Nothing to See, But Don’t Keep Moving!

A Guest Post by Christine Ribeiro 

When talking to other backpackers or looking at travel itineraries through South America, two countries tend to get left out of the routes: Uruguay and Paraguay. While we certainly enjoyed the sites we saw in Chile and Argentina, we were excited to head off the beaten path and explore places most did not. Thus, expectations were high when we took the boat from Buenos Aires to Colonia, Uruguay, the only site in Uruguay to make it into the top sites in South America in our travel guide.

Colonia is an old colony town that was well preserved and supposedly very picturesque. We got in at night and walked around the more modern part of town, saving the historic section for the next day. We got there and walked every street of the 5 block by 5 block old section in under an hour. While certainly nice, it was not what was expected from something on the same list as Macchu Pichu and the Galapagos. I am pretty sure they were just trying to throw Uruguay a bone, so they had at least something on the list.

Suspiro street  - all 100 meters of it

Suspiro street – all 100 meters of it

From there we headed to Montevideo, where we walked the old part of town (often used in place of Havana, Cuba in films) in under two hours and there was little left to see. We did a lot more walking and saw basically every park and beach view possible, but again, nothing remarkable.

Viejo Montevideo

Viejo Montevideo

As we made our way north to Tacuarembo, gaucho/cowboy country, the scenery was picturesque and the town quaint, but little more to see.

Gaucho land

Gaucho land

Finally we ended in Salto, just over the border from Argentina, where this supposedly wonderful thermal bath/springs were. We arrived and it was basically a bunch of hot public swimming pools.

The thermal baths/public pools

The thermal baths/public pools

While there is nothing remarkable that we can point to from our time in Uruguay, we both loved it. It had this laid back relaxed feeling across the country. Even in Montevideo, the largest city, no one was in a rush. Every day after work, the beach fronts were full of people sitting at benches drinking their maté (local loose leaf tea that you drink through a metal straw with a filter and is shared with friends) and watching the sunset. It is a vibe that I only felt once before, in Laos. Maybe it is something about being between two large economic powers in the region (Laos between Thailand and Vietnam and Uruguay between Argentina and Brazil) that makes things just a little bit less rushed. Maybe it is their liberal politics that legalized gay marriage and marijuana (only for residents, don’t get any ideas). Maybe it was the tone set by their last president, who after his term ended went back to a simple life on his ranch, instead of continuing to play a political role. Whatever it is, there is something special about Uruguay. While there may not be anything specific to see, it is worth going just for the vibe. Or perhaps, even moving there!

Mate on the beach

Mate on the beach – the good life

Boca v. River

I have never been that interested in soccer, which is a fact that separates me from about 90% of the male-aged population on this particular planet. Something about the seemingly pointless kicking around of a ball for 90 minutes in order to set up two minutes of actual action has never made a strong impression upon me. Nonetheless, I do own a number of soccer jerseys from various countries visited around the world, given my penchant for being a poser, and I enjoy a good random sporting event in other countries, especially when I am oblivious to the rules (or even objectives) of the game.

As it so happened, during our 11-day stay in Buenos Aires, one of my oldest and only half-Argentine friends, Nick, decided to come down and meet us. Or so I thought – rather our time in the Argentine capital happened to coincide with three upcoming matches for Nick’s beloved Boca Juniors soccer club, two of them against archrival River Plate. Regardless of the underlying motivations, we took full advantage of having a local guide, and Nick’s family took wonderful care of us in the ‘Good Airs’ (i.e. Buenos Aires)

Fast forward to the second of the two Boca Junior matches, on Thursday of that week. The two clubs had played against each other the previous Sunday, a game for which Nick’s uncle had inquired about getting tickets, only to dismiss that notion upon discovering the $1,000 price tag. So we watched that game at his house, a barnburner 2-0 victory for the home Boca team that we were supposed to be cheering for.

That game, however, was a league match – so like a regular season NFL game between division rivals (a la the mighty Redskins versus the pusillanimous and downright dirty Cowboys). The second match, and now this is where soccer gets quite confusing, was the first in a two-game series for the first round of the Copa Libertadores, a competition in which club teams from all over South America play each other for a title. So it’d be like if the Rhein Fire (if they still existed), Toronto Argonauts (if Canadians recognized the concept of competition), New England Patriots (if they brought their own air gauges), and the Ulan Bataar Ice Khans (if I was their captain) all played each other randomly for no real reason. So basically there are two different competitions going on simultaneously, and it just so happened that Boca was matched up in the Copa Libertadores against River around the same time as one of their regular season draws, allowing them to play each other twice in a four day span for two completely different reasons (got it? I still don’t).

So having failed at getting tickets for the regular season first match, we figured there was no possible way to score seats for the second match, what was essentially a play-off game.

Lo and behold though, Nick’s aunt worked some Argentine connections, and on the day of the game (the night match being at 9:30pm – very in-line with the nocturnal lifestyle), she informed us that she had scored tickets. Two tickets to be exact, to be divided evenly amongst the three of us. There was an awkward moment of “oh, I see . . . ” as we all knew what had to be done before anyone verbally broached the topic. Christine, bless her heart, quickly recognized the dilemma and expressed that she did not have to attend, allowing Nick and I to utilize the two tickets (as evenly as could be).

There was one other hitch, however. The game was to be hosted at River’s stadium, and Nick is a die-hard Boca fan. Soccer hooligans are a real thing here – to the point where in 2013 the Argentine Football Federation decided it just was not worth it to have away fans in attendance, and banned them from attending the home games of opposing teams (you might wonder how anyone could truly prevent away fans from attending given that you don’t demand the loyalty of the ticket buyer via polygraph at the time of ticket purchase, but it is more of a self selecting situation as opposing fans before sat in a completely separate section of just their kind, being too dangerous to mix in with the opposition). This new enactment came after the death of a fan during clashes following a match near Buenos Aires, making over 70 fan-related soccer deaths in the country since 2000. So it’s a pretty big deal to be found in the wrong crowd, meaning that Nick was going to have to suppress every instinct he had to feign support for River, or at the minimum a level of healthy ignorance (in contrast, Nick’s uncle specifically informed us ahead of time in case we obtained tickets, he would not attend the game at River, as he ‘would not be able to control himself’).

The enemy's den

The enemy’s den

On the plus side, however, was these were not just tickets, but VIP tickets! We had no idea what that meant in the Argentine context, but were hoping at a minimum for a lifetime supply of beef.

Nick’s uncle dropped us off as close as he could get to the River stadium, which was still about a two-kilometer walk. The roads to the stadium were completely blocked off to traffic ahead of the game, and the police began checking up to a kilometer ahead of the venue for tickets, only letting those in possession passing by.

The environment just walking up to the stadium was intense – alcohol is also thankfully banned from the stadiums, so fans were getting their fair share in ahead of time. It seemed like everyone was chanting in unison to lyrics for which I had apparently not received a memo, nor could find printed on my ticket. Given my limited Spanish capabilities, I could not pick up on the subtle pretext of the crowds’ words, but I understood enough to realize it was not appropriate for my PG-13 rated ears. And everyone sang, from the recently christened 5-year-old fans to hardened 85-year old veterans.

There were also a ton of police lined up all over the streets – reportedly up to 1,700 had been deployed for the purposes of this particular match. These police figures were often the subject of derision from the local crowd, with many a crotch grab thrusts in their direction. I guess without an away crowd to direct aggression towards, the police became the next best target.

One other thing I should mention – Nick is such a fan of the opposing Boca Juniors team that he has a tattoo of their initials going down his (left?) bicep. Now it was a bit of a cold day, so we were wearing long-sleeve shirts and jackets – thus no incriminating skin was exposed. But as we walked the long walk to the stadium amidst this oppressive and intimidating crowd, with Nick believing everyone knew his secret and had a bull’s eye on his back, I began to envision some ridiculous scenarios in which his arm would somehow get caught by a protruding nail on a piece of wood in a nearby trash can, or some other similar sharp object, ripping off his upper layers as he struggled to get free in the process, leaving his torso and thus secret exposed. I decided that in the case of this unlikely but still harrowing scenario, I would not wait a moment’s notice, but just take off running. In what direction it did not matter, as I had no idea where anything was, but just as far from Nick as possible. Twenty years of friendship is great and all, but survival is important as well. Thankfully in the two-kilometer lead up to the stadium, this situation did not come to pass.

Given the lengthy walk to the stadium and our inability to find the VIP and not regular people entrance (meaning we had to back track even further amidst the hooligan crowd, as you couldn’t just enter into the stadium grounds and walk to it from there), we missed out on much of the VIP party. We got there late, but there was a room we were granted entrance to that clearly had had a healthy dose of a fog machine with some confetti. There wasn’t much left – the food was gone, but luckily there was still Freddo’s ice cream available. We got a quick dulce du leche cup, took some photos amongst a trophy, watched a FIFA match on a PlayStation set up, and then exited to try to find our seats as the players entered the stadium.

A foggy VIP room

A foggy VIP room

Freddo's Ice Cream - check it out, seriously

Freddo’s Ice Cream – check it out, seriously

Upon entering the actual crowd, the atmosphere was electric. I’ve been to a number of Redskins games in my time, but I can say this was genuinely something beyond what we call sports passion in the United States (perhaps it has something to do with the team for which I happen to feel passionately about . . .). Every single person was wearing red and yelling their hearts out – and nothing had even happened yet. There weren’t even any cheerleaders or other crowd pumper uppers – there was just no need for such gimmicks. It was an instant sense of awe that came over me, just by simply walking into the actual stadium grounds. In fact, I’ve basically stopped going to football games back home given the high ticket prices, ubiquitous large screen crystal clear HDTVs, and the hassles of trekking out to FedEx field, but if the atmosphere was anything like this was, I’d be inclined to see the action first hand on a more regular basis.

Pure passion

Pure passion

Of course, even though our section was technically the VIP section and thus less raucous than other sections of the stadium, it was still a rowdy crowd. I looked over and saw in the section next to us someone had basically passed out and 4-5 people were carrying him away, motionlessly. I wasn’t sure what happened – some in the crowd said he was too old to handle it, but the intensity of the game claimed it first victim (and the match hadn’t even really begun).

Another interesting aspect is that no one pays attention to seating assignment. In fact, they actively disavow it. Rather, if you are in your general section, it’s a free for all – something we did not realize. Thus getting there late, right before kickoff (is that a soccer term too? should be), did not put us in an advantageous position as somehow basically all the seats were taken. We saw some guys sitting in our seats as we entered and decided best not to broach the subject in hostile territory. Rather we stood in the aisle at the side, perfect since no one was sitting anyways. We were, however, very close to the field with a great view, to make up for it all.

At halftime, more comfortable in our surroundings, Nick decided to get the guys to move, but to no avail. They said someone had told them to sit there at the beginning when they arrived, even though we clearly showed them where their seats were, a few rows back. It was an odd sort of Argentine stand off, with them clearly recognizing they were not in the seats printed on their ticket, but also clearly expressing no inclination to move. We kind of stood there for at least five minutes going around in the circular sort of argument, as they basically assumed we would eventually give up and leave them alone.

They were right. Nick finally took their tickets in exasperation and gave them ours, and we tried to sit in their seats a few rows back. Of course, those seats were empty, but a family sitting nearby told us they were holding them all for people who would return after halftime. Distraught, someone took pity on us and showed us two seats together in the middle of the last row. We happily took those, until about five minutes after halftime when a larger dude than us came out and said those were his. Opting for the pacifist route, we meekly moved to a different aisle, and watched the second half from there.

As for the game, it was a 1-0 result as I predicted (and have always predicted each and every soccer game will be, with about an 80% lifetime success rate). The home team won – though it was apparently on a late and poorly called penalty shot, requiring Nick to suppress an extreme amount of rage. Luckily though, given that the home team won, no one was shanked. The exiting crowd was in a triumphant mood, and Nick had not been out-ed as an enemy, so we were able to make a departure from the stadium unscathed.

Some actually action!

Some actual action!

Nick’s depression over losing the game was heavily outweighed by my jubilation of making it out alive of the perceived enemy’s den, with nary an incident (we did both pretend to be confused foreigners anytime someone commented to us about an assessment of the play, which I suppose was 50% a truth). On the way out we did see a car window smashed to pieces with the insides ransacked – interesting given the 1,700 cops posted around, but I didn’t really like the car anyways, so worked for me.

An inwardly repressed Nick

An inwardly repressed Nick

I can’t say that I appreciate the game of soccer anymore after those 90 minutes of (in)action, but I did enjoy the spectacle of fans so passionately pouring their hearts out over what is ultimately a pointless round of exercise between two groups of young adult males. It is something I can relate to (though my sporting events tend to end in utter despair – so I didn’t quite comprehend the ability to leave a stadium ‘happy,’ as these fans did). The obsessive passion behind sports extends worldwide, but I do have to say the futbol fans here have exceeded anything I have witnessed before. Perhaps it’s a necessity, as the less exiting the game, the more exciting the crowd needs to be to make up for it!

Post script: As a testament to just exactly how insane soccer fans can get in Argentina, the second half of the two-series match for the Copa Libertadores between Boca Juniors and River Plate took place the following Thursday, this time at the Boca stadium. When the River players came back onto the field after halftime, some Boca fans sprayed them with some sort of ‘irritant,’ sending four to the hospital and forcing the match to be suspended (at a 0-0 tie). Imagine the chaos if away fans were actually allowed into the stadium as well – I think Argentina would be in the throes of a civil war by now!

Patagonia by the Numbers

As of April 26, 2015 (yes, I know I am slow in disseminating information, but I am typing all of this on my flip phone), we are done hiking! Forever! After 16 days in Patagonia, we are finally leaving the region, prepping for a 28-hour bus journey to the town to Trelew (which is still technically in Argentine Patagonia, but considered distinct for the purposes of this post – yes, I have the power to redraw ill-defined subnational boundaries through the words of this blog, I bet you didn’t even realize that. Maybe you’ll be nicer to me now. Maybe).

After countless beautiful lookout spots combined with a similar illimitable number of wet and stinky socks, we are officially putting Patagonia in the books.

Not too shabby

Not too shabby

IMG_2647

By the numbers:

  • Days in the Patagonia region: 16
  • Countries involved: 2 (Chile and Argentina)
  • Major spots visited: 4 (Puerto Nataltes in Chile, and Ushuaia, El Calafate, and El Chalten in Argentina)
  • Minor spots visited: 2 (Punta Arenas [Chile] and Rio Gallegos [Argentina] – mainly transit)
  • National Parks
    • Parque Torres del Paine (Chile)
    • Parque Los Glacieries (Argentina)
  • Kilometers traveled by bus: 3,815 (2,370 miles)
  • Hours spent on a bus: 67 (2.79 days)
  • Total days actually hiking: 8
    • 5 day-long hikes (7 hours or longer)
    • 3 half-day hikes (approx. 3-4 hours)
  • Kilometers hiked: 128 (80 miles)
  • Number of kilometers covered when Christine first voiced a desire to give up: 0.75
  • Number of glaciers sighted: 3
  • Number of glaciers walked on: 1
  • Number of rainy days: 2 (not bad for 16 days in Patagonia!)
  • Number of hikes for which the cheapest ‘waterproof’ shoes I could find at Sports Authority remained waterproof: 5
  • Pounds lost: 11
  • Peanut butter & Nutella sandwiches consumed: 33
  • Guancos befriended: 4.7
  • Guancos that reciprocated friendship: -2
  • Money spent: Hey that’s personal (but less than 3 bit coins)
  • Sasquatches sighted: 2
  • Sasquatches caught: 0 (including on camera)
  • Amount of times we will recommend Patagonia to the masses in the future: Infinite
  • Amount of times we will recommend Patagonia without waterproof shoes and on only two pairs of socks to the masses in the future: 0

IMG_2593 IMG_2562

BIG Ice

A guest post by one Christine Rene Ribeiro

While we were hiking the “W” in Chile, we met a number of people who had come from Argentina, where we were heading next. In talking to them, it came up that there was one tourist company (Hielo y Adventura) that actually had permits to take you out hiking on the top of Perito Moreno, the most famous glacier in Argentina and one of the largest/most accessible in the world! One couple did it and highly recommended it, while another said it was the one regret of their trip not to do it as they heard such good reviews. It was not in our initial plan and was quite a bit more than we had planned to spend, but ultimately we decided to go for it. Highly recommended and how many opportunities do you have to walk on top of a glacier in life? Probably only 4, so take advantage!

Being the planner I am, I tried to email and reserve a few days ahead, but was told the reservations had to be done at least 10 days in advance or in person. We arrived in El Calafate, the town closest to the glacier, early afternoon. After exploring hostels for the best deal in town, we went straight to the ticket office. We were in luck! They had a few spots open for the next day. After multiple trips back and forth, exchanging money on the black market (official exchange rate is about 8.6 pesos/dollar but you can get up to 13/dollar unofficially), and showing passports, we had our tickets in hand!

The next morning, we were up outside our hostel at 6:58 AM, as the bus was supposed to pick us up at 7AM. The stars were still out shining as sunrise is not until around 8:30AM down here. The bus picked us up and I had us strategically sit on the left side of the bus, per Lonely Planet’s recommendation, and we were off. About half way through the 1.5hr drive to the national park, it started to drizzle. The forecast had said afternoon rain, but it seemed to be getting an early start. As we are driving through the park to get to the glacier viewing point, the first activity of the day, the driver is talking about all the things that we should be seeing our of the left side of the bus, but actually cannot due to the fog and rain. As we get out of the bus, we see a rainbow next to glacier, a hopeful sign that the sun is somewhere around the rain would soon be behind us.

Rainbow of Hope

Rainbow of Hope

We had an hour to walk around a network of viewing pathways to see the north and south side of the glacier. The glacier is incredible, close to 11 stories high of pure ice walls, and that is just out of the water, it is close to 30 stories if you count what is underwater as well. It is up to 11km wide and 30km deep. Big enough for the entire city of Buenos Aires to fit on top of it! We look at the glacier from various angles, watching ice fall off the walls into the waters, creating mini icebergs. All the while, the rain is getting harder.

After an hour viewing, we head back to the bus, which drives us over to the pier, where we board a boat to take us next to glacier. What would have been a beautiful boat ride, even for someone who gets seasick looking at boats, was difficult to enjoy as all of the windows were fogged up and it was pouring rain outside. No worries, it can’t rain all day right? And we are going to be walking on this thing soon enough, so we will see it up close. We get off the boat pretty much next to the glacier. I already feel that this trip is going to be worth it as being so close, you really get a sense of the magnitude and beautiful of this hunk of ice.

We have to walk about 1 hour along the side of the glacier before we get the point where we can do our ice trekking. The first 15 minutes are along this nice almost boardwalk like path that ends at a point where the mini-trekking people went out, a shorter version of BIG ice. At this point, our guide says, if anyone would prefer to do mini-trekking due to the weather, let me know now because once we go, there is no turning back. If you are wet and miserable, you will have to continue. This is the part where we should have realized what was in store, but no one budged. We had signed up for BIG ice and we wanted to do it! Come hell or high water.

There is a bridge up there, I swear

There is a bridge up there, I swear

We continued on with our hike. While the rain was a constant, my feet were surprisingly dry with my wool socks and waterproof hiking boats. I stepped carefully as we trudged through some muddy areas, now clearly off the manicured path. All the ended when we hit the waterfall. This waterfall was next to the path and there was a little wooden bridge, about 7feet long, to get over the river streaming from the falls. Perhaps on a normal day this bridge works great, but this was not a normal day. Due to the rain, it was running faster than normal and the wind gusts blow the waterfall directly onto the bridge with a gust probably every 5 seconds. Each one of us, as we crossed, was drenched in a shower of waterfall. Goodbye dry socks.

Just when I started to feel down about my socks, the guide stops us and tells us that the rain is coming down so fast, that there is a strong risk of landslides, so we will have to talk 15 feet apart. That way if a boulder falls down, it will likely only kill one of us and not the whole group. Yes that is a direct quote from our guide. I am now wondering what we have gotten ourselves into. We all get across with no issues, but you can see the side of the mountain changing around you, new rivers appearing as the rain accumulates. We finally get to the tent were we get fitted for crampons, but the other group got there first and are all inside, taking their sweet time, so they don’t have to be in the rain. We had to stand out in the rain and wait. Once we are all fitted up, we head to the ice.

Everyone is soaked and, being so close to the glacier, freezing as well. The guide that straps on my crampons has to stop because of the pain in her fingers as they have gone so numb. Once we get on the ice, however, it is like entering another planet. Sand dune like icescapes of various blue tones, deep crevices of water that are so pure blue you look down and can’t tell where they end. We walk around for about 2 hours, visiting various crevices and holes, each more beautiful than the next. At one point, the guides hold on to you as you look over the edge of a waterfall within the glacier. Unfortunately, due to the pouring rain, we don’t want to take our camera out too much for fear of ruining it, so can’t share too many pictures. Trust me, it was amazing.

The BIG ice, a different planet

The BIG ice, a different planet

After two hours of our supposed three hour hike, our guide tells us we have to leave quickly, the rain is coming in too fast and there is a lagoon forming on the side that is not safe for us. Remember that hell or high water, well here it comes. As we walk back on the ice, we see the side of the mountain next to us pouring down. You can tell the guides are worried, they keep telling us to speed up because we need to get out of there. We finally get off the ice and to the point where we move over to mountain. The water has risen, so you just have to step your whole foot into this freezing river to get across. Once across, the guide had us go one at a time to get past the landslides. When my turn came, I was about to go when the guide told me to wait. I stop and look up confused, he points to a spot above me where the rocks albeit small, are just tumbling down the path I am about to head on. I make it across to the other guide who says, “It’s a big adventure, no?” What did we sign up for?

It is not over. Once we past that point, we turn the bend and there is our good friend the waterfall. The water has become even more violent and has flooded the path around the bridge. Multiple guides are lined up along the path to help people across. I get to one spot, where you are standing on a rock in the middle of the rapids, and there is a guide about six feet away with his hand out. He is telling you to walk into these rapids, but is too far away at this point for you to grab. I just jumped to where I had seen other jump and there was a rock that 2 hours ago was above water, but now was just below. The guide grabs my hand and pulls me over to the bridge, where we all once again get a waterfall shower.

Us on the boat!

Us on the boat!

At this point, I just want to get back, I beeline back. When I finally get to the boardwalk path, I can breath. I am going to make it out ok. What were theses people thinking??? I know they told me they never cancel, but this is ridiculous. They have a fire and coffee waiting that the lodge. I head straight to the fire and try to warm my hands with the rest of the group.

The boat arrives about 10 minutes later and they hand out glasses of whiskey. I don’t usually drink whiskey, but today it goes down easy. We cross the lake, get on the bus, all wet and cold, and head back into town.

Certainly not what I had bargained for when I signed up for BIG ice, but it was an adventure. And, despite all of this, would I recommend it? Hands down. Walking on a glacier was amazing and worth it, just check the weather report before you buy your ticket!

Mud Walking in Fire Land

You can’t win them all, especially at the end of the world.

Ushuaia, the southern most city in the world is a pleasant enough place to walk around in itself and marvel at the spectacular setting right on the water surrounded by mountains on three sides, while realizing you are truly at the end of the earth.

At the same time, there is an abundance of wildlife in the area, including penguins and beavers. By the time we arrived in mid-April, many a penguins were heading north to warmer climates for the incoming winter (giving me brief pause as to why we had gone in the opposition direction . . . ) so they were out. That left us just mano y mano with the beavers, nature’s weirdly shaped and furry engineers

Beavers are apparently nocturnal animals, working hard to build their dams at night. They hang out at a spot a little out of town, which also doubles as a hike to a lake in the mountains. Seemed like a nice enough way to spend the afternoon, trying to time our return from the four-hour hike with sunset to catch a glimpse of the beavers in action.

Part of the appeal was that these particular beavers have been prolific in building their dams, and by default destroying the local habitat, as they have no natural predators down in Tierra del Fuego. Whatever the actual environmental implications of such a situation, none of that has stopped it from becoming a fashionable Ushuaia tourist attraction.

We were told it’d be a little bit wet out there, but that was “part of the fun.” After just walking over creeks and streams in Chilean Patagonia with our proudly recently-bought water proof hiking shoes, we were prepared for the possibility for a ‘little mud.’

20 kilometers of hiking in this??

20 kilometers of hiking in this??

A little bit of mud was a little bit of a understatement. Much of the area was covered in peat bog, making it quite squishy to walk on, kind of like the marshmallow land I used to always dream of. That was the fun part – the other part of the hike was a complete mudfest, the likes of which I had not seen since partaking in South Korea’s annual mud fest (an odd event held in Boryeong every summer). The problem was that a good amount of the mud hid amongst the squishy peat bog, making it difficult to be truly confident on where you were walking – to the point where a two-foot mud hole could be anywhere.

Squishy peat bog

Squishy peat bog

And they were! I was the first us of to become a victim, slipping early on to the point where I nearly lost my shoe in the muddy abyss, with the remaining area between my sock and sole subsequently filled with mud. BUT Christine took the (mud) cake, stepping in a sink hole up to her knee at one point.

C doused in mud!

C doused in mud!

Cleaning off the mud

Cleaning off the mud

At any rate, we made it up to the lake amidst the mountains, which under any other circumstances would’ve been sublime. Unfortunately we were there days removed from the Chilean Patagonia Torres del Paine National Park, and everything in life is relative. Thus a pretty view, but not one we had been lacking in recent days (perhaps we had become a bit spoiled by Patagonia, happens to the best of us).

A pretty scene for sure - we are spoiled

A pretty scene for sure – we are spoiled

To top it off, we got back to the area where beavers apparently hang out and work, with much evidence of their presence. It was another 20 minutes through the woods back to our pick up point, but unfortunately we had forgotten our headlamp, so couldn’t wait too much after sunset for the fuzzy, wet creatures.

Plus it was freezing cold – it was the end of the world after all. We waited for about 30 minutes, as long as we could until it was getting quite dark, with no signs of any beavers in sight. Perhaps it was national beaver holiday we were unaware of, perhaps they hate trudging to work in mud as much as we do (and took a ‘mud day’, as we should have).

Evidence - beavers were here!

Evidence – beavers were here!

More evidence!

More evidence!

So we froze, doused our in mud as part of an emerging fashion trend that no none-homeless individuals seem to be following us on, and unwittingly did another hike after promising to take it easy for a while – the best part being that we had just paid and arm and leg to get all our laundry done (literally, good thing I always pack some extra limbs when traveling). All that for some dam-builders who were too lazy to even show up. The beavers of Tierra del Fuego may not have any natural predators in the area, but they sure have two unnatural ones now!

Beaver homeland - we will be back . . .

Beaver homeland – we will be back . . .

150 Minutes in Punta Arenas

Welcome to Punta Arenas!

Welcome to Punta Arenas!

In the Antarctica region!

In the Antarctica region!

On 10 April 2015, we flew into Punta Arenas with the aim of heading straight Puerto Natales (where we would start our Patagonia hike). Despite previous attempts, we were unable to book a bus directly from the airport to Puerto Natales, and thus were forced to take a bus into Punta Arenas town and try our luck at one of four bus stations there that service the frequently touristed route. To our dismay, we got one of the bus stations at 1:30 hoping to board the next one, at 2:30. Unfortunately luck was not on our side and they, in addition to all other stations in town, were sold out until 18:30 – apparently the ‘low’ season for Patagonia still equates into a decent amount of traffic. So what to do when stuck in Punta Arenas for the afternoon, a situation that many of us face at some point in our lives (some even daily)? Well, take our soon-to-be patented 150-minute tour of the city of course!

Punta Arenas is really south, like the way deep south. In fact in Chile, aside from some smaller population centers on the island of Tierra del Fuego its the most southern city of decent size, and the capital of the Magellenes and Antarctica region (yes Antarctica, it’s that far south). Looking at how far south it was on a map was enough for me to be astonished walking around – not so much for Christine. Thus we picked up a handy little map of the city, and set out on an improvisational walking tour, taking in all Punta Arenas had to offer.

a lovely park/marshland

a lovely park/marshland

The city itself lies right on the water, stretching up hill the further north to go, and despite its walkability it actually bursts at the seams at either end (who lives here and why? what do they do all day and during the winter? Do they ever hunt for seals and accidently stab themselves in the toe? All valid questions our tour unfortunately did not answer). In addition, on the map were many green spaces which I interpreted as parks – we quickly found them rather to be random expanses of barren marshland. Still adds a nice touch.

Our bus station was fortunately centrally located, so we started by heading down to the main square, or the Plaza Munoz Gamero. There was a tourist office there that was conveniently closed, while the monument on the middle, on Magellenes street was, you guessed, none other than Magellan himself, commemorating his trip around Tierra del Fuego in the 1500s. Otherwise of note, there was a cathedral and old Spanish-colonial type building hugging the wide plaza lanes, given it a distinctive historic Latin American town feel, despite its relatively recent roots (mid 1800s) and extreme distance from anything decent.

Our favorite Magellan!

Our favorite Magellan!

Church at main square

Church at main square

Main square

Main square

When in doubt, head north. We decided to do as much, where the city rises in elevation a bit. Walking up some steps to another monument of sorts for the Selknam people, an apparently extinct ethnic group that dressed up in really scary costumes a la something out of True Detective (Chile is really proud of these folks despite their current non-existence with paintings of them everywhere). Regardless of the impetus for this monument, it provided great views of Punta Arenas down to the coast.

Selknam people tribute

Selknam people tribute

Punta Arenas view

Punta Arenas view

From there we continued to walk north a bit through largely residential areas until we could walk no longer – the start of what we had assumed was a park began. In reality it was a large concrete wall we could not see over the top of. Continuing down it, eventually someone had broken it at one point low enough to serve as a vantage point, where we realized it was not a part at all but more of that barren marshland in the middle of the city. Though there was a large lagoon, that our map told us serves as an ice skating rink (luckily not right now though).

Heading east across the upper part of town, we continued through a weird park of sorts and past a university. Not too much happens here at 15:00 on a Friday afternoon, but then again people mostly stay inside and wonder why they live here (it was probably high 40s, not bad until the wind hits, but its hits often).

Eventually we headed back to the lower parts of the town and came across a series of structures decided to Croatia of all places. The Punta Arenas-Croatian connection is apparently strong, a point to which these monuments in prime real estate in the middle of town attested towards. Some say up to 50% of Punta Arenas-ans derive from Croatians who largely came over in the early 19th century (in fact, Chile actually serves as the largest center of Croatians outside of the Balkans itself, with most settling in the northern and southern extremes of the country).

Croatian monuments

Croatian monuments

Another monument to the Croatians

Another monument to the Croatians

Continuing on this path, we hit up the local cemetery – perhaps an odd place to visit for the non-devil worshippers among us, but the cemetery in Punta Arenas is apparently renown for its intricate and diverse grave sites. Ranging from tall house-sized structures hosting entire families to more simple apartment-style final resting spots, the cemetery hosts deceased from a range of ethnic family names, a testament to the diverse origins of Punta Arenas’ inhabitants. A great number of gravestones from the 1920s and 30s were in English, while of course we found a row of just Croatian names. The layout itself is well preserved, becoming an attraction, albeit a slightly odd one, in its own right.

Cemetery

Cemetery

Cemetery so big it has its own street names

Cemetery so big it has its own street names

Continuing after the cemetery we came across the Maria Auxiliary church, a massive structure. It just so happened to be directly after a funeral, with the church bell ringing out and a procession heading towards the cemetery from once we had just come.

Mariam Auxiliary Church

Mariam Auxiliary Church

Funeral procession

Funeral procession

The church led us back to down town, so we made a beeline south for the coast, where we passed across a Croatian school on Croatia street (this is really getting weird).

Croatia school . . .

Croatia school . . .

On Croatia street . . .

On Croatia street . . .

The coast itself is hugged by a highway, but has a little bit of a beach and even some prime basketball and skate parks. Another monument or two to Magellan is present, while the road continues to the port where we saw a cruise ship in the distance (not sure if they cruise inhabitants were thrilled with the exotically cold locations serviced by their ostensibly discount cruise ticket likely purchased on Craig’s List).

Just another ol' Magellan tribute

Just another ol’ Magellan tribute

Heading back north away from the coast through the center of town leads to another monument or two, until you hit up the main square area once again, and the road with all the bus stations. But the tour doesn’t have to stop there, as no trip is complete without some local delicacies. The town itself comes alive at 5pm, almost instantaneously, transforming itself from a desolate and depressing Siberian output back into an animated Latin American city in mere minutes. Drummers came out, kiosks were set up, and the churros showed up.

Patagonia Churros to be exact, freshly made and filled with dulche de leche cream. Four for 1,200 Chilean pesos (50 cents each) from a locally renown lady. A fitting but messy way to end our makeshift tour of Punta Arenas and 150 minutes well spent (note: I spent the next 150 minutes washing dulche de leche cream off my body). So next time you get stranded for hours in Punta Arenas thinking there’s nothing to do in this remote outpost town, think again and take our 150-minute city walking tour (and yes I will be trademarking this in an attempt to charge royalties every time someone in Punta Arenas walks outside, anywhere)!

Churros by Rio de las Minas

Churros by Rio de las Minas

Patagonia Churros!

Patagonia Churros!

Biking (Mis)Adventures in Middle Chile

One day while in Puerto Varas (a town in the lake region of Chile), Christine said something that shocked me to my core, words I will never forget and probably never get over.

“I think tomorrow we should bike to Frutillar.”

And just like that, lives were changed.

You see, Christine not only intensely hates biking, she is also awful at it, to the point where I and every decent human being alive worry for her safety every time she so much as look as a bicycle (not to mention her lack of tricycle skills). Such inadequacies have prevented us from renting bikes in a number of exotic locales, forcing us to while away at sidestreet cafes, as the world rides by. I am not much one to talk, however, as I can barely ride a bike myself. But that ‘barely’ is what sets us apart by leaps and bounds.

A convincing impression of a biker

A convincing impression of a biker

At any rate, we were staying in Puerto Varas and our day trip options were limited to biking, taking an expensive tour to the volcano (but you cannot get in it or sacrifice goats there, I asked), or kayaking (our usual option of choice, but again we were influenced by high price dynamics, and the water was quite cold). Thus biking seemed to be the most economical choice, and in situations like these (i.e. life), the most economical choice tends to win out, even if it comes to the detriment of our own health.

As for Puerto Varas itself, its a nice little town situated in the shores of Lake Llanique, with two volcanoes in its midst. Quite popular with the tourists, Puerto Varas has developed downtown area (area might be a stretch, maybe more like a 1×1.5 block) of accompanying infrastructure, replete with Patagonia, North Face, Rockford, and more outdoor gear shops. Frutillar on the other hand, was supposed to be a pleasant smaller town a short distance away, still well-off and touristic in its own right, but stripped of some of the externally-influenced comforts found in Puerto Varas.

The oft-covered Osorno volcano, seen from Frutillar

The oft-covered Osorno volcano, seen from Frutillar

Furthermore, many a Germanic folk have settled into this area of central Chile (prior to WWII, diminishing my hopes of starring in a Chilean Nazi hunting reality show), and Frutillar in particular was supposed to have retained much of its ‘Germanic roots,’ more than any of the surroundings areas. So in short, it would make a nice day trip destination from the ‘hustle’ of Puerto Varas, and serve as an interestingly cultural anomaly (though I guess it’s not really so much of an anomaly, as one Chilean worker we met along the bike ride would explain, “all the foreigners [i.e. Europeans] came here and bought the good land, leaving the rest of us with little,” – a similar story the world over).

So the main question of how to get there had been decided, surprisingly by Christine of all people. We visited a few bike rental places before deciding on the one that happened to be in front of us at the time of our decision, and reserved two mountain bikes for the next day. The bike shop employee assured us that we could do the trip and back in six hours (2 hours each way), the maximum amount you could rent the bikes until you were charged for the whole day, increasing the price by 50%. The scenic trip was supposed to be 25km there and 25km back, though there was a shortcut as well. Piece of cake (or kuchen) I figured.

Frutillar? or Germany?

Frutillar? or Germany?

Thinking about cake

Thinking about cake

The next morning we showed up at 9:30 to claim our bikes. The same bike employee gave us a helmet, lock, pump and flat tire gear (I feigned like I knew what I would do with such materials if the situation arose). He took us outside and pointed to the bikes we could use. I took mine out and was unable to adjust the seat; the latch literally didn’t budge at all. That was the point where the bike employee may have realized we were in over our heads here – he showed me how to do it with a quizzical look on his face, then also pointed out that on the makeshift laminated map he had given us, his cell phone number was written there in case we had any trouble – something I gathered he did not specifically point out to the majority of his clientele.

The path was supposed to be some sort of trail that eventually intersected with a backroad shared by man-powered vehicles, but only for a bit. To the north of town are railroad tracks (that I assume are now abandoned, but am not quite sure) – we were to ride along those to start out. We were given mountain bikes, but it was not necessarily to be a mountain biking trip. Or so we assumed.

We made it to the railroad tracks, where alongside it was a thin line filled with thick rocks. Describing it as a trail would be generous, I’d say it was more like a series of skinny jeans-thin areas where rocks were just too tired to pile on each other as high as they had next to it. Tall grass bounded the other side opposite the railroad tracks, so it really was a contained space. We started out by barely avoiding biting it on a number of occasions. We were unsure of if all 25km were going to be like this at this point – we nearly turned around and gave up less than 1km into the journey. But we preserved and made it out after a few treacherous (to us) kilometers, revealing both a sense of accomplishment but also the extremely limited nature of our biking abilities.

After coming onto the trail for a bit, we were supposed to just hug the coast, as the map depicted and eventually wind up in Frutillar. The bike employee confirmed as much, providing little further details on the route, a sense of calm that eased any anxieties we had about getting lost. Nonetheless, after hugging the coast as much as possible, the trail ran right into a thick black sand beach that ended at a grassy field with no worn areas. Probably less than 5km into the trip and we were already lost. A few other odd turns here and there, trying to stay on the coast as much as possible, forced us to back track a bit and confused us greatly.

Chileans, however, are nice people. While stopped at one point and looking at our pointless map, which told us to be next to the water while we were staring at a highway, one young man felt pity for our plight and pulled over in his car. He explained this was the route to Frutillar – the ‘trail’ of sorts was no more, we had to go onto this main road a bit before turning off to another side, but paved road.

While I generally like biking, I hate biking with cars. At the end of the day you are basically trusting other people not to run you over, and I just don’t trust other people at that mass of a rate. Not only that, but this was essentially a small highway, with minbuses and trucks plying down as decent speeds. A mountain trail indeed.

Taking out rented bikes out for a walk

Taking out rented bikes out for a walk

We sucked it up and went down the highway, hugging the right side of the lane as much as possible. After some more confusion we found the backroad to turn onto, which led us back onto the coast. There was still traffic on this road, but significantly reduced. What we were not prepared for, however, was the amount of elevation changes – very steep hills that proved impossible to bike up and intimidating to bike down (Christine even walked her bike down most of them, not even taking advantage of the free speed).

We had been on the road probably about an hour and a half at this point – given the bike employees estimated of 2-2.5 hours (revised a bit once he realized we were small time), I figured we were well on our way. I shortly saw a sign though, telling us Frutillar was 18km away, meaning we had only made it about 7km! It couldn’t be right, but we kept chugging along the road – myself getting quite far ahead of Christine to the point were we could not see each other most of the time, and then stopping every other kilometer to have her catch up. Not really a fun shared experience.

At one point, after a number of steep seemingly mostly up hills, we came to a fork in a road. Both led to Frutillar, and the more gravel path was likely the shortcut the bike employee had filled us in on. He said normally it was unusable, but as it rained last night we could bike on the gravel. That was supposed to be 5km, but it started up hill. The longer path went by the coast for picturesque water scenes. It was along a paved road and began downhill. It was unclear how far it was, but I figured we had already biked a ton by now, we must be close. Opting for the short-term option, we headed right on the paved road, for what turned out to be a short down hill followed by some serious up hill climbs and nearly 15 more kilometers of biking action.

At any rate, we eventually made it to Frutillar, exhausted. We were around 3.5 hours, well over the maximum limit the biker employee had estimated. The other issue probably was there was no way that we could make it back with the bikes in the six hour time frame, meaning the price had just gone up – nor were we even sure given our limited biking experience if it was even physically possible to make it back. I toyed around with the idea of living on the lam with the bikes in Frutillar for the rest of our days, seemingly solving both problems of avoiding the increased bike price and having to make it back to Puerto Varas. While it was seriously pondered for a quick minute, ultimately we shot the idea down.

Success in Frutillar!

Success in Frutillar!

Regardless, we had made it to Frutillar and were starving, so might as well rest and enjoy our time here. It really was a picturesque little town right on the water with a volcano in the distance. The Germanic roots were in full display, via the architecture of the buildings aligning the street and limitless places offering kuchen (an cheesy cake type thing) for dessert. Of course that was all in Bajo Frutillar (lower) along the lake side, the rest of the town up above was more traditional Chilean and less touristy (as our Chilean friend on the trail had informed us).

Frutillar's main drag

Frutillar’s main drag

In fact the bike ride itself, as treacherous as it may have been at times, was beautiful as well. For the majority of the time the lake was present on the right side, with mountains and volcanoes in the distance, while large farms full of free range cows and chickens dotted the landscape on the left. Part of the inspirational statement for us of the journey to Frutillar being a “pretty little bike ride” provided accurate indeed.

Screen Shot 2015-04-19 at 12.12.13 PM Screen Shot 2015-04-19 at 12.12.22 PM

After deciding to splurge and go to a semi-fancy place for their meal of the day (a stuffed tomato followed by fettuccini fresh seafood pasta and a flan-like substance for desert), we pondered our options as the reality of having to make it back to Puerto Varas began to set in. Maybe if we took the shortcut it would cut down the time a bit despite the gravel, but Puerto Varas still seemed eons away. In addition, I was sure we had biked more than the advertised 25km – all the road signs along the way telling us the distance of places did not add up with that figure in mind. So it likely meant at least another 30 km or so to return, a daunting task (for us with limited athletic capabilities).

Wussing out in action

Wussing out in action

There was public transport available, minibuses back to Puerto Varas – a possibility, but Christine did not think we’d be able to take our bike on as there was no bike racks and people didn’t really pile luggage on top of the vehicles here. So we had dismissed that option, but the bus stop was literally next to the restaurant we ate at, and upon exiting we saw a bus getting ready to leave with a sign for Puerto Varas. Might as well ask we figured, as we walked up somewhat dejectedly to the man in charge. He likely had no idea the impact his next words would have on us, when he said it would be easy to fit the bikes in if we took off the wheel, at double the ticket price. At that point, economics had gone out the window!

So we totally wused out, loaded up our bikes, and took the public bus back. There was still the possibility of making it back to the bike office before 5pm when it reopened after its five hour siesta (yes five hours, literally everything in that town closes from 12pm to 5pm), and thus avoid recognition of our stray into the more than six hour rental period. The transport took a while however and we didn’t make it in time, but luckily the bike employee took additional pity on us (a common theme) when I told him we had to take a transport rather than bike back, and didn’t charge us the extra fee.

In short, the attractive ‘biking to Frutillar option’ proved to be a pretty “little” bike ride indeed, and a good way to realize we should probably never bike again. It was a nice day all together though, while the fact that we are still alive is rather encouraging as well.