It is Chile down here too!

For the first time in our entire trip, drinking took precedence on our agenda.  While we’ve enjoyed trying the local specialties now and then, we’ve made sure not to spoil our experiences by being irresponsible or joining those tourists that are a menace to locals.  This, however, was different.  We were entering one of the most famous wine regions in the world and what better way to truly experience it than to visit bodegas by bicycle?

(Wine bottles at Familia Di Tommaso)

We were quite excited for Mendoza, Argentina, where we could kick back and spoil ourselves with high quality, super cheap wines while contemplating the past ten and a half months and the encroaching normality of life.  We lucked out with what must have been the best hostel in the city (and the cheapest), where many free and inexpensive activities were offered.  We started out with a quick walking tour where we learned enough about the city’s history of very destructive earthquakes to make us a little uneasy.  Apparently while rebuilding the last time, they didn’t take the time to make the buildings attractive because they expect them to all be wiped out again soon (comforting, eh?) and only a few newer buildings utilized the earthquake-resistant technology.  Don’t worry; there are plenty of green spaces strategically placed throughout the city to attempt survival while all the buildings come crashing down!

That night we participated in an “asado” at our hostel. Asado is their term for BBQ.  Argentina is known for these and for their delicious meats, so we had to try it.  We had a really great night eating very good food and chatting with everyone late into the night.

We didn’t want to do a package winery tour because we wanted the freedom of spending as much or as little time at each stop as we liked, so we had to catch a city bus to a nearby small town where several good wineries were concentrated.  As we were getting off the bus we met three others with the same agenda, and the bike rental shop grouped us into one group, so we went with it.  We are so glad we did, it was a really great day!  We were with a married couple from Scotland and a lady from Buenos Aires.  At the first bodega (winery) we were the only visitors when we showed up and an owner offered us a full tour in Spanish.  The girl from Buenos Aires also spoke English, so she spent the next hour translating perfectly down to the most technical vineyard terminology.  We couldn’t have been luckier!  By then we were all hungry so we decided to eat lunch at the winery restaurant before doing the tasting.  Three hours later we were still only at our FIRST winery!  The food was good, the wine was great, and the views were beautiful.  The Scottish couple had to hurry back, but the Argentine decided to stay with us for the rest of the afternoon.  Our next stop was a much larger, better known bodega.  Touring the antique facilities was really cool and very different from the smaller, much more modern winery we had just come from.  We only had time for one more stop – an olive plantation!  We got to try all kinds of olive toppings on bread, fresh olive oil, vinegars, and jams.  We also got two shots of their flavored liquors (we passed on the Absinthe).

(Riding toward our first bodega.)

(Wine tasting at Bodega Mevi.)

We had such a fun time that day that we decided to do it again the next day.  This time it would just be the two of us and we wanted to check out as many wineries as we could fit in.  We were not only enjoying it for ourselves, but we were also kind of on assignment to find some good wines to bring back to Missouri for family.  (It was a good thing we took that free wine tasting class at our hostel and learned a little something, for their sake.)  Let me tell you something about riding this route in Mendoza.  First of all, it is a long ride on a bike between each one being that wineries require huge vineyards to grow their product.  Secondly, Mendoza happens to be one of the hottest places in Argentina, and oddly dry being that grapes need a lot of water.  They still use the ancient canals for diverting water to the fields from a reservoir.  Thirdly, the sun is intense, which is why they are able to produce the wines that they do (they even have to provide shade to some of the plants to reduce sweetness).  That first day on bikes was hot, but that second day was about 102 degree Fahrenheit and we biked roughly 25 miles on pavement.  That’s what you call determination!  We began at a much better olive plantation where we fell in love with the most delicious balsamic vinegar we have ever had.  The next bodega was a very cool family-owned one called Familia Di Tommaso that had the oldest vats in the Mendoza area because they were the only ones that survived the last large earthquake.  These vats were made of brick and used to contain the juices as they fermented and became wine, before being aged in oak barrels.  These old ones are no longer used in that manner (they now use stainless steel) but are still used to store the filled wine bottles to keep them cool.  We even got to walk inside one of the enormous vats, down a spiral staircase which they installed after it was retired, to the basement level.  After a few more wineries we ended up returning to the one from the previous day that we had spent three hours at.  We bought a case despite not knowing how we were going to carry it back on bicycles.  Luckily they offered to deliver it to our hostel for free. Score!

(Bryan tasting a delicious Mevi wine.)

(Enormous vats at Trapiche winery. Hint, you can find their wine in the U.S.)

We had enough heat those two days so we spent a third day of tasting at our hostel.  We chose wines that we could buy in town with some recommendations.  That was quite a fun day, as we spent much of it Skyping and messaging family and friends.  That day we also had to make one last money exchange transaction so we could purchase the other bottles we had picked out to bring back with us.  In Argentina there are two different exchange rates – the official and the “blue dollar”, or black market. The locals prefer to exchange their pesos for U.S. currency to secure their wealth as the Argentine Peso is much less stable, but the government tries to restrict access and so the black market exchange has emerged.  That day we went back to the known exchange location, which we had used the first day in Mendoza, and all the exchangers we recognized were lounging around at cafes.  Odd, but we thought maybe they take lunch breaks too, so we came back a couple hours later only to find most had gone home and there were military men at the entrance to the shopping center where some of the exchanges occur.  We still made the exchange, but instead of doing so on the sidewalk as we did the last time, we found only one office open that we knew to exchange and we took a slightly smaller rate for the extra risky service in the back room of his office.  We were a little worried for the exchangers, but of course the soldiers knew exactly why these “gringos” were going in there and they didn’t seem to mind too much.  It was all for show but it was kind of exciting!

(Our favorite Malbec at Tempus Alba.)

We had two reasons for heading to La Serena in Chile after our final excursion crossing borders: Pisco and the night sky.  Pisco is just one of many things that Peru and Chile are always butting heads about.  They argue about which country made it first, which is best, and who makes the best Pisco Sours.  Since we really love Peru’s Pisco and Pisco Sours, we had to try the competition.  The majority of Chile’s Pisco is grown in the Elquie valley, a freakishly man-made agricultural haven.  La Serena is North of Santiago and not too far South of the Atacama Desert (our first stop in Chile and the driest place on Earth).  The terrain is also not that different from the Atacama.  The one major difference: a single river.  The only river.  The dammed river made it possible to grow in the narrow desert valley, which was a really weird sight.  As we were driving through on our Elquie Valley tour, we were overlooking these pinkish-grey, dusty mountains with sharp squares of bright green plots filling the bottom of the valley and slightly creeping up the sides.  Bryan was excited to stop at the dam so we could check out the giant reservoir in the desert, until we found out that the area had been extra dry for the past few years.  The reservoir was only at 8 (EIGHT!) percent of its capacity.  I feel for those people who set up shop in an area with such terrible odds of survival.  For the time being, though, the vineyards and plantations appeared to be getting enough water.

(Reservoir at 8% of its capacity. Look for the lines to see how low it is.)

(Green patches of vineyards in the desert.)

As we were driving down the valley, our tour guide pointed out two observatories that we could just barely see far off on distant mountaintops.  The first was Tololo, the most famous, with 8 telescopes and a radio telescope.  The second was especially exciting because it is still being built and will be pretty amazing when finished.  The LSST (Large Synoptic Survey Telescope) is a project by Google and several universities that will potentially be like Google Maps, but of the sky, and will be capable of things that current observatories are not.

We stopped at the old home and schoolhouse of a famous Chilean poet, Gabriela Mistral, who was the first person in all of South America to receive a Nobel Peace Prize.  At a Pisco distillery, we were surprised to find out that Chilean Pisco tastes nothing like Peruvian Pisco.  We had heard that the Chilean Pisco was better from multiple foreigners, but we have to disagree.  It was like Moonshine.  In contrast, Peruvian Pisco still has flavor, much like wine but with higher alcohol content. We enjoyed an upscale lunch on this tour and met a couple from Concepción, the city that was devastated by the 2010 earthquake. They were fun to talk to as they had unique perspectives – she being a tv newscast member and he a newspaper journalist.

(Antique filtering mechanism at Pisco distillery.)

That night we went on a tour of Mamalluca observatory.  Due to being research facilities, most of the other observatories are closed to tourism, and so Mamalluca was built for the tourists.  It definitely was for amateurs and education, but it was much better than we expected.  We started off in a dome with a high-powered, automated, refracting telescope and I got all giddy when the guide punched in the numbers for a star/planet/cluster and the telescope would spin to a specific spot and the dome would follow.  The views were phenomenal!  We saw many interesting things including Jupiter and the four largest moons and a colorful gaseous cloud.  We then went outside to a large, simplistic, reflecting telescope which we used to see closer stars, clusters, and the moon.

(Powerful refracting telescope and rotating dome.)

(Jupiter and its four moons)

(Simple reflecting telescope)

(Our moon through the telescope.)

When we were checking out of our cute hostel in La Serena, we were telling the owner how much we enjoyed sitting in the beautiful garden, eating the fresh fruit off his trees, and drinking the juice he made us from those trees.  He was so happy he took us into his leather workshop (he also taught people how to make leather sandals) and we each made bracelets for ourselves with four leaf clovers stamped into them.  We’re still wearing them and so far our luck has been pretty good!

(Bryan making a leather bracelet.)

South of La Serena was the beautiful and popular coastal town of Valparaiso, also a UNESCO world heritage site.  We weren’t so sure if we wanted to see another coastal town, but we had the time and it was highly recommended by the mother of our host in Buenos Aires.  We are so glad we did because we were very pleasantly surprised!  The city was a very important stopover for ships traveling between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans through the Straits of Magellan.  That is, until the Panama Canal was built. It was a very prosperous city and there is much evidence of that in buildings and infrastructure, but the city felt the drop very quickly and very hard when the Canal opened, and many of the beautiful buildings fell into disrepair.  It was quite interesting seeing the inside of a home fit for a king, that looks like it came straight out of England, but has been completely abandoned.  I felt like those marble staircases and angel bas-reliefs were being wasted.

(Marble staircase in abandoned mansion.)

(Weathered building in Valparaiso, Chile.)

Valparaiso is built on steep hills and features historical funicular elevators (inclined cable cars) that were built between the late 19th and early 20th centuries to make travel by foot much easier.  At one time there were 26, but there are maybe 16 still standing and 8 or less still running.  The beautiful city is also known for an artistic culture.  We visited the home of another Nobel Peace Prize (only the second in Chile), Pablo Neruda, a famous poet/collector/politician.  Although we knew nothing about him, his home was impressive with 5 levels built into a hillside, some of the best views in the city, and filled with his collections of antiques and art. We also checked out an area of town known for graffiti art.  Several years back a graffiti competition was held, and that sparked a never-ending culture.  It is so welcomed that most business owners pay local artists to do something on a portion or all of their storefronts. Much of what we learned about the city came from a “Wally Tour”, a type of tour for tips.  It was the best walking tour we have done and we highly recommend it if you are in the area.  In our hostel we met a friendly couple from New Zealand who we spent the better part of three days with.  They were great company and it was nice to be able to enjoy the sights with others.  On our last night there, we bought some Chilean wine together to do our own tasting.  Great fun!

(Our favorite graffiti art pieces.)

(Abandoned funicular elevator.)

(Wine tasting with our friends from New Zealand.)

Our very last city outside of the U.S. (that sounds so sad) was Santiago, the capital of Chile.  We had received an invitation from a Couchsurfing host on the outskirts of the city, but we never met him.   He didn’t plan well for having surfers, and didn’t tell us until right before our arrival that he was working until very late.  After figuring his schedule just wasn’t going to work for us, we found a hostel.  In Valparaiso we had enjoyed the Wally Tour so much we decided to do the two different versions offered in Santiago.  The next afternoon we joined the “city basics” tour where we saw all the major historical buildings, neighborhoods, and the hill where the first observatory was placed (until the city grew around it and light pollution became too much).  That day we were also witness to an important moment in history when the International Court of Justice made the decision on a long running maritime dispute between Peru and Chile.  The coast of Chile is pretty much straight North-South, but Peru’s coast starts out farther West and curves in toward Chile.  If you draw a line perpendicular to each coast to determine the territorial waters, the territories overlap.  Chile stated this was settled in a treaty from the 50’s (of course it was in their favor), but Peru disagreed.  On that day, the Court ruling split up the disputed area.  Chile lost some of the territory but was able to keep its coastal area, while Peru got more territory farther out.  I’d say that’s pretty fair, but not everyone thought so.  That day on the tour we unexpectedly walked through the unhappy crowd near the Cathedral we were aiming to visit.  Unfortunately, this caused the Cathedral to be closed with military guards.  It really wasn’t a large crowd, but I guess it was enough for the government to take precautions.  You can see illustrations and read about the dispute here:

(Unhappy crowd after International Court ruling on maritime border dispute.)

(La Moneda presidential palace, reconstructed after military coup bombed it in 1973)

The next day we took the Wally Tour that visited the less traditional areas outside the center such as the enormous fish and produce markets and a unique cemetery.  The cemetery began as Catholic-only and then was later opened to everyone (and the angered Catholics went elsewhere).  Families began building mausoleums and it turned into a competition between the rich to outdo other families with bigger, fancier, crazier designs.  We could see how this competition morphed from size alone to making miniature replicas of world famous structures and then into unique designs.  Clubs and organizations followed suit, allowing people to be exclusive members of societies even in death.  We had heard mostly negative comments about Santiago but we actually thought the city had a lot of beauty and we were pleasantly surprised.

(Thirteen family members in one grave.)

(Earlier family mausoleums.)

(Mausoleum competition getting serious.)

Our last day in Chile was quite uneventful and our farewell even less so.  We spent the last day car shopping via the internet for cars in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.  We had a day to find and buy a car before my family arrived for a week vacation in the Keys.  We are so thankful we had the opportunity to spend a week uninterrupted with family after being gone for so long, which also helped us ease back into culture and life in the U.S.  After the time in the Keys we were able to drive through the Everglades and to spend some time with a very good friend of mine from my hometown who I haven’t seen enough since high school.  We sadly didn’t get to spend as much time with her and her family as I would have liked due to encroaching winter storms.  That drive back to Missouri from Southern Florida was my biggest culture shock.  In South America or Asia by bus it probably would have taken three days or more, and we did it in 20 hours.  Thank goodness for our efficient highways!

(Packed for the trip home.)

As we were leaving our hostel in Santiago, a part of me felt like we were missing a big farewell party somewhere; a celebration of our achievement with hugs and well-wishes from all the friends we have made along the way; something to acknowledge how monumental the moment felt for me.  Instead, we received a simple “Chau!” from the front desk.  As we rode the bus to the airport, I thought about the sadness of a great adventure coming to an end, about how much we have learned over the past eleven months, and about how nice it will feel to be surrounded by family and friends.

Now, after three weeks of being back in the States, people ask how it feels for the adventure to be over, but the only answer we have been able to give is that it doesn’t feel like it’s over.

I guess we’re just entering a new chapter.



Magellan Shouldn’t Have Sailed Strait Through

Chilling out in Buenos Aires for a few days was great, but that was just to prep us for the forty some hours we would spend on the bus the next few days making our way to Torres del Paine, Chile.

Megan and I stopped off in Puerto Madryn for a night to break up the bus ride a little.  Puerto Madryn lies about half-way between Buenos Aires and Rio Gallegos (larger town near the very southern portion of Argentina), and is a small port town known for its whale watching.  While we were there we experienced what might be considered for some as strong winds.  Little did we know that would continue everywhere we go, even until this writing.  It was most unfortunate, as we were standing out on a rather long pier, that a large inflatable whale would go flying by on top of the water.  That was the only whale we saw.

(Looking back at Puerto Madryn from the pier, and watching the whale blow away)

Back on the bus we made our way to Rio Gallegos, showing up early in the morning.  Hoping to catch a break we quickly made our way onto another bus for the border town of Rio Turbio.  If things went right we could cut several hours of bus time off from the route usually taken.  Yeah, things didn’t work out and we had to spend the night in Rio Turbio, where there is nothing and only one accommodation in town.  That night ended up being a bit rough as we had learned that Megan’s Grandpa Rhodes had passed.  I think Megan said it best in a later remark.

“…He will always be Superman in my eyes, with the strongest will to live that I have ever seen, a phenomenally cheerful attitude, and dreams bigger than himself. Since his wish to live to be 220 years old couldn’t come true (a wish he had so he would have time to accomplish all his dreams), I will try to take comfort in his support of living my own dream and promise to never let my dreams slip away.”

Sub was one of our biggest supporters of this trip and truly will be missed.

(Meg and I visiting Gpa & Gma Rhodes before the trip)

After way to many buses and four days of travel, we made it to Puerto Natales in Chili, one of the few towns that reside just outside of Torres del Paine National Park.   Puerto Natales was originally founded as a port city for the sheep industry, but now mainly focuses on the tourists that come through for the park.

(Looking at the mountains across the sound in Puerto Natales)

Torres del Paine was one of our most anticipated destinations of South America.  It lies in a transition area between the Patagonia Steppes and subpolar forests within the Magallanes Region and Chilean Antarctica.  The park has a temperate climate of cold rain/snow with no dry season.   January is its warmest month with the temperature possibly reaching a high of 60 degrees Fahrenheit.  Cloudy and rainy are the norm during the summer.  The geology mainly consists of granite with many of the spires and peaks capped with a dark sedimentary rock that give some of the sights their amazing contrasts.

Before even finding a place to stay in Puerto Natales, Megan jumped in on a briefing covering the backpacking in the park.  Really the main thing we got from was that we can drink the water and that is to expect to get wet, muddy, and blown over by the wind.  Doesn’t sound very good, but again the weather is unpredictable.  We spent the day renting our gear and stocking up dry foods: boxed potatoes, soup, rice, pasta, granola, oatmeal, peanut butter (difficult to find), crackers, dehydrated soy meat, and tuna.  Our plan was to do the “W” circuit that would cover around 45 miles of moderately difficult hiking.  We would cover this in five days and four nights with the first and last days being easiest.  Once our bags were all packed they had to come in at around 35lbs a piece.  Lucky for Megan, as she had the food, her bag only got lighter the entire trip.

Day one (New Years Eve) started early catching a bus to the park and ferry to the trailhead.  The first hike was just a little over six miles and we started around 1 p.m., but being this far South, it doesn’t get dark until 10:30p.m.  The day was quite cloudy with a bit of rain here and there.  This first section of the hike took us out past a couple of lakes and to Glacier Grey.  Even with a cloudy sky the lakes had that beautiful turquoise coloring, but it was most astonishing seeing Grey glacier.  Megan and I have seen “glaciers” before, but those were mere ice cubes in comparison.  Glacier Grey covers over 100 square miles and is around 17 miles in length, but you only see a fraction of it when looking upon its leading edge.  Grey only makes up a fraction of the South Patagonian Icefield that covers over 4,700 square miles.  On the front of the glacier we could see spectacular lines of blue ice and a field of white going back as far as we could see.

Being that it is high season there were quite a few people at the campsite with many of them celebrating New Year’s based on times back home. This started pretty early with some Czechs popping Champaign early in the evening.  Megan and I decided staying up to 3-4 in the morning to celebrate by Missouri or Colorado time wasn’t going to happen, let alone one of our longest hikes was the next day.

(Mountains off in the dinstance)

(Grey Glacier from a higher viewpoint)

(Kayakers approaching the face of Grey Glacier)

Day two started off quite nice with rather clear skies, flowers radiating different colors, and the white capped mountains showing off.  Everything seemed like it had an extraordinary luminescence to it.  Our hike took us back to the beginning of the trailhead and hooked off to make towards the center of the “W”. After hooking around, the wind drastically picked up nearly knocking Megan down a couple of times, and soon after queued the cold stinging rain.  I don’t think I have seen something encourage Megan so much to pick up the pace to the next camp site.  As we came into the site, the rain subsided and the clouds broke to show off the Cuerno Principal.  I nearly collapsed in amazement.  Being absolutely soaked and numb from the cold had no meaning as we stepped into some parallel world to experience euphoria.

(Lake at the base of the “W” trek)

(Getting out to the open after getting soaked by rain)

Day three was a quick five hour out and back up the middle of the “W” and then cutting out toward the bottom right of the “W”.  Heading from camp we made our way through the Valle del Francés and up to Britanico viewpoint.  The bonus was that we got to leave our packs in camp since we would be returning, and since we could drink the water from the streams, all we carried with us was a cup.  That was pretty cool.  The day was quite clear and the views were phenomenal.  We were surrounded by a white capped mountain to one side that had continuous avalanches occurring as we made our way down the trail, the Cuernos del Paine on the other side with their stunning granite columns, and the turquoise Lake Nordenskjold behind us.  Megan and I both believe this valley was the best part of the park.  That evening we setup camp just below Cuerno Principal getting to watch the sun set behind it.  Of course that still wasn’t until 10:30ish.

(Cuernos del Paine from the Britanico viewpoint)

(Punta Bariloche)

Day four was our hardest day with most of it being uphill and we put in around 12 miles.  This hike seemed to focus a little less on the mountains and more on the local fauna.  Of course we saw condors everywhere, which is always impressive, but what were really interesting were the black-faced ibises.  They looked like turkeys but with long, narrow beaks.  We were lucky enough to see one catch a mouse and quickly make snack of it.  We made good time to the campsite, so I decided to venture on up the mountain to get an evening view of the Torres spires.  Megan stayed back at camp saving her energy for the early morning departure for sunrise on the Torres.  Not even half way up the trail it started sleeting pretty good, making the granite pretty slippery.  Once I was to the top I couldn’t even tell where the spires should be.  Luckily the clouds and high vantage point still made for some good views.  By the time I made it back to camp I was nice and wet.

(Black-Faced Ibises, the left one making a snack of a mouse)

Day five, we hit the trail at four in the morning to catch the sunrise on the Torres.  It was funny to see all these headlamps bobbing around up the mountain trying to stay on the trail.  Going up the previous day really helped out making our way up in the dark.  Once we made it to the top we quickly found a rock to hide behind as it was super windy and cold.  Megan was even using a trash bag to help keep the brutal wind off her.  We were quite fortunate as the skies were mostly clear and we got to see the sun break across the spires.  The spires broke with amazing colors and the orange of the sun.  It was an amazing sight.  One thing that most pictures seem to overlook is the lake just below the spires.  I guess if we were there around noon it would be pretty amazing to see the sun shining on the spires and showing off the beautiful blue of the water.  The trip back was quick as it was nearly all downhill with a strong wind pushing us.

(Torres del Paine at sunrise)

Making it back to Puerto Natales, we cleaned up and geared up for a border crossing and bus ride to El Calafate.  El Calafate is a nice little tourist town situated on the edge of Puerto Moreno National Park on the Argentina side of the border.  This makes it a popular hub for visiting glaciers and some beautiful lakes.  Megan and I didn’t take that as we already saw some amazing glaciers in Torres, but enjoyed some of the great views of Lake Argentino.   Heading further North we made it to Bariloche.  Bariloche is surrounded by a multitude of lakes with the Andes Mountains as a backdrop.  A very picturesque town and great place to kick back and relax.

We took a day to head a few kilometers from town and rent some mountain bikes to tour a bit of the countryside.  Starting off with a little rain we peddled up to a nice little café for some waffles, tea, and empanada.  Making our way through the curvy roads lined with large pine trees and lakes, we took in the scenery that is quite reminiscent of Colorado.  Towards the end of our tour we checked out the Llao Llao Hotel.  This is probably the most known Argentinian hotel.  I think it is really only famous for its location and not so much the hotel.

(Looking across the lake next to Bariloche)

There are tons of pictures and hope all of you are able to check them out as they give a small glimpse of the amazingness of Torres del Paine.

The Closest We Will Get To Walking On Mars

As the distances between our destinations are spread farther apart and the end of our trip creeping nearer, our time is increasingly spent on buses and less time is spent getting to know the culture, people, and feel of a place.  South America has so many phenomenal sites, natural and historical, that we sadly don’t have time for much else.  It’s not really a choice though, not when you have the opportunity to see some of the biggest, best, most extreme, and most beautiful places in the world.

In Northern Chili we headed straight for the Atacama Desert, the driest desert in the world full of salt flats, salt mountains, geysers, hot springs, flamingos, adobe constructions, and terrain so similar to the moon’s that one of the mars rovers was tested here.  We based ourselves in the secluded town of San Pedro de Atacama, not a bad little town for being in the middle of the driest place on earth.  Basically the entire town is made of adobe construction and they continue to use this method for most everything.  That’s good because dirt is the only thing they have!  I do wonder what they do with trash though, because a landfill in that climate would just be a mass of well-preserved trash.

(An old church made of adobe)

From San Pedro de Atacama, some of the top sites are within biking distance, but most are too far away or too dangerous in that type of climate to attempt on our own, so we ended up taking a couple of tours.  The first tour was to El Tatio, the site of the third largest geyser field in the world, in a flat basin surrounded by barren mountains.  The best time to see the geysers is at sunrise so we dressed for a cool desert morning and quickly realized that wasn’t adequate.  It turns out the geysers are at a numbing 14,173 feet above sea level.  The sight of dozens of towers of steam rising all around us, near and far, was pretty cool.  However, when we saw the geysers up close, we were a little disappointed.  If you’ve ever been to Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, you’ll understand.  What we didn’t realize is that the El Tatio geysers are much, much younger than those in Yellowstone so they are not nearly as big or developed.  Also, the mineral content isn’t as rich so the El Tatio geysers don’t have all the brilliant colors that we had seen in Yellowstone.  One nice bonus was that these were not blocked off by railings, so we were able to stand within touching distance of most geysers.  Nearby was an area of somewhat older geysers that were a bit more similar to those in Yellowstone.  A thermal pool was built around one geyser and I had to try it out.  It felt warm to my numb limbs at first but not for long.  The only really warm spot was the little cove where the geyser spilled in.  It was comical seeing everyone huddled together in a corner of the large pool!

(A geyser in El Tatio)

Our second tour was to the Salar de Atacama (Atacama Salt Lake).  It began with a stop at a tiny oasis town with an old bell tower, now a National Monument.  The interesting thing about it is that cacti “wood” was used to make the doors (the roof of the old church in San Pedro is also cacti).  Visiting the Chaxa Lagoon National Reserve within the Atacama Salt Lake was the highlight of the day.  The salt lake, formed from evaporation of an underground water system with a heavy saline load, is the third largest in the world.  The crust, which is up to 70 centimeters thick in some places, is extremely interesting to look at closely because the crystallization forms “flowers” with all sorts of shapes and textures.  Really crazy!  Somehow the beautiful Chaxa lagoon managed to form on the surface and is favored by three types of flamingos.  We found out that the pink flamingos we’ve seen in zoos are artificially colored because they can’t eat the same food as in the wild, which here meant a type of tiny shrimp so small we could barely see them.  On this tour we also visited a couple turquoise lagoons formed by the eruption of a volcano long ago.  The lagoons have no outlet and are fed only by rain and snowmelt.  From our distant viewpoint we could make out mounds of dirt and plants in the water made by birds for nests, presumably a tactic to fend off land predators.

(Thick salt crust of the Atacama Salt Lake backed by Chaxa Lagoon)

(Flamingos in Chaxa Lagoon with mountains and more salt crust in the background)

Our last Atacama trip was to Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley) with an impressive array of colors and textures.  We rented mountain bikes and made our own tour.  Biking and hiking through a desert so dry, hot, and at high altitude was a new experience, but we survived and it was so cool!  The first trail we walked was through a fun cave system which appeared to be carved from wind and water out of almost pure salt.  I know; I tasted it!  There were many drastically varying and really interesting formations that I don’t know how to describe, so you’ll just have to see the pictures.  This is the area where the Moon Rover was tested!

(A salt cave in Moon Valley.  See the glistening walls)

(The extremely varying landscape from a high viewpoint in Moon Valley)

We had seen a couple blogs online that raved about the drive between San Pedro de Atacama in Chile and Salta in Argentina, so we opted for a daytime bus and managed to stay awake for the long ride.  We transitioned from the gently rolling, desert hills West of San Pedro to rugged desert with the most enormous cacti I’ve ever seen; to a crusty, cracked salt flat; through more hills and incredible cacti; and lastly through some of the most colorful hills we have ever seen.  These last hills were decorated with linear strips quite possibly containing every color in the rainbow.  Of course our pictures through the bus window don’t do a great job of portraying them, but Argentinians are so proud of these beauties that we saw posters of these hills everywhere we went.

(A salt flat on the Argentina side of the border)

(Colorful mountains in Argentina)

We didn’t do much of anything in Salta besides relax in a really nice hostel to recoup from our active days in the desert.  We also took much advantage of a well-stocked supermarket and kitchen.  The one notable adventure in Salta was a ride in a gondola to the top of San Bernardo Hill overlooking the city.  At the top was a nice park with fountains and greenery that gave a peaceful and romantic atmosphere.

The trip from Salta, in the Northwest of Argentina, to Puerto Iguazu, in the far Northeast, took us 24 hours, which really doesn’t seem all that bad anymore.  We had only one goal for this long haul: To see Iguazu Falls and check off another site from a “Wonders” list (specifically New7Wonders of Nature in this case).  The falls are located at the border between Argentina and Brazil and are 1.6 miles wide and are both taller and more impressive than Niagara Falls (at least Eleanor Roosevelt thought so), although Niagara has a higher rate of flow.  We haven’t seen Niagara so we can’t say from personal experience.  There are many pathways that give you several different perspectives of the incredible falls, including up close to a lower section, from an island at the bottom, midway up, over smaller falls, and most impressively right on top of the strongest section, called the Devil’s Throat.  The island was closed due to increased flow, but we were able to get really wet on the trails at a lower section and at the very top overlooking the Devil’s Throat.  At the Devil’s Throat, water is pouring in from three sides with unbelievable force, causing the mist to rise between 100 and 490 feet.  A walkway has been built stretching waaaay out above the falls to a top edge of the Devil’s Throat.  I feel for the brave people who built that trail!  It seemed about every 10-15 seconds a really big spray of mist would tackle the crowd on the platform, making for difficult photo-taking but a lot of excitement!

(Arial view of Iguazu Falls, Image taken by Horacio Belloni)

(Much of the Western portion of Iguazu Falls – Right side in the picture above)

(Looking into a section of the Devil’s Throat)

That afternoon we were already on a bus headed for Buenos Aires.  Even though the transport to and from Iguazu Falls took twice as long as the amount of time we spent there, we are extremely happy we made the trip.  It was incredible!

To Buenos Aires for Christmas we went!  Before arriving we were lucky to find a local to stay with on Couchsurfing.  We were excited because we thought it would make for an interesting Christmas and we would get to see how the locals celebrate, plus we would be saving money.  When we arrived to the apartment where David was waiting for us, we got a big surprise – Merry Christmas to us!  The apartment is a very nice flat that David normally rents out to tourists but loans to Couchsurfers when he has no renters.  It was pretty much the best situation ever – David is a really cool guy and is happy to see his city from a tourist’s perspective and therefore generously gave us a tour; we got to relax and feel at home with an entire furnished apartment, a 7th floor balcony, swimming pool, gym, and in a great location; we got to meet some great people and spend Christmas Eve with David’s family outside by the pool.  That’s right, Christmas in our bathing suits!  An interesting touch is that David comes from a Jewish family originating out of Austria and has some pretty interesting roots.  We learned a lot about his great uncle who escaped the Holocaust to Bolivia and later became a successful scientist and professor in Michigan.  He gave me a couple of books written by his uncle and I’ve completed one so far; very interesting life he led!  Anyway, David’s family doesn’t really celebrate Christmas, but they do take advantage of the holiday to get together and spend with family.  We enjoyed talking with his mother who is a teacher and has led an adventurous life herself, and others we met that evening including two other travelers, David’s sister, and friends.  On our first night while touring the city with David we learned that he has just applied to the University of Michigan, so we’re hoping to see him again in the states someday!  That night he took us to a really good restaurant so we could try the big, fat steaks that Buenos Aires is famous for.  They were, umm… HUGE!  Luckily Bryan and I split one, but we still probably each ended up eating about 2 pounds of steak after David gave us a portion of his too.

(A cool bridge in Buenos Aires that turns sideways to let boats through)

Because it was a holiday week and also because Bryan was a little under the weather, we didn’t get to experience nearly enough aspects of Buenos Aires.  We had heard tons of great things about the city and its culture, so we’ll just have to try and make it back again eventually.  What we did see, though, was really beautiful and really makes us want to go back.

Getting High in Peru

After a great time in Lima we made our way to Cusco for a trip to one of the most iconic sights in Latin America: Machu Picchu.  Cusco is the third largest city in Peru and sits at about 11,200 feet above sea level.  It was once the capital of the Incan government.  When we came into Cusco it first looked like a dirty and not so welcoming city, but after hiking from the bus terminal to the city center, everything changed.  The center is filled with small plazas and a cathedral as the cornerstone.  Many of the buildings are built on the old Incan foundations.   Throughout the town there are archeological markers pointing out areas where archeologists found things below the stone streets or pointing out specific symbols in the foundation walls.  One wall in specific has a famous stone with twelve angles cut to fit perfectly with the surrounding stones, as well as a puma and a snake represented in other stones of the foundation.  Much of the Incan history was covered up or destroyed by the Spanish conquistadors and Catholic Church.

(12 angled stone in an old Inca wall foundation)

During our stay in Cusco we had Thanksgiving and my birthday back to back.  There wasn’t a ton of celebration as Thanksgiving is a North American holiday, but we enjoyed some enchiladas and guacamole, and for my birthday we had Alpaca burgers with some beer.  Alpaca is quite good, as it is a very lean meat but still very flavorful.  I think more than anything Megan and I spent the time just trying to stay warm as it got pretty cold at night.

(Cusquena Beer)

(Alpaca Burger)

This region has to be the most expensive area we have visited to date.  One day we tried hiking up a road to see if we could check out one ruin from a distance, but as we started to approach the site on a public road, we were stopped and told we could only continue in a vehicle and could not walk up the road any further.  Of course we could have bought a single day or multiday ticket, but it was very expensive and didn’t seem worth it from online reviews.  Instead, Megan was keen on sneaking up a neighboring hill so we could get a peek of the site.  I wasn’t much help as I was wearing a bright red shirt and stood out like none else. Luckily we didn’t get caught as it was my birthday and the last thing I wanted was to get arrested for that.

(Sneaking a peek of Inca ruins from an adjacent hilltop)

The train ride from Cusco to Machu Picchu is $115 for about a two hour ride one way.  To say the least that was way out of the scope of our budget so we of course went for the backpacker route.  We took a six hour van ride that went up through the mountain pass and along a long dirt road etched into mountainsides.  The van dropped us off at a hydroelectric plant where we were given a keyword, and then we followed some train tracks for 2.5 hours on foot until coming up on Aguas Caliente, the small town at the base of Machu Picchu.  When we made it to town we used our keyword to find our tour guide in the town square.  He showed us to our accommodations and we met up a couple of hours later to get our tickets and go over the next day’s agenda.

(Walking the railroad)

At 3:45 am our alarm went off, which seemed way too early.  We made our way to the trailhead to start our hike up to Machu Picchu.  The entrance gate opened at 5 am and we started our trek up a very steep stone and dirt staircase assent.   We were told the steep hike takes 1.5 hours to complete versus taking a ten dollar bus up that takes 25 minutes.  Amazingly it only took us a little under an hour to complete and the views along the way were amazing with low clouds and fog hanging over everything.

(Looking off trail on our way up to Machu Picchu)

When we reached Machu Picchu we were absolutely stunned by the sight.  It’s like a mini-city sitting in the saddle of the mountains.  Machu Picchu wasn’t constructed until around 1450 A.D. and was abandoned shortly after and sat untouched until 1911 when it was discovered by a U.S. historian.  During the Spanish conquest of Latin America it is believed the Incas destroyed all roads to Machu Picchu to keep the Spaniards from finding it.  As we were walking around, the fog was breaking around the mountains making for some epic views.  We went around with a guided tour for the first couple of hours before breaking off to hike up one of the neighboring peaks, Huaynapicchu.  This climb was pretty steep and had some very narrow steps that made it a bit dangerous, but more so for the way down.  Many of the pictures you see of Machu Picchu are taken from this point, and there is good reason as it is a most remarkable view.  I don’t think I can describe the majestic landscape with a most amazing archeological site buried within it.  It was a great experience, but after that Megan was exhausted from the steep hiking, so I ran ahead to make it up to the other side of Machu Picchu and get a good look at the “Inca face”.  The landscape creates a face of an Incan person lying down, with Huaynapicchu as the nose.  See the picture below.

(Megan and I on Machu Picchu)

(Looking down on Machu Picchu)

(The Incan Face, you have to turn your head to the side to see it.)

That afternoon we made our way back to Cusco for a quick night before we caught a bus early in the morning for Puno.  Puno is a pretty sad town and doesn’t have much going for it, but it does lie on the shores of Lake Titicaca.  Lake Titicaca is situated at an elevation of 12,507 ft., which makes it the highest navigable lake in the world, and when you have a nice bright day the water has a beautiful turquoise color.  When we made it to town we quickly booked a two day tour of the lake, because as similar to much of Peru, access is difficult without a tour.  Luckily this tour was pretty good as we set out early on a boat to visit the Uros Islands.  These are manmade, floating islands of grass reeds on top of peat moss.  Every couple of weeks they add more green reeds to the top.  Have to stay afloat!  The little islands house five or six families that live off what the lake provides.  It was a crazy feeling walking across these little islands as in some places it felt like you could just fall through the reeds.  One of the families gave us a demonstration of how they build their little islands and maintain them, and they also gave our group a chance to take a spin on their reed boat.    We even got to taste the reeds themselves as the locals snack on the core.  They taste like a light styrofoam material, so not really that great.  Maybe if they added some hot sauce!

We moved on to Amantani Island where we spent the night.  We were paired up with a local family to stay at their home, but in a private room, and enjoy some local cuisine.  It was most interesting trying to converse with our “mama”, as we speak very broken Spanish and Spanish is a second language to them.  Their first language is Quechua, the language of the Incas.  Many of the islands have their own languages that pre-date the Incans.  Our accommodation was quite nice, just a simple bed with half a dozen thick blankets on top and a candle on a table.  Most of the houses are constructed of adobe with maybe one room in the entire house having an electric light.  After checking out our room we enjoyed a nice quinoa soup, fried cheese that squeaked in your mouth as you ate it, potatoes, and a local tea called muna.  Muna grows wild on the island and is pretty much mint, but not as strong.  For a little entertainment (for the locals, not us) we played a small game of soccer with them.  It only took two seconds for all of us to be absolutely winded from the altitude.  About twenty minutes in I felt like I could pass out.  We luckily only lost 4-2.  Taking a quick five minute break, which was way too short, we hiked to the top of the island where we got to have a stunning view of the lake and surrounding mountains.  We could see Peru on one side and the snowcapped peaks in Bolivia on the other.  On top of that we got to watch a beautiful sunset.

(One of the Uros floating islands)

(Looking at white capped Andes of Bolivia from Lake Titicaca)

For dinner our “mama” cooked us up a wonderful soup and vegetable meal.  They use potatoes in almost everything!  Quickly after dinner we got dressed up in some local clothing and went to the ‘disco’ to experience local music and dancing.  Megan had a most elaborate skirt, top, and accessories, whereas I had a poncho and cap.  The dancing was super easy: Hold hands and follow each other in a circle.  I think Megan really had a blast.

(Dressed up for a disco)

The next day we got an early start, said bye to our “mamas”, and headed off to Taquile Island.  As we got to the island we took our time hiking around and experiencing a different local tribe.  One really interesting thing about this group is that the men do the weaving and knitting (on the previous island, the men are responsible for making the clothing for their wives, now by machine, but the women still did the knitting).  You’re not considered a man if you can’t knit.  When a couple gets married, the woman cuts her long hair and then the man weaves it into his belt.  The men even wear different hats to depict if they are single or married, and the way the single men wear their hats says if they are looking for a girl or not.  While there we enjoyed a local lunch of grilled trout, which was most splendid.  During lunch we were shown how the men weave different things, and how they make natural soap with a demonstration cleaning llama wool. They use this leafy, wild plant that they grind up and put into water and it really suds-up.  Watching this guy do it was like watching an infomercial and you were ready to ask how you can get your hands on this miracle plant.

(Demo of miracle soap)

Back in Puno we quickly made it to the bus station for our next destination, Colca Canyon.  Colca Canyon is a couple of hours outside of Arequipa and is the world’s second deepest canyon.  Imagining something like the Grand Canyon, the reality was quite a bit different.  To us it just seemed like an immense valley and it wasn’t until we were much further down in to it that it looked a bit more like a canyon.  When we arrived in Chivay, the major town in the canyon, we found a place to stay that could do laundry, and made our way around town.  The town is quite small with not much to do.  On the main square we enjoyed some really great chicken burgers on fresh bakery bread.  Yummy!  Later we had some amazing churros.  Always a tasty snack!  The next morning we were up early to catch a bus to the Condor viewpoint.  We were originally led to believe the bus was direct and somewhat timely, important because the condors are only active in the morning.  It was not.  We arrived pretty late quite frustrated.  It took two hours to travel less than 30 miles.  Luckily we caught site of a couple of condors, as they lay down a large shadow while flying overhead.  Instead of waiting three hours for a local bus to come back by, we hooked up with a tour bus for a ride into town.  The next couple of hours were extremely irritating as the tour guide tried to extort more money from us the entire way back (we had already paid what he asked for).  About 5 miles before making it back into town he threated to kick us off if we didn’t pay him more, so I told him we would just walk instead of pay.  I am pretty sure he didn’t want to make a scene in front of his tour group so he drove us the rest of the way.  As we made it back to our hostel we went to pick-up our laundry.  All of mine was returned, but Megan was missing several pieces.  We asked several times for them to look for the missing pieces as we waited freezing in our unheated room, and then half an hour bickering with the owner and her niece in the dark because nobody had looked all day.  They never found anything but they partially reimbursed us for the loss.  Talk about a lousy day.  We were most excited to get out of Colca Canyon.  If you decide to visit, I suggest you go farther into the canyon and spend a week or more so that you can do some hiking, and make sure it’s not their rainy season.

(Condor flying through Colca Canyon)

Arequipa was much like Cusco, as it is a very dirty city on the outside but towards the city center it is amazing.  There are tons of Spanish colonial style buildings and a nice central plaza with some huge historic buildings surrounding it.  Arequipa was just a short stop, but during our full day there we joined a free walking tour where we got to feed the different types of alpacas and llamas, see some historic buildings and parks, and then sample some local cuisine.  The best part was that we got a two for one coupon on hot spiced wine.  Megan and I totally enjoyed that.  I think we both could have gone for a few more glasses.

(Part of the City Center)

(Megan feeding an Alpaca)

Peru was a beautiful country, and venturing through the Andes has been absolutely amazing.  Having Machu Picchu and Lake Titicaca back to back was mesmerizing and beyond our expectations.  From Arequipa we have started our bus journey down into San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.  From here we will be weaving our way back and forth through Argentina and Chile for the remainder of our trip.