road because it was smoother. After a few hours, our only companions were packs of wild horses, condors, hundreds of guanacos (relative of the llama) and the occasional roadrunner, (which for the record can run pretty damn fast when there´s a rusty minivan with bullet holes barreling toward it…but it doesn´t say meep meep, sorry Navoosh). I made the mistake of befriending a Swiss/Italian girl who insisted on keeping me updated about her digestive problems for the whole trip. That night, we camped out at the “city” of Perito Moreno, a dusty one street town. The next morning, we headed out to Cueva de Las Manos (Cave of the Hands), the archaeological jewel of Patagonia (southern region of Argentina). It is a collection of handprints, geometric figures, and drawings of guanacos on a side of a mountain that are believed to be 9,000 years old. The drawings were made with guanaco blood and calafate berry juice. Yum! To see the drawings, visit this place http://www.patagonia.com.ar/santacruz/cuevamanos.php. I met Orin, an Israeli hitchhiking his way around the continent. In true Israeli style, he kept insisting that the site was a fake, yelling “how do you say STENCIL in Spanish?!?” but lordy lord, I believe it. After that, dusty and content, we continued down Ruta 40 the whole day until we finally reached the town of El Chalten at 11 pm.

El Chalten, another one-dusty-road town, was actually not dusty at all, but rather under 8 feet of mud, because it just wouldn´t stop raining…EVER. The plan was to hike up Fitz Roy, an incredible mountain with rivers and glaciers, one of the most panoramic treks in Patagonia, but when we woke up the next day, rain and mud and mud and rain. Not just that but also fog and 50 mph winds, howling like a tornado, it took 30 minutes to walk down the one road because the winds were so strong. I had befriended some really good folks, two hilarious Irish girls named Clare and Siofra, so we spent the day visiting the one chocolaterie in town, playing cards and eating…well…chocolate of course. Any day which involves chocolate is a good day, I think. Chalten is overrun by Israeli backpackers so we learned the Israeli card game that is currently taking the backpacking world by storm, Yaniv. Very addictive. I also hung about a nice Argentian couple, Fito, a forensic pathologist and Miriam, a librarian, who decided to adopt me as their own, with Fito lecturing me about the dangers of travel and Miriam giving me perfumy kisses and empanada recipes. The next day, we had had enough of the rain so we set out for Fitz Roy anyway, me, Clare, Siofra, and a grumpy philosophy PhD student named Igor. It was sunny and beautiful for the first 3 hours of the trek, we marveled at our luck, drank from the river, took nice pictures of the far off icy plains and then all of a sudden, BOOM, the storm of all storms. Monsoon rain, howling winds, the whole shebang. We were one hour from the top (not of the mountain, mind you, just one of its peaks. I´m not that hard core), at the refuge camp, and just had to turn around lest we get blown off into the abyss. The journey down was hard but Siofra and Clare brightened it up in their usual way by trying to teach me Irish rebel songs. I know it´s English but I had no idea what those two were saying so I resorted to keeping the beat by energetically clapping my hands all the way down (which also helped keep them warm). We finally returned to the hostel 8 hours later, soaking wet and cold and very thankful for the hot chicken soup.

The next morning, Clare, Siofra, Igor, and I boarded a bus for El Calafate, 5 hours south and more “cosmopolitan” than our lovable one-horse town. We arrived at hostel America del Sur, a big open space of a thing with heated hardwood floors and huge bay windows facing the wonderfully blue lake, Lago Argentino. The reason people come to El Calafate is to see El Perito Moreno, the most famous glacier on the continent and one of the few accessible by land. Well, it turned out that the week we arrived was the week the glacier was supposed to BREAK. This happens only once in a decade. When we arrived, the hostel was desolate because everyone had headed out to the glacier, hoping to witness the momentous event. We quickly booked a bus and headed out.

I have never seen a glacier in my life and it is one of the most incredible sights. Perito Moreno is 20 km long, 4 km wide, and 120 meters high. It is a surface of thousands of 20-story high icy peaks, white and blue and turquoise, that change color with the sun and the rain. There are icebergs floating all around it, which Clare aptly called “Nature´s Margarita”. When you first arrive upon it, you´re left speechless. We took a boat out to the bay that gets within 30 meters of the glacier. Because a large part of the glacier was about to break, chunks of ice (weighing several tons each, some the size of houses) were falling rapidly off the glacier. Every 3 minutes or so, you would see this huge piece of ice fall off into the water and then 4 seconds after, there would be a huge thundering noise all around the valley. It was absolutely amazing. We stayed there in the frigid cold with the news cameras until 8 pm and then we had to leave on the last bus out. The glacier broke 3 hours later. Apparently, there were only a dozen or so people there to witness it. Ahh…nature does not follow tourist visiting hours J To see El Perito Moreno, visit this page. http://www.argentour.com/PeritoMorenoe.htm

Days 3 and 4 in El Calafate were spent walking around, eating calafate berry ice cream (tastes like a mix of lemon and cherries), and trying with no success to keep Clare and Siofra from buying up every “indigenous” piece of art in the ritzy downtown area (Siofra bought something that ended up being made in China). On our last night, we visited Nibepo Aike, an Argentinian estancia (ranch) nestled on the border of Argentina and Chile. We sat by the fire in front of a window overlooking the sun setting against Lago Argentino, snowpeaked mountains, and a sliver of the Perito Moreno glacier. We then went out for a horseride by the lake, which was a major event for me because I´ve been scared of horses ever since the infamous Italian horseriding incident of 99 (Melissa and me in the middle of a ranch in northern Italy, her champion stallion sees a dog and gallops off, throwing her off into a mud puddle) but Octubre was very well behaved and even let me pet his hair. We watched the gauchos (cowboys) shear a fuzzy sheep and ended the night with a big dinner with a French Canadian couple and a Spanish girl who did the dubbing voice for Ann Hathaway in the spanish version of Brokeback Mountain. The dinner was a typical estancia asado of beef, sausage, and cordero (lamb). They spread the lamb carcass over an opèn fire pit and let it cook and smoke for hours. I know I swore off asados but this was my absolute last one. For real this time.

The next day, I bid Clare and Siofra farewell (back to Ireland for them!) and caught the 4 am bus to Ushuia, the southernmost city in the world, where los penguinos and Antarctica and the Beagle Channel all hang out. The 18 hour journey consisted of 3 buses, 4 border crossings, and one very rocky boat ride across the stormy strait of Magellan, but that´s all in the next entry. (Is that building up suspense? Huh?? Huh?? I need to work on those endings...)

Posted by syosef 08:20 Archived in Argentina Tagged backpacking Comments (5)

From Wine Country to Ski Country

Mendoza to Bariloche and beyond

rain 2 °C

My last few days in Mendoza were spent wandering around with no particular purpose, as a way to recover from my adventure travel fad. Back at our cute little hostel, the old timers, aka those of us who had been staying there for more than three days, had formed a little exclusive gang made up of 4 Scots, 2 Brits, 2 Irishmen, 1 Canadian, and me. We gambled bottles of wine on Connect-4 and UNO championship tournaments, compared travel horror stories, and shot dirty looks at the wave of Australian athletes that had just come in, whispering amongst ourselves "What are they doing at OUR hostel....".

Being that I renewed my room reservation late, I was banished to the basement, a dark room with no windows, where my roommate was Franco, a chatterbox Chilean/Canadian who tells lively stories where he is, suspiciously enough, always the hero. The main example of this was when Franco went whitewater rafting on Tuesday and some "Americano!" fell out of the boat and freaked out, forgetting to assume the safety position of pointing your toes toward the current. Quick on his feet, Franco grabbed the poor sucker by the shirt and yelled "Look at me, man! Look at me! There is a rock coming our way...you need to CALM down." This speech somehow had a great calming effect on the victim and Franco eventually pulled him to safety. I didn´t believe this story so Franco made us go to the travel agency and buy a CD of pictures of that day that show the heroic moment, shot by shot. On Wednesday, Franco and Claudia (Holland) convinced me to go to the zoo, where me and Claudia got depressed by the small cages and Franco kept getting lost looking for the tigers. We hit an incredible monsoon ONCE AGAIN (these things are following me), where we hid under a vendor´s umbrella as 1 inch pieces of HAIL slammed down onto the pavement. The storm lasted for 30 thundering minutes so we had to entertain ourselves by listening to a fellow zoo patron sing "I´m sigggneee in da rain!" and by staring at the elephant that was picking up falling branches and hitting himself over the head with them (not a good sign) so then it was time to leave. Leave Mendoza that is, I caught the 8 pm bus that night for Bariloche. It was the end of the week and I already owed a total of 9 bottles of wine (that´s 18 games of UNO, mind you), so I had to quickly skip town before someone came (to the basement) to break my knees.

I got on my Andesmar bus (because it goes from the Andes to the mar or ocean) and sat down next to Luis, a really sweet 70 year old porteno, and for the next 5 hours, he practiced his English and I practiced my Spanish. I learned that I have been mixing up the words for religious and hairy. We also played Andesmar Bingo, where the steward hands out Andesmar Bingo cards and when you have two vertical or horizontal lines, you have to yell out ANDESMAR BINGO! while everyone stares at you in contempt. The prize is a bottle of wine that you have to share with the rest of the bus. Neither Luis nor I won, so we went to sleep and woke up the next morning in Nuqueyen, my layover en route to Bariloche. Luis and I exchanged emails and parted ways. While waiting for the bus, I met Paula, a pastry chef from Rio Gallegos. We exchanged emails. I continued onwards south, where on my second bus, we played yet another exciting game of Andesmar Bingo. Well, lo and behold, I got two vertical lines so I mustered up all my courage and said quietly..."Andesmar...Bingo??". The steward didn´t hear me and continued calling the numbers in excitement. My fellow passengers (who had looked suicidal up to that point) suddenly found a cause, MY cause, and rallied to my defense, repeatedly yelling Andesmar Bingo! until the steward stopped the game and collected my card. Everyone held their breath. He shook his head sadly. If I had listened to the instructions, he said, I would have understood that I need to fill up the entire grid to win. All the passengers shook their head at me....poor turista...and the game continued! Onward to Andesmar Bingo!!

I arrived in Bariloche in late afternoon, to a stunning view of dozens of bright blue lakes snaking around green patches of forest, all against the backdrop of the snowcapped Andes. The weather was noticeably cooler, probably 60 degrees or so. While waiting for the bus, I met two Chilean hippies. They emphatically decided they would be my hosts in Santiago and we exchanged emails. This whole email exchange...it´s kind of silly...everyone does it but noone ever follows up. Maybe that´s a good thing? I arrived in Hostel 41 Below (that´s a reference to latitude), an awesome hostel run by a laid back New Zealander named Paul. Imagine a modern ski lodge with red leather couches, fully equipped kitchen, and Coldplay playing in the background. Snowboarder-Skater dude Miguel was working the front desk and, with zero pity for my 24 hour journey, he immediately sent me off on a trek up Cerro Otto, an amazing panoramic view of the area. But not before we sat down to drink some mate, the official tea of Argentina, the official hobby of Argentina. Everyone has their own nicely decorated mate cup with a metal straw, and you´re usually not allowed to drink from someone else´s mate unless you have permission. There are a lot of rules concerning mate. Miguel limited our lesson to yelling at me to not touch the straw..."You foreigners...you´re always touching the straw...just leave the damn straw alone." Okay, okay!

The next few days were pretty fun. I went white water rafting in Rio Mansu, a relaxing current with some pretty exciting rapids, all against the backdrop of the mountains. We all dutifully rowed and ducked when leader Alan told us to. Half of the boat spoke English and the other Spanish so Alan kept getting confused, and getting us confused, with the captain´s commands. Alto! No, stop. No, the left. derecha, derecha!! No, no, no!! DUCK!!! We ended the day with some hot chocolate and torta frita with dulce de leche in some random wood cabin in the woods. Very nice. The nights were spent hanging out with the hostel people, going out to jazz bars, and gorging myself on Bariloche´s famous chocolateries, most notably Mamuschka´s. On the third day in Bariloche, I received a dramatically mysterious note from Miguel telling me to go to El Boliche de Alberto, a famed Barilochean parilla, at 9 pm. When I arrived, Paul and his friend Daniel were there, fresh from the Chilean beaches, and we sat down to a steak dinner, eating 1800 grams of sizzling steak which Paul swore was served by white haired Alberto himself. We ate so much that I swore off steak for the rest of my life, which I´m pretty sure I can now do. I guess it was just a fad, sorry mom and dad. We went night clubbing to bad eighties music (think ABBA but none of their famous songs) and the next day, we visited the casino where I found a magic poker machine and the Villa Sofia spa, where we got one hour massages (I fell asleep so I guess it was good) and ran from the hot tub to the pool to the hot tub to the pool approximately 35 times. Paul left for good this time (I swear!) so it was sad to see him go but he´s excited about starting his own bar so we high fived and promised to keep in touch.

Tuesday was so bad that I have describe it in an organized way. I had signed up for a boat excursion out to Isla Victoria, an island that has the very famous Arreyanes forest with very old tree and plant forms. I was supposed to be there at 2 pm. The journey to Puerto Panuelo, the port where the ship is harbored, is a 30 minute bus ride. I left the hostel at 10. This is what happened:

10:00- I leave my hostel.
10:15- I catch bus #21 to Puerto Panuelo
10:30- I realize that I have 14 pesos on me. The park entry is 12 pesos. The bus ride back is 2 pesos. Too close.
10:45- I get off at Merito, a port with a huge kindergarten smack in the middle of it. I look for a bank. No banks.
11:00- I catch bus #21 back to the center of town. The winds are insane today, 45 mph. This cuts out all the electricity in every bank in town. The ATMS are out. I wait 45 minutes for them to come back on.
11:45- I catch bus #21 back towards Puerto Panuelo. It does not go to Puerto Panuelo, instead heading south through every dusty town in Argentina. At the end of the route, it is just me and the driver in an empty field. I say "Puerto Panuelo?" and he just laughs.
12:00- The driver has finished his lunch and we head on back.
12:10- 75 kindergarteners get on the bus. The bus capacity is 52.
12:45- I get dropped off at, you guessed, Merito, along with all the kindergarteners. The crossing guard helps us across the street.
1:30- I catch bus #20 toward Puerto Panuelo.
1:50- I arrive. Fernando will not let me on the boat, saying I am not on the list. I say my name to him repeatedly. He shakes his head. As I watch my boat leave the harbor, Fernando says "Oh...found it." . I stomp off, wishing the worst for Fernando, that the milk in his fridge will go bad, or that he will get bitten by a monkey.
2:10- In my rage, I decide to hike up Mount Liao Liao, a muddy, jungly island which happens to be right there.
3:00- Still mad, I am stomping up the muddy mountain.
3:10- I hear a bear approx 3 meters from me. I run down Mount Liao Liao. I take back all the bad things I thought about Fernando.
4:00- The continous rain that has been falling for the last four hours turns into a shower. It is cold and I am wet. I find a church on top of a hill and hide out there in the warmth. I make a promise to find Jesus in exchange for a cup of hot chocolate. They are sweet, but there is no hot chocolate, so I decide to stay a Jew. They seem okay with that.
4:30- Home sweet home.
4:33- I learn that there are no bears on Mount Liao Liao.

After this day, the only thing left to do was to go to my magic poker machine at the casino, which did not let me down. 8 US dollars, baby!

The remaining days in Bariloche were unfortunately rainy so trekking was out of the question. One day, I explored the "unknown Bariloche" with Susie (USA) and Pablo (BsAs). We wandered around dusty streets which Pablo insisted were not safe. I tried in vain to explain to him my 3 rules of safety.

1. Look pissed off. I´ve perfected this look and I use it most of the time when I´m walking alone. This works for minor dangers, like when someone is looking at you.
2. Pretend you have a cell phone earpiece in your ear and start talking loudly. This works if someone is following you...they´ll usually walk away, either because they think you´re talking on your cell phone or because they think you´re a weirdo.
3. Find an old lady. This is for really unsafe situations. Just find an old lady and start walking with her, because noone, anywhere in the world, will ever mess with someone´s grandma.

I thought these rules were pretty damn good but Pablo did not seem convinced, especially after we passed a carful of boys sniffing glue, so he ushered us back to the main plaza. Sigh...

On Thursday, I said goodbye to the awesome hostel staff and boarded a 7 am bus to El Chalten, a 2 day, 32 hour bus ride through Ruta 40, a desolate, unpaved road that goes from Bariloche to El Calafate, the home of Perrito Moreno, one of the most famous glaciers on the continent. As I move south, the landscape is getting more and more barren, but also more spectacular. It is bitterly cold and the winds easily reach 60 mph...quite the difference from the tropical climate of Iguazu, huh. I´ve almost reached The End of the World...very exciting. Stay tuned!

Posted by syosef 16:10 Archived in Argentina Tagged backpacking Comments (5)

Mendoza Part 1

Winery and Mountain Tours Galore...


NOTE: It has been brought to my attention that there have been some complaints that my travel blog entries are "too long" and that no one has "time" to read the whole "thing". The only way I know how to respond to this is to now make my entries TWICE AS LONG. So there. :)

So I finally caught the 17 hour bus from Iguazu, land of a million waterfalls, back to Buenos Aires and arrived in Giramondo Hostel in cool and shady (as in trees) Palermo only to find that there were no beds available for me to sleep in. Shoshana at the front desk was nice enough to allow me to leave my mochila in a dark curtained room in the back and she sent me off to the showers until she could find me a bed. I went into the bathroom and discovered Giramondo Hostel´s...uniqueness. All the walls were constructed of shiny aluminium, gray pavement for a floor and 3x3´ shower stalls. I know they were going for some kind of postmodern thing but the whole place looked an army barrack. I took a much needed hot shower and went upstairs to the kitchen to make some salad and military eggs for breakfast and lo and behold, who walks in but Paul, who had ended up delaying his flight for 2 more weeks to hit up the beaches in Santiago. I´m telling you...this place SUCKS you in. It´s like Amsterdam...hundreds of people who meant to stay for 2 days but have lived there for 2 years. Within an hour, he convinced to come with him to Mendoza, the NW wine region of the country, right on the border of Chile. We booked an overnight bus for that evening and begged Shoshana to let us leave our bags for the day, though Shoshana was none too happy with me. After all, I had already received both 10 minutes of hot water AND two army eggs (I dropped the first one on the floor) without even paying for a bed. Not good business, tsk, tsk. But nevertheless, we went merrily on our way, well, separate ways, Paul went shopping for his designer crapola while I decided to once again tackle La Boca, the neighborhood I had botched up the week before. I finally found the "right" neighborhood, a few lively blocks of brightly painted buildings of blues and yellows and reds with fake tango dancers in the streets and an heladeria (ice cream shop) every block, right on the port. It was very nice for an hour or two. I caught the bus back to our hostel to meet Paul for dinner and we caught the 7 o´clock bus for Mendoza.

Now this bus...before I tell you what was in store for your little adventurers, let me tell you the expectations. Let´s just say that we had already been arguing about which post-dinner dessert goes best with champagne, chocolate eclairs or tiramisu. Our trusty little Tramat (now forever known as HazMat) pulled into the station and the first thing I had to translate was a sign on the door that said: "For fear of spreading cholera, bathroom is only to be used in emergencies". This is an 18 hour bus ride, people! We settled down in the wet and dirty brown leather seats and held on for the ride, most of which was in a 50 degree climate with no blankets, no food, and coffee with icicle pieces in it. The bathroom stopped working at hour 5 and our seats were one foot away from ground zero so I´m calculating that we got cholera about 23 times. I wrapped my pajama pants around my head to block out the cold but not before making a heartfelt speech about this "not being right" and how we should "do something", but everyone pretty much ignored the girl with the pants on her head, so eventually I went to sleep.

We arrived in Mendoza at Hostel Lagares, a really cute and new hostel owned by a young couple expecting a baby in a month. We walked around the shopping bonanza that is downtown Mendoza, especially in the main Plaza Independencia and ate a whole pie of pizza with green olives at Rincon de la Boca, the best pizza crust in town. The next day, we went on a wine tour of a few of the 100 or so bodegas (wineries) in this area. We first visited Don Arturo winery and had some Malbec, the famous wine of this region. We then visited an olive oil factory where we learned that black and green olives are actually the same olive, not two different types, and then we got to taste all these different olive oils, yum. I got a little too into it, stealing bits of french baguette soaked in oil, until the tour guide shot me a dirty look. After that was a larger winery where they fed us more Malbec and Chardonnays and I don´t even know, everything was getting blurry. And the very last stop was a liquor factory, where this little old lady showed us dozens of different liquors (sp?), from chocolate and bananas to peaches, and told us of her little old grandma who would take a shot of whiskey every day before going to bed, for purely "digestive purposes". Righhhht. That night was another parrilla dinner of steak in mushroom sauce with bruschetta and the next morning Paul left for good to explore Santiago with his friend.

I set out on a trekking trip with 4 girls from Buenos Aires, where we climbed a mountain with our guide Sebastian and then rapeled down it with ropes. I completely sucked going up the mountain, all out of shape. My only saving grace was Cecelia, who had been drinking til 5 the previous night and who had to stop every 5 minutes to catch her breath and stare blankly around, so fortunately I was able to blend in. And then going down, I was like a mountain goat, skipping gracefully from rock to rock while everyone else kept falling and hitting bushes. I think they should invent a sport where you just go down mountains, not up them. Yes, that would be perfect. We skipped down half the mountain and then rapeled down a 140 foot drop with ropes. Very scary but ultimately fun, though I kept screaming Mierda! Mierda! as Sebastian chuckled. Cecelia unfortunately fell into the side rocks and started bleeding from her elbow. Poor girl, rough 24 hours. We ended the day with a visit to the thermal springs across the street, relaxing in warm currents for two hours while being served some hot empanadas. What a day!

The next day, I took a tour of Alta Montana on a bus with a bunch of friendly old Argentinians. We visited Puente del Inca (http://www.cuyo.com/altamontana/puentedelinca.asp), a bizarre looking rock formation that had formed over an avalanched hotel from the early 1900´s. The Incas also once used this path as they crossed the region. We visited the base of Aconcagua Mountain, the highest mtn outside the Andes. Amazing! The next stops were Los Penitentes, a famous ski lodge, and Uspallata Valley, where if you stand in the middle and do a 360 degree turn, you will see bright green plains, then hot red valley, then snowpeaked mountains, then pure black peaks, all in the same panoramic view. The final stop was Cristo Redentor, the final frontier with Chile, where you dizzyingly climb a mountain to reach a 4000 meter point with the wind whipping violently around a huge Jesus statue. On the way up, all the drivers we passed would hold up a diaper, as a way of calling us sissies and egging us to continue on up the scary path. Lucas the tour guide´s explanations of the scenery were more confusing in English than in Spanish. For example, at one point, I understood that one month ago, the Argentinians had carried a cannonball up a mountain and shot it up in the air, setting the world record for the highest cannonball shot from the top of a mountain. I´m not really sure this is what really happened, but it definitely makes the story more interesting. I was again only with Spanish speakers for the whole day and I got by on staring intensely at everyone as they spoke, which I think might have freaked them out, but I succeeded in understanding maybe 20% of what they said, which is a definite improvement. I even added to the conversation by talking about the weather and they all smiled at me when I finished.

My new strategy of dealing with Spanish conversations is to just talk about what I want to talk about, regardless of what the conversation is really about. Usually, I pick something that rhymes with whatever it was the person said, which is very easy in Spanish. An example:

Carlos: Y cuantas horas trabaja un abogado?
"How many hours does a lawyer work?"

Me: Me gusta helado? Claro!
"Do I like ice cream? Of course!"

This little strategy of mine has really been amusing me but it usually just confuses the other person. No matter!

(At this point, drunk Irishman Peter comes up behind me and says "Well bloody hell, that is the focking longest email I´ve yet to seen. Well, fock it! What are you writing??" I point a finger toward a beer bottle in the corner and he leaves to claim it...but I realize that I probably should end this entry lest I get more complaints from very busy people)

Posted by syosef 18:57 Archived in Argentina Tagged backpacking Comments (3)

Monsoon Summer

Tango Mishaps y Las Cataratas de Iguazu

sunny 27 °C

I am currently sitting in an internet cafe in Puerto Iguazu in northern Argentina, right on the border with Brasil. It is 82 degrees outside with 80% humidity and I´m starting to feel a bit woozy, but I´ll try to keep this good!

So starting where we last left off, last Friday. Paul left in the afternoon to take a ferry to Uruguay for a few days, to hit up the beaches, those crazy California boys, so I was solo for the weekend. He is quite the party animal and I´ve been trying my best to keep up but I´m pretty lame in the end, so I sent him off to party and meet girls and all that kind of stuff in another country. That evening, I actually did make it to Jonah´s show, which was so good, a type of country-rock mix held in a dark cultural center, with Jonah playing the harmonica like a true rock star, crawling around on the floor and throwing microphones all over. True star quality. During the show, I made friends with Frederico, a PhD student on his 7th year (out of eleven!) of studies and since the neighborhood was grainy, he offered to walk me to my next destination, a tango club down the street. Well, the address I had written down turned out be a parking deck (typical me, huh) so we ended up going out for a drink in the busy San Telmo plaza. Frederico told me all about the science fiction book he was writing and how there is a lochness monster in the lakes of Bariloche (the next stop on my route) that eats Israeli girls with ketchup. I might have to skip Bariloche now. Damn. I hopped on a cab home and passed out by 2, very pathetic I know. The next morning I woke up early to switch hostels, since the landlady at the old one was really angry at Paul for accidently taking one of her big red towels when he had left the day before. I don´t know what I had to do with the whole situation but it was time to peace out before things got ugly. I arrived in Tango City Hostel, an MTV style hostel, with Madonna blaring in the background and young beautiful people strolling around looking...young and beautiful.

The first order of business was to inquire about tango classes. The guy at the front desk immediately proclaimed "There are none!" But that´s impossible, I replied. Tango City Hostel, hellooo?? to which he said "Do not worry, beautiful. I am a professional tango dancer. I shall teach you". I sized him up, he was wearing a Pearl Jam tshirt, but he seemed sincere so I agreed and asked when, the response to which was "I have a very busy day today, so I shall teach you now, in this lobby". The kids at the front desk started giggling and switched Jack Johnson to some over-the-top tango music and he positioned me in the center of lobby and we started dancing the tango, except it wasn´t at all the tango, because he didn´t know how to dance the tango. Five funny minutes later, after we´d all been entertained, I gave up on him and went out to explore the neighborhood. I went to Parque Lezama, a huge old estate with sprawling trees and pretty sculptures, where old men were playing chess and checkers in the shade. I bought some food at the supermarket, ate an awful pasta dinner at the hostel with a couple of Norwegians, and went out on my own to see this AWESOME tango show called Tango Emocion that I had found for really cheap on the local circuit. It was so beautiful and the show was really well put together...I loved it. That night, I went out with another solo girl traveller from Israel...just drinks at the port. Our conversation was the most confusing mix of English, Spanish, and Hebrew and my head was spinning by the end of the night. There were some crazy Brits at the hostel that were playing the loudest drinking game I´ve ever heard in my life, 6 boys surrounded by 36 (empty) litre bottles of beer, so it was nice to get a breath of fresh air.

The next day, I explored La Boca neighborhood. I hadn´t really researched this part of town so I wandered around aimlessly in cool neighborhoods with the locals. I only found out later that I had entirely missed all the tourist hot spots, mainly the glitzy caminito by the water. Oops. It´s okay though, because I of course had my own little adventure. At one point, there were dozens of locals crossing this empty dusty field and then jumping through a row of tall bushes. When in doubt do as the locals do of course, so I walked across the field and jumped through the bushes, only to jump into a chaotic army of crazed soccer fans. Apparently, this was the backstreet way to the futbol stadium and the game was starting in 30 minutes so thousands and thousands of people were running around singing and yelling. All of a sudden, police sirens went off and the motorcycle brigade came through, making way for the La Boca Jrs. team bus, all the crazed fans sprinting after it, yelling and pounding on the windows. The futbol players inside did not seem impressed unfortunately. I sat there for an hour just watching the scene, especially the rowdy crowd at Gate 12 that charged at the police and got beaten back by riot sticks and that´s when it was time to go. I hopped on the 17 hour bus to Iguazu Falls, which, 17 hours, sounds awful, but is actually pretty relaxing. It´s an overnight cama bus, where you get a fully reclining bed, dinner, movies, and even champagne! Best bus experience I´ve ever had...Greyhound, you´re sooo going down!

Paul was supposed to meet me in Iguazu but he had run into a world of trouble when his Uruguay-Argentina ferry took 6 extra hours to go back to BA (uruguyan rule of thumb is to multiply any time estimate by 3. so for example, a "3 hour ferry ride" will actually take 9. at least), and to top it all of, he got off at the wrong stop on his cama bus and ended up having to take a 4 hour bumpy cab ride to Iguazu. So we by chance finally met up at the hostel and just relaxed the rest of the day in the searing heat. Yesterday, we met early for breakfast and headed out to Iguazu Falls, the most awesome day of my trip so far. Iguazu is a national park that has 275 waterfalls, including the famed Garganta del Diablo, "Devil´s Throat", that is twice as high as Niagara Falls where the water crashes down 350 feet with another huge water mist of nearly 100 feet! It´s absolutely amazing...like a huge black hole in the middle of the earth with a incredible thundering force of water. Definitely one of the great wonders of the world! We visited the site, explored the rainforests all around the park for hours watching these blackbirds swoop down against one waterfall, where they had made their nest right in the crest of the fall, and then took a speedboat that crashed us right under several waterfalls, soaking everything in sight within 1/2 a second! Around 4 o´clock, we were exploring San Martin´s Island when this monsoon of a storm crashed in, the rain thundering down like bullets, you couldn´t see a foot ahead of you. Hundreds of tourists started running toward the shore, people were cowering underneath rocks while thunder and lightning streaked violently across the sky. I am so prepared...I brought my trusty CVS emergency poncho which we wrapped around our heads and tried to blindly make our way toward the mile long line for the first boat off the island. The monsoon lasted for 30 minutes...it was so powerful. And then the sun came out like nothing had happened but we were all drenched to bone, with mud splattered all over. We finally made it out of the park, took the bus to the town center, and in our dirty and wet clothes, sat down and had the best meal ever...steak and fries and salad with red wine and bread. Hmm. I´ve never eaten so good. That adventure deserved a nap and at 3 in the morning, we woke up to go clubbing at Cuba Libre, a latin hot spot, before we crashed again at 6 am. What a life! See this link for cool pictures of Iguazu http://gosouthamerica.about.com/od/topdestiguazu/ig/Iguazu-Falls-Photo-Gallery/index.htm.

I bid Paul farewell this morning, he is going back to the States to open up a bar in San Francisco. It´s been really fun. Travelling buddies, they just come and go unfortunately, it is what it is. And now I just wait for my 2 o´clock cama bus back to Buenos Aires. What a place...Iguazu. Absolutely great. I am having dinner tomorrow night in Palermo with my Norwegian travelling buddy so hopefully we´ll connect well. Pictures to come soon when they are emailed to me. I need to get a camera, huh... Til next time. Suerte!

Posted by syosef 06:39 Archived in Argentina Tagged backpacking Comments (2)

Steaks and Cemeteries

First Week in BsAs.

sunny 27 °C

It is my seventh day in Buenos Aires and I´m already starting to lose track of days of the week. I arrived on Friday I think after a very chaotic adventure with United Airlines. I had a layover in Washington DC and the outbound Newark flight got in an hour late. With seven of us on board trying to get to Buenos Aires, the stewardess pledged that we could make the BA flight, as long as we ¨ran like mad¨. So the plane lands and we start running through Dulles like lunatics, I get body slammed a few times by oncoming traffic but, bygone it, I´m going to make this flight. So we arrive at the gate and find a morose looking flight attendant shaking his head at us. The plane is boarded. The door just closed. My partners in crime start begging this guy to let us on -- they talk about missed weddings and hundreds of dollars lost--and finally, this poor guy breaks down and walkie talkies the pilot and gives us the go ahead to get on the plane. We open the door and start sprinting down the jetway when all of a sudden, this ear piercing alarm starts going off and a little lady with yellow hair jumps in front of us and starts yelling, at which point, the nice guy comes out and they start yelling at each other. It seemed that the jetway had already started pulling away from the plane and that if we had continued, we would have ran right off onto the pavement! So we turn around and walk to the customer service desk where two women in the group start yelling about bringing United back into bankruptcy and organizing a missed-flights-revolucion while I just sit there quietly, hoping I can get a free meal out of the whole thing. Two hours later, one in the morning, we are shuttled to a hotel that is booked and then shuttled to another hotel that is not, where I sleep until 2 in the afternoon, go visit the Air and Space Museum, and catch the next flight that evening. Woowee. :)

When I finally got settled on the flight, I got sat next to another solo traveller, Paul, 27 (we quickly changed his name to Paulo. I am Seeban) from San Francisco, who was doing a 2 week tour of the region. It was very lucky to find someone else in my situation and we immediately became travelling buddies for the next week. For the last week, I have been staying in Portal del Sur, a gorgeous hostel on Hipolito Yrigoyen in Microcentre, the financial district of BsAs. BsAs is absolutely beautiful. The architecture is breathtaking, beautiful renaissance style buildings splattered all throughout every block, hundreds of small cafes, churches, parks. It´s like Europe but with more spice. BsAs doesn´t have any one or two particular must see´s, though in my opinion the whole city is a must see, but it does have dozens of neighborhoods, each one with its own distinct personality. To name a few, I have visited Palermo (the rich artisty area), San Telmo (touristy antique and student area), Puerto Madero (gorgeous harbor) and so on and so forth. We visited the Cementerio del Norte on Wednesday, a huge maze of old mausoleums and imposing sculptures, where Eva Peron and other notables are buried.

The days are very hot and very humid, reportedly the hottest summer in many years. So because it´s so hot, it´s hard to pack a lot in in one day. Okay, this also could be because the nightlife does not start until 2 am, so by the time you recover from the night, the whole day is shot. On Tuesday, we went to a disco where we met a lot of local portenos, but we didn´t get home until 5. That goes for Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday too (we were good on Monday). So my days, like most other young travellers here, are spent strolling around cobblestone streets, taking in a café doble at a restaurant, trying to muster up conversations with locals who are very patient with me, and taking sunny naps in brilliantly green parks while parents chase their kids around. You can definitely get used to this kind of lifestyle. If you can believe it, I had an awesome steak dinner this week. I haven´t eaten red meat in years but the parillas (steak restaurants) here are among the best in the world. So we headed over to Disnivel, a famous parilla in San Telmo, where I had a 14 oz flank steak with french fries, huge mixed salad, bottle of wine, and yummy crusty french bread, all for $10 US. We were there for 4 hours. I can´t figure out which is more amazing: the price or the fact that I ate a steak the size of me.

Paul (oh sorry..Paulo) and I are getting along very well- we are good travelling partners. We´ve only had one fight so far, when I got us on the wrong bus headed 10 miles north of the city and refused to admit it, so we got abandoned at some dark park at night and, while waiting for the right bus, Paul dropped his water bottle on the ground, and I kicked it across the sidewalk. He then pretended I was invisible for the next 15 minutes, which is the absolute worst thing you can ever do to a youngest child. So you can tell we´re on the same maturity level..hehe...I blame it on the heat. I´ve also met tons of people in my hostels, a mix of Brits, Aussies, Germans, and Americans. The other day, the Americans and Germans dared to play futbol against the locals, and they came back very quietly with scratches and blood all over their legs and faces. The end lesson is to NEVER take futbol lightly…. No conclusions yet about solo women travellers...they´re not very common definitely, but then again, you´re constantly meeting people, so it´s difficult to figure out who came alone. But I feel absolutely safe at all times.

My spanish is improving very slowly. I´m pretty competent at getting across what I need (ordering food, directions, schedules) but real conversations are hard. I´ll chatter away and then the person replies and I have no idea what they´re saying. That´s when you resort to sign language and/or nodding your head a lot AS IF you understand, which most people catch on to after they ask you “which do you like better, window or aisle?” and you reply “yes!”. Yesterday, we went to visit Jonah, a friend from college who has been living in BsAs for the last year teaching English and playing in a band that has quite the following down here. He and his roommate took us to a book reading by a local named Chris Brush who just wrote a book about alcohol and punk rock and who has a band named Chris Brush and The Broken Wines. The band used to be called The Broken Hearts but then one fated day, Chris was drunk onstage and made a dive for the bar, that was wet, and crashed into all the bottles of wines, breaking them, and then having to pay for them. It was really awesome to see Jonah, who seems to be completely proficient in Spanish, and I plan on going to his band´s show tonight, though it may be sold out. I am also taking a tango lesson today, so I´m pumped to look like an idiot. But seriously I´m very excited.

I hope to meet up with my Norwegian travelling friend sometime this week so I can get to know her better before heading down south to The End of the World, the tip of South America. We keep missing each other…it´s very strange not having a cell phone, but it´s ultimately a good thing. You don´t realize how much of a slave you are to your cell phone, until you no longer have to check your messages every 5 minutes or worry about it ringing in museums, cemeteries, etc.

My readers have requested an itinerary of my trip. Since I listen to my audience (despite my demanding schedule, mind you), here goes. First off, yes, BsAs is in Argentina...good job! The plan is to leave BsAs on Sunday (20th) to go to Iguazu Falls, one of the great wonders of the world, return back south, hit up Cordoba, Bariloche, go to the very tip of the continent to see glaciers and then cross over to Chile, which is on the western coast of the continent. That means BEACHES for the next few weeks until I get to Peru, where I continue north to Ecuador, where the plan is to do some volunteer work for a month or so? It´s all very vague. That´s another aspect of travelling alone, staying flexible, so you can latch on to other people´s itineraries. That´s right...I´m a big LEECH. :)

Oh yes, and I´m proud to report that my backpack is the lightest I´ve seen around. That´s right, suckas!

Thanks for all the support...looking forward to your comments. Hasta luego.

Posted by syosef 14:06 Archived in Argentina Tagged backpacking Comments (4)

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