Friday, February 19, 2010

The Lake District

After completing our hike in Torres del Paine, we spent the night back in Puerto Natales, Chile, before heading back to El Calafate, Argentina by bus...another 5 hour bus ride. Always uneventful when you cross back to Argentina....they don´t seem to be as strict as the Chileans. The hostal that we had previously stayed in, had kept the majority of our bags while we were out on our hike. They were kind enough to allow us to spend the afternoon in their hostal prior to catching our plane at 7 p.m. to get to Bariloche in the Lake District, a 2 hour flight. The Lake District is in the northern part of Patagonia.

Arrived at our hostal, Las Costas de Nahuel which was located right on the lake and our room had a view of the lake. Quite windy when we arrived late in the evening, but weather cleared the next morning. We had arranged a two day trip referred to as Cruce de Lago...The Crossing of the Lakes.

Picked up the next morning at 7 a.m. and joined a bus full of people from Israel (probably around 60 of them) for the trip. We had also noticed lots of young Israelis on the ´´W¨´ hike. We were told by our guide on the hike, that the young Israelis either come to Chile and other parts of South America or to New Zealand after their mandatory two year military service. Apparently they feel very safe in these countries. We actually thought it was quite strange that the older Israelis spent time in the Lake District as this is the area where many of the Germans fled to, to get away from war crime trials....I guess that is our warped sense of humour at work...(sorry if I have offended anyone!!). Only about 5 other couples of different Nationalities on the tour.

Our trip consisted of a bus ride, then a boat, then a bus, then a boat, then a bus, then a boat, then a bus..... seriously. This trip crosses 3 seperate lakes and goes over some mountain roads. The company that runs this trip has the rights to use these roads. Partway through the trip you cross the border over to Chile. This was the third time we were in Chile.....they must really wonder when they look at all the stamps in your passport. Stopped for lunch in a tiny town, just across the border, then continue on our trip.

A great trip with wonderful views of the beautiful lakes and mountains. Finally arrived at our destination, Puerto Montt, Chile around 10 p.m. A long day, but relaxing and wonderul views. Stayed in a wonderful little inn (Tren del Sur). The next afternoon we took the bus back to Bariloche, Argentina....a supposed 5 hour bus ride, which turned into about 8 hours. Arrived back to our hotel, to simply hit the hay. Our dinner that evening consisted of empanadas on the bus ride.

This area (Bariloche and the Lake District) really reminds us of Switzerland. Many of the homes, lodges and inns are log built and great little villages around the lake.

Will bring everyone up to date on Christina´s (The President) latest escapades. Well.....she was at the opening of a large supermarket (can´t you just picture Stephen Harper cutting a ribbon at the opening of a grocery store!), and has now fired the General of the Army as she felt he was in cahoots with the Vice President who is from the opposing party. In the papers a couple of weeks ago, she said that she and her husband had a very amorous weekend and said it was due to the fact that they had been eating a lot of pork. Guess she is trying to give the pork industry a boost. Must have been too amorous a weekend as this past week her husband had a heart attack!! Actually, he had bypass surgery last weekend...the papers wonder who is running the country if he is down for the count. Makes for interesting reading!!

Well, this is the end of our blog for this trip. Unfortunately, Robin got ill in Puerto Montt and I had to take him to emergency. Considering the language barrier, and the fact that he must get this problem resolved (not too serious), we decided the best thing was to get back to Canada.  We left Bariloche the next morning, flew to Buenos Aires, then flew back to Canada the next day. Our trip was cut short by a couple of weeks. We would have liked to explore the Lake District further, but an excuse to come back.

Hope everyone has enjoyed our blog....we look forward to our next adventure.

Robin and Claire

Friday, February 12, 2010

Torres del Paine

Arrived in Puerto Natales, Chile on February 3rd, after a 6 hour bus ride from El Calafate, Argentina. Stayed overnight in the town, then headed off the next day for our 5 day/4 night hike in Torres del Paine. We were met by our guide Eduardo, a young 28 year old born in Puerto Natales. We were also joined on our hike by Christoph,  a Frenchman living in Australia. Puerto Natales is a small port in a fjord channel. This town used to have a thriving meat processing industry which has since died off. They used to send meat and leather good to Europe and the U.S. Now the town is really a jump off point for those hiking, biking, horse back riding and kayaking in the  area. Visitors coming to trek can rent anything here and looked like about one half the people on the "W" were using rented equipment. We brought our rain and warm weather gear from Canada. Bedding was supplied at the refugios, where we stayed.

Also a start off  port for two boats that  cruise the inland fjords. The first one, Namimag, is a working boat, which also accommodates tourists. It goes from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales. The other is a small dedicated cruise boat going from Puerto Natales to Ushuia. This is something we considered doing, but very expensive and only so much time. Guess we will have to return some day.

We drove a couple of hours to get to Torres del Paine National Park. Driving through the open pampas and the various estancias, we saw a few nandu's (a rare South American ostrich) and many guanacos (llama family). The Torres del Paine National Park was created in 1959 and declared part of the International Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 1978. It covers 242,000 hectares. The Paine Massif is a small mountain system completely independent from the Patagonian Andes Range. It was formed some 12 million years ago. Granite can be seen in the famous Towers and in some of the other peaks.

At the park gates, our driver dropped us off and we hiked 2 hours in to our first refugio - Refugio Las Torres. This hike was through gentle rolling hills and climbed up to a huge rock (somewhat like an Ayers rock in Australis but on a smaller scale) to view some hieroglyphics. Thought we could hear someone below saying...."The guanacos took my baby!!!".

Along this hike we saw hundreds of guanacos. The female gets impregnated every fall, and delivers one baby after 11 months gestation (yikes). Once the young males reach a year old and when the new babies arrive, the young males are literally chased away from the herd. Only one male dominates a herd of females and her young. The young males usually hang around in groups of 3 or 4 ....sounds like teenagers! Once they get old enough, they might challenge the dominant male of the herd, or if the herd gets too big, the dominant male will allow some of the females and her young to form a new herd with one of the males.  On our hike along the border of the park, we also saw lots of skeletons of guanacos. There are pumas here who feed on the guanacos...the circle of life.

This first day hike was great to get our hiking legs in shape. It also allowed us to get to know our guide and our hiking partner, Christoph, who had a wonderful sense of humour. He is by trade a yacht broker and hires himself out as a "sailor" for yacht races. He was quite a character and great to have him along. Our guide was very knowledgeable and also had a good sense of humour. This made our five days very enjoyable.

Two of the refugios we stayed at were on land just outside the park boundary and run by a private company. All rooms had 2  to 3 bunkbeds. Having no say on who your roomates are, we "lucked" in and had lots of snorers and people who set alarms for all hours of the night to the tunes of rap music, Christmas music and ringing sounds.  Oh well....part of the experience as they say. At one refugio we were able to upgrade to a private cabin and we took this opportunity. Had a great night sleep. The last refugio, Refugio Paine Grande was in the National Park and had about 100 beds. At each refugio, people also camped. The meals in the refugios were all very good and plentiful. We were provided with lunches everyday which in all honesty were too much for us; but kept our energy levels up. Arriving at our destinations every afternoon, the hot showers were welcomed.

On Day 2, we started our trek to the base of the famous Torres (towers) , following the Ascensio River and valley. Reaching our destination we were surrounded by the three giant granite towers (2850 meters), Torre Norte, Central and Sur.  We hiked for about 9 hours (18 km) and mostly uphill with a slog near the top over large boulders/skree. When we got to the top it was so windy it was hard to stand up. Enjoyed the view, had lunch and hiked back down to enjoy a cold drink and hot shower. Had about 3 seasons of weather on this day of hiking.

On Day 3 an early start hiking mainly in rolling hills. The Provincial flag for Patagonia has a blue background then part way down has a squiggly/ undulating line....this means that NOTHING is flat in Patagonia. What they call flats is really up then down. On this day we viewed a few red fox, a Peregrine Falcon and several woodpeckers. Hiked for about 6 to 7 hours seeing our first glimpses of the Los Cuernos (horns) peaks and crossed the Bader River. Only about 11 km. on this day and the easiest day of the hike. Rained quite heavily overnight, but we were in our cosy cabin on that night.

Day 4 started with the usual up and down along the French River, then our first view of the hanging glacier, also called French. This day was a grueling hike. The first 2 hours in undulating path, then a constant steep uphill for one hour, crossing beech forests to reach the viewing point. This part was very difficult as large boulders to go up and down. Hard on poor Robin's knees. While viewing the glacier saw and heard lots of avalanches which were very loud as it is ice that is falling down and not snow like we are used to back home.  Also viewed the west side of the Cuernos peak. Then back down to the beginning of the French Valley where we continued on a different path around the south-west side of Paine Grande the highest peak in the Park. We finally reached our destination, Refugio Paine Grande, around 7 p.m. along the shores of Pehoe Lake. A very tough day and very tired. Early night...but another alarm going off very early, which of course the person ignored!!

Day 5 our final day on the "W" (called that as the trail is literally in the shape of a W) we hiked our last 4 hours, passing the lovely Laguna Negra where we saw our first glimpses of the Grey Glacier. This hike was relatively easy and welcomed on our last day. Reached the base of Grey Glacier and hopped onto a zodiac which took us to a small tourist boat to tour the base of the glacier. On board we were given Pisco Sour's with chunks of ice (said to be 2,000 years old) from the glacier. This glacier was bluer than the Perito Moreno Glacier as the ice is more compacted and older.  About 2 hours across the lake, then our transfer by van back to Puerto Natales.

While driving back on the mountain roads, thought we had a flat tire, but when the driver started to pull over, the tire passed the van. Spent about 1/2 hour replacing the tire in howling winds, fortunately the axle didn't break. Further down the road smoke started coming out of the engine. Not too serious, just the air conditioning belt....the poor driver just looked at us and said "Que Mas!!"...."What Else". Back to Puerto Natales around 7 p.m. and raining quite heavily. We really lucked out on our weather during the hike.We did have rain and snow, neither very heavy and lots of sunshine. Must say however, that the winds that we experienced were stronger than anything we have ever experienced on a hike. Gusts up to 100 k.m. per hour.

This is probably the hardest 5 days of hiking that Robin and I have done, but one of the most rewarding. The scenery was spectacular and the company of our guide and Christoph made it fun. Robins' knees were quite swollen after the 5 days, but a little ice, some elevation and rest have him well again.

Monday, February 1, 2010

El Calafate - Perito Moreno Glacier

Left the sweltering heat of Buenos Aires on Sunday, January 31st and flew 3 hours to El Calafate in the south of Argentina, known as the Patagonia area. During the last couple of weeks in Buenos Aires the heat averaged about 34 degrees and the humidity was extremely high, so were quite happy to feel the relief of coolness of the south.

When we arrived at the airport, Robin's suitcase got randomly chosen for inspection. Patagonia has very strict controls over meat, fruit and vegetables coming into the area. The other person who was chosen was  a Rabbi...they probably thought he was bringing in his own kosher meat!!! (sorry Lisa!!)

El Calafate is a relatively new town. The town itself reminds us of mountain towns like Canmore back home or Queenstown in New Zealand.  A headquarters for adventure seekers and tourism, and also the gateway to El Chalten, a mountaineering mecca. Our nephew Sean would also love Patagonia, as its' known for its excellent fly fishing. The name Calafate comes from a berry of the region, similar to a blueberry, smaller and a bit tarter, but very tasty. The make jams, chocolates and liquors with this berry.

We are told that five years ago, the towns population was around 4,000 and they had around 2,000 hotel beds. The main reason people came here was to visit the Perito Moreno Glacier. Today, the towns' population is around twenty thousand and they have 8,000 hotel beds. They say that the reason the town has grown so quickly is due to the devaluation of their currency and that tourism is much more affordable in Argentina.  The area around the town is quite bleak and stark, reminding one of the moors of Scotland, the bareness of Newfoundland or the Sonoran desert in Arizona.  The town has had trouble keeping up with water, electrical and sewage infrastructure due to its huge growth, but they are finally catching up.

The temperature here is 11 degrees C. and the wind is  constant and  at times extremely high.  They say the weather right now is cooler than the norm, but we aren't complaining. We have been warned that the winds are even stronger in Torres del Paine.

Just to keep everyone up to date on the President, Madame Kerchner, she and her husband have another home here just a couple of blocks away from where we are staying. When we arrived on Sunday afternoon, she and her husband were here for the weekend. Her security people were all over the main road, keeping an eye out for the bad guys!!!

The "Los Glaciares National Park and Reserve" covers an area of some 600,000 hectares about 80 km. from the town of El Calafate. It was created in 1937, the third National Park in the world and the first in Argentina. We are told that the oldest National Park is in France and the second oldest is Yellowstone National Park in the U.S. Los Glaciares was named a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1981. We visited the Perito Merino glacier, the stunning centerpiece of this park. We  enjoyed a one hour boat ride getting quite close to the glacier. The glacier is magnificent...5 km. across and it measures 30 km. long and is 60 meters high. We are told that the glaciers here and in Antartica are actually stable if not increasing. The glacier advances up to 2 meters per day, causing spectacular calving (breaking off of parts of the glacier) and flowing into the 1,600 km. trough of Lago Argentina, the country's largest single body of water.

Although one might say that watching the glacier is a very sedentary experience, it still manages to take your breath away, due to its' size and magnificence. They have recently replaced the boardwalks with new catwalks and the viewing areas are numerous and allow one to see the glacier from many different locations and views. We spent several hours walking the various catwalks and spent quite some time in one area where parts of the glacier were falling off with thunderous noise and to the "oowing" and "aawing" of the tourists.

 We are staying  at a nice lodge, which is a 10 minute walk from the downtown and by the Nimez Lake, El Calafate Ecological Reserve with black necked swans, flamingoes and cauquenes (another type of bird). On our way to the glacier we saw guanacos, a llama and condors. Will spend our next day here walking around the reserve and just staying in town relaxing....and oh yeah....southern Patagonia is known for its' chocolate shops. So those of you who know Robin well, will know that we will be hunting down the best chocolate!!

We now realize that we  didn't leave ourselves enough time to really discover this area as we are headed off on Feb. 3rd by bus (5 hours) to Puerto Natales, Chile to start our 5 day trek in Torres del Paine National Park.

Pictures have been posted.  Will be out of touch for about a week to 10 days.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Day Tripping

Dia de Campo (Day in the Country)
 We booked a trip (yes folks an organized tour - it's the only way to tour the countryside) out to an Estancia (a large ranch) which was located 1 1/2 hours south west of Buenos Aires in the Pampas region. The name of the ranch was La Candaleria. The estancia was once 8,000 hectares but through family in-fighting it is now 400 hectares. It is run as a hotel with some 22 rooms located in several low hacienda style buildings and a French Chateau. Apparently in the late 1800's the original family visited France and were so taken by one of the chateaux there, they decided to have one built on their estancia. Everything was imported from Europe by boat, then by train down to the closest town, then by cart.

When we arrived, we were greeted by a lovely older "Gaucho" couple dressed in turn of the century Gaucho clothing. We were offered empanadas (the best we've had to date) and wine when we arrived.  This was followed by a cooking demonstration and a tour of the Chateau. We were then served a lunch which consisted of various salads and an asado (barbequed meat) and more wine. The asado was served on individual grills and consisted of steak, pork ribs, chicken, chorizo sausage and innards (passed on the last). The meat we were served for lunch could have fed 6 people easily....we made a stab at it, but didn't quite finish....they actually asked us if we wanted more!!

After lunch there was a show of Gaucho folkloric dancing featuring three young couples in traditional clothing. Claire got picked by one of them to get up and dance!!  Also, the older couple that had greeted us when we arrived, danced a courtship dance....found out later, they have been married 36 years.  After the show, we went out to the grounds and saw some of the young Gauchos' perform various riding tricks...these guys can really ride; the horses just seem to be an extension of themselves. We then tried our hand at driving a horse drawn carriage for a short loop. The horse responded to Robin's commands...o.k. ...somewhat!! Also got to try Yerba Mate.....well....not on our list of favorites. This herb- like tea, which the locals drink in large quantities (they even carry around thermoses of the stuff), is very bitter. We are sure that it is an acquired taste. We did notice that the locals do put in about a pound of sugar in one cup....they do like sweet things.

On our way back to B.A. our bus got caught up in the final day of the Dakar Rally. There were thousands of people lining the sides of the road and a number of the racers passed us. A real carnival atmosphere.  Just an update on the Dakar...the Canadian car racing team scratched, but a Canadian motorcycle driver came in 55th in his category.

El Tigre
Spent a day traveling up to Tigre, a city 35 km. north of B.A. We met our guide Pablo, a university professor, near the Mitre train station. A very eloquent middle aged man, who gave us a different view of Buenos Aires in its Belle Epoque period. He even had some black and white historical photographs on his I-phone of the original downtown area where the rich settled. We then went to the train station and took the train (one hour) to Tigre;  during which time he continued his history lesson covering politics, the various economic crises and recent happenings in the country. He offered us some of his home made mate. He told us that his is very good; as he adds herbs and a little sugar. Claire tried some again...still not a fan. Must say that he was a very interesting man to listen to. He dropped us off at the station in Tigre and we proceeded on our own to board a launch to go up the many channels in the delta. The river water is a muddy brown, rich with iron from the waters flowing from inland South America. All along the various channels of the river  houses are built on stilts; also some beautiful colonial homes . People from B.A. come here to spend weekends and some with families to spend summer vacations. There are no roads here and everything needs to be brought in by boat. The boat we were on was indeed a working boat. Not only did it carry passengers, it dropped off mail, water, parcels and groceries at various boat docks.  It took us a little over an hour to get to our location. We arrived at Bonanza (all the houses have names) where we had booked lunch and where we spent the afternoon. The house was built in the late 1860's and has been converted into a small rural guest house. When we got there we took out a canoe out for about an hour and paddled up the river and into a small lagoon. Parts of the river were chocked by water hyaciths. Robin said that anybody from Guyana would certainly love the trip up the river. Certainly a different way of life and a wonderful way to spend a day.

Colonia, Uruguay
Took a high speed ferry to Colonia in Uruguay, which is some 50 k.m. across the Rio Plata River from B.A. and only took one hour. Colonia is a small colonial town established in 1680 and its' historical town centre is a Unesco World Heritage site. The streets are lined with sycamore trees which offer protection from the summer heat; and it was very hot the day we spent here. We opted to rent bikes....must have been built in 1680 as well...what clunkers! Riding down the narrow cobbled streets was quite an adventure on the bikes we had which also did not have brakes and don't think the chains had ever been oiled! Damien, Logan and Michelle, the bike techs at MEC would be appalled. Guess renting bikes for the price of $5.00 a day, should have told us something. The historical town centre juts out into a peninsula and consists of well preserved modest colonial style structures made from stones some of which are now restaurants, shops and hotels.  On the riverfront there was a lovely breeze coming off the Rio Plata and as it was so hot, we stopped for a liquid refreshment. Although it was only 11 a.m., luckily Colonia is one hour ahead of B.A. so we could justify the drink as it was really noon!  All the shops and restaurants here were very accommodating, accepting Argentinian pesos, Uruguayan pesos and U.S. dollars. As Colonia is just a one hour trip from B.A., they get a lot of day visitors. We spent a couple of hours in the afternoon, sitting by the river relaxing and enjoying the breeze, as it was so hot when walking in the main town. A lovely way to spend a day visiting this quaint colonial town.

B.A. - everyday life continues.....

As we are spending a month a B.A., there are everyday things we need to look after....getting laundry done,  getting  haircuts (dye job for some of us), new sunglasses to pick up, going to the movies (Sherlock Homes, Two Lovers), visit to the book exchange, going to the gym, etc.

It has been very hot and still some days, so on these days we usually take it slow. Not everything is always rosy when you travel. Our apartment does not have air conditioning, although we do have a couple of fans; it cools down enough at night and with the fans we are able to sleep well. As mentioned earlier, we went to air conditioned movie theatres to escape the heat.  Have also had a few power outages in the neighbourhood. The power seems to stay on in the downtown area where the businesses and tourists hang out. We are told that these power outages happen on a regular basis in the summer, and were especially bad during the last economic crisis.

We also have to tell you about the apartment where we are living. There are about 8 apartments in this building and the owners live on the main floor. We think this is how they make their living. When we first arrived, we noticed loud music about every 3rd night and on Sunday afternoons, which lasted a couple of hours. We then noticed that at the end of the hallway on the main floor was a large dance type studio...hard wood floors, mirrors, glass doors. So we started thinking that maybe Ingrid, one of the owners, was teaching free dance or something, as the music went from loud and fast to soft and slow. night we were leaving for dinner and we peeked in. This is really hard to describe.....a bunch of adults were "writhing" on the floor and sometimes on top of one another...not sure what we should call it. Think we might actually ask her before we leave what it's all about. Don't want to ask any sooner, as they might ask us to join in! Claire's brother Denis would just call them  a bunch of old hippies!!

Sheri, our sister in law, asked how we were managing after our Spanish lessons. Well, with the previous spanish lessons that Robin had taken, we were doing quite well already. We did however, both learn quite a lot during our spanish classes here. One of the major things we learnt, is that the pronunciation of certain words in the Rio Plata area (Buenos Aires and some northern parts of Argentina, and parts of Uruguay) is totally different from what we had both previously learnt.  Good going forward!!

On the political scene, Pinera won the Presidential election in Chile, earning 52% of the vote. He is the country's first democratically  elected right wing ruler in 52 years. Once you are registered to vote in Chile, you must continue to vote over the years at each election or you could be fined.  This is also the case in Argentina. With the voter apathy in civil, provincial and federal elections in Canada, mandatory voting strikes us as something to consider!!

Here in Argentina, the infighting and debates continue in regards to President Madame Kirchner still wanting to get her hands on the reserves to pay off debt. The courts in the U.S. have frozen financial assets that are on deposit in there.

There was a large Italian migration to Argentina in the early 1900's and pasta is offered in most restaurants.  There is also a tradition of eating gnocchi in Argentina on the 29th of each month.  This tradition dates back to tough economic times when everybody was paid at the end of the month. By the time the 29th rolled around the  only thing that people could afford to cook were these delicious potato dumplings. Think about that the next time you go to an expensive Italian restaurant!!

Another piece of interesting news in the Buenos Aires Herald (the only English newspaper that is published here, founded in 1876) is the fact that Britain recently issued a diplomatic rebuke to Argentina following a new challenge to the alleged sovereignty over the Malvinas Islands (otherwise known as the Falklands) and a section of Antarctica. Will these people never learn...they lost 649 Argentinians and 258 Brits in the 73 day war in 1982 and it threw Argentina into an economic crisis. Wonder why this issue has raised its ugly head again? Guess what....seismic  surveys  have shown there could be 18 billion barrels of oil in the Malvinas area!!

We have posted pictures.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Iguazu Falls

Puerto Iguazu is a 2hour flight from Buenos Aires. It's main attraction are the famous Iguazu Falls. As we were starting our landing, Robin commented on how the jungle canopy and the brown water of the meandering river reminded him of Guyana. As soon as we stepped off the plane, the humidity was unbelievable. Took a shuttle to the charming Los Troncos Bed and Breakfast. The best sight was that of a swimming pool, which was surrounded by a large deck, a clubhouse and lush vegetation.  Didn't take us too long to change into our bathing suits and jump into the pool to alleviate the humidity.

The town reminds Robin of any small jungle community. Red earth roads, some cobbled with bricks, and lush vegetation with brilliantly colored flowers and birds. The falls are some 20 minutes from the town site.

Legend has it that the falls originated when an Indian warrior named Caroba incurred the wrath of a forest god by escaping downriver in a canoe with a young girl, Naipur, with whom the god was infatuated. Enraged, the god caused the riverbed to collapse in front of the lovers, producing a line of precipitous falls, over which Naipur fell and , at their base, turned into a rock. Caroba survived as a tree overlooking it.  The geologists mind you have a totally different view...surprise! The Rio Iguazu course takes it over a basaltic plateau which ends abruptly just short of  where a lava flow stopped. Just before going over the falls, the river divides into many channels with hidden reefs, rocks and islands, separating the many distinctive cascades that together form the famous cataratas (waterfalls). In total the falls stretch around for more than 2 kilometers.

We went up to the falls for two consecutive days...lots to take in for just one day. We took the local bus to get there...much better than an organized tour; we just seem to shy away from those type of things. The falls are located in a National Park of Argentina, one of the oldest.  The park is well designed and is very clean. They have a visitor centre when you first arrive, which is well done. Then you have an option to see the falls from various locations, which we took in over our two days/three nights here. The first option was the lower circuit, then the upper circuit and finally the Devil's Throat (Garganta del Diablo). All three locations gave us very different views of the falls. It is very hard to describe how huge the falls are and don´t really know if the pictures do it justice.

The first day, we also opted for a truck tour through the jungle (about 1/2 hour) with a guide, then onto a jet boat tour of the lower Iguazu River, which took you up to the falls. Must say that this was a blast.....we got totally soaked. We were given dry sacks in which to put our shoes, socks, backpacks, cameras, etc. The boat roared up the river, then came to a stop just below the falls. At this point we were told that we could take pictures, and about 5 minutes later, we were told to put the cameras away in the dry sacks. The boat then proceeded to get as close to the falls as possible and needless to say, this is where we got totally soaked. Thought the soaking had finished, but alas, onto the Brazilian side of the falls, to get wet once again.

During our two days here we say hundreds of coatis (adults and babies), agoutis (Robin says that he and the young boys in Guyana used to hunt these and eat them....tastes like chicken he says!!), capuchine monkeys, a couple of very large lizards , beautifully colored Mariposas (butterflies) and lots of spiders, army ants, etc. We have certain friends that would not do well in this environment!!

It was great to come back to our hostal every afternoon to slip into the pool to cool off and enjoy a caipirinha, a wonderful Brazilian drink ....could easily get hooked on these on a hot day. Our hostal conveniently had a restaurant, so didn't even have to go into town...nice after a long day.

We noticed, in our walks around town,  huge line ups at the two gas stations. When we asked the staff at the hostal about this, they told us that Brazilians come over the border to buy gas, groceries, eat in the restaurants, etc. as the cost of goods in Argentina is much less than in Brazil.

This is an amazing place and we would certainly recommend it as a must see destination.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Buenos Aires - Life in the City

On the political scene, the President Christina Fernandez de Kirchner had the Central Bank president fired by Presidential decree; which by the way, she really doesn't have the right to do. The next day, a judge blocked the President's plan to use Central Bank reserves to pay public debt and ordered the bank's chief reinstated.  Despite all of this, the papers report that an interim bank chief (probably a friend of Christina's!!) was already taking steps to move 6.6 billion dollars in foreign currency reserves to the treasury. Needless to say that the financial markets here in Argentina have dropped. Almost about as bad as Stephen Harper trying to prorogue Parliament in Canada!

On the "star" newsfront, Argentina's biggest star Sandro, died this past week. He was only mid 60"s and was revered in the country as one of their best singers( love ballads)....similar in status to an Elvis Presley.  His body laid in state in the Congressional Building for 24 hours and the funeral procession wound its way through the streets of B.A. with hundreds of thousands of his fans in the streets.

Following are some of our observations of every day life here in B.A.
- All one way streets with the exception of the 2 major roads in downtown and in the newer area of Puerto Maredo (will talk about this area later)
- Protests take place quite regularly it seems, some permanent and some spur of the moment like the Central Bank issue that is taking place now.
- Parilla's everywhere - meat restaurants. Most of you know that we are not big meat eaters...well in this City/Country you really don't have much of a choice. Must say however that the meat is very good as long as you ensure that it is not overcooked. It seems that the Argentinians love their beef, but they all like it overdone....almost black. They also eat meat in great quantities. On one occasion, we were having our normal meal (sharing a steak and potatoes) and the lady next to us must have eaten 4 - 6 times the amount of meat that the two of us ate!!!
- Vegetables are hard to find in restaurants...and if you do get them, they are usually canned peas. Have been eating a lot of salads to compensate.
- Vendors push their carts through the streets. Of the more interesting ones are coffee vendors. In their carts they carry probably 20 thermoses filled with coffee and go from office to store, selling their coffee to the office/store workers.
 - Remember in a previous entry on the blog, we talked about socks being sold everywhere....well the other thing we have noticed is shoelaces being sold everywhere as kiosks, stores, vendors, etc. Once again not sure that there is a big market for these...all women wear sandals!!
- Shoe shine stands in all the streets and all mens shoes are clearly polished regularly...they take great pride in this fact.
- Sad to see, but you constantly see the poorer class, pushing large carts collecting cardboard...even families with small children.
- Vendors take over the pedestrian walkway in downtown B.A. every afternoon to sell their wares...mate cups, jewelery, toys, etc.
- Argentinian's are very loving people. Everytime they meet or leave a co-worker, friend or sometimes even meeting someone for the first time, they kiss one another on the cheek..just once.
- Near the bus station and under a freeway is a shanty town which is reputed to house over forty thousand people. These structures are cobbled together out of brick, wood and galvanzied sheeting...all illegal but tolerated.

 We discovered a newer part of the City on one of our outings. The area is called Puerto Madero and is the newest neighbourhood of B.A. It was conceived some 20 years ago when the then existing port could no longer admit some of the larger ships. Their locks were too small. So they redeveloped some of the older buildings into new offices and condos. Also modern high rise condos have been built; and not withstanding their rocky economy, some still under construction. We were told that these condos go for 1 million U.S. Trendy restaurants and shops have also sprung up.  In this area is also a Nature Reserve, remembering that this used to be a port. We walked through the nature reserve for about 10 kilometers. A great area to discover and such a juxtaposition to the mainly old and crowded main City.

Took a bike tour with Biciclette Naranga on the weekend discovering the north part of the City. Great way to get some exercise and also see parts of the City we would not have seen otherwise. Visited Puerto Madero getting some additional history of the area from our guide, Palermo Soho, Palermo Viejo, Recoleta, the Rose Gardens and the  huge Parque Centrale.

We took four afternoons of Spanish lessons from a  company called Spanish Andando (andando means walking). Well, this is exactly what we did. We met in four different parts of the City, usually in a cafe or bar for about one hour of lessons and discussions, then onto the streets to put into practice what we had learned. Had to go to a Farmacia (Pharmacy), a Verduria (vegetable market) and order food at a restaurant. We caught a local bus and had to go to the local bus depot to get information on a trip out of B.A. We really enjoyed the course, a great  and fun way of learning. The emphasis is not on grammar, but more on conversational applications.

It's been extremely hot and humid recently which makes getting around harder. On Sunday, January 10th, we left for Puerto Iguazu; a small jungle town on the border with Brazil. The town is noted for the spectacular Iguazu falls. Will cover this visit off in our next blog.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Buenos Aires - First week

Argentina has had a very stormy history. The Military Junta which launched the country into the "Dirty War", the economic crisis created by the Falklands War and most recently their economic crises of the 1990's and last year, have created a fatalism in the local people. Notwithstanding this, the "Portenos" (residents of Buenos Aires) are a fun loving people and very friendly. The current President is Lady Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. She and her husband, Nestor Kichner the former President in 2003, have recently been acquitted of fraud and embezzlement charges....however newspaper reports indicate their personal wealth has increased by 105+ per cent in the past year....funny....our investments didn't do that well !!

After a 2 hour flight from Mendoza, arrived at our B and B, (The Tango) in the Belgrano area of Buenos Aires on December 27th.  Buenos Aires is a city of 14 million people (40 million in the country).  Very similar in appearance to a large, older European City, mainly due to its architecture. There are many wide tree lined boulevards, numerous parks, plazas and outdoor cafes. Our host, Valeria spoke English, but her husband Jorge does not.  In addition to their bed and breakfast, they own a small apartment some 100 meters down the street and this is where we stayed for 3 nights.  Although it was a little dated; it was comfortable and we had a nice little balcony, where we enjoyed wine before going out for dinner.  Valeria provided us with a map and took the time to tell us about places we must visit in addition to telling us about the good restaurants nearby and especially about the two best Heladeria's (ice cream shops) in the area. Ice cream is so popular here, they even deliver it on motorcycles that have "refrigerated" boxes on the back. We are told that Argentina has the best ice cream in the world and one must always be seen eating ice cream. Just to let you know....we have been seen eating helados!!

 The Belgrano  area has a major shopping area along Avenue would never think the economy is suffering here....the Portenos are big shoppers....lots of shoe, purse and clothing stores. On Sundays the local square hosts a flea market, made up of locals selling jewelery, yerba mate cups, clothing, toys, etc.  We were fortunate to take this in on our first evening in B.A.

Yerba mate is the dried chopped leaf of a plant; relative to the common holly. The mate cup is a hollowed out gourd and often time, they are decorated with ornate silver. Not only is mate a drink, it is an elaborate ritual, shared among family, friends and coworkers. Drinkers sip the liquid from the gourd through a bombilla, a silver straw with a bulbous filter at its lower end that prevents the yerba leaves from entering the tube. Haven't tried it yet, but you can be assured we will.  Will report later.

Doesn't appear that anyone does their laundry here...simply brought in to the local "lavanderia" and they do your laundry for you. Similar to the other places we have visited in Central/South America and in Asia. White t-shirts are never the same!!!

We have been taking the subway system to get around. It's called the Subte and they have 8 lines. Very efficient, very clean and inexpensive.... but very hot down there. Vendors are a common sight on the subway. They enter a car and yell out what they are selling....whether that be gum, socks, newspapers, etc.  Socks seem to be a big seller...funny, the weather is so nice here, we haven't seen anyone wearing socks!!

Visited the Plaza de Mayo 1977. Walking around the plaza we noticed some writing on the said " Victimas del Terrismo de Estada"...loosely translated to " Victims of State Terrorism".  This refers to some 30,000 people who "disappeared" during the Military Junta of General Orge Videla  who was in power from 1976 to 1983. Grandmothers of the victims (Madres de la Plaza de Mayo), who wear white scarves on their heads, still march here every Thursday afternoon to ensure people do not forget the atrocities committed by the Military Dictatorship. A law was recently enacted requiring mandatory DNA testing of children believed to have been kidnapped and taken from women who were victims of state terrorism. They believe there are about 400 of these children who are slowly being identified over time. 

Also viewed the Casa Rosada (Pink House) which house the Presidents' office. From the balcony we could almost see the ghost of Eva Peron speaking to her people. Visited the Catedral Metropolitana which contains the tomb of General Jose de San Martin - constantly guarded by two soldiers. In the downtown area, they also have wonderful Pedestrian walkways, Avenue Florida being the biggest and busiest.

Moved into our apartment on December 30th, which is located in the San Telmo area of Buenos Aires. We will be here for the month of January. Have found everything we need in this area...many restaurants, lavaderias (laundry), art galleries, numerous antique shops, grocery stores and a gym. We joined the gym for the month we are here...this was a wonderful surprise and is only 1 1/2 blocks down the street.

The Dakar is presently taking place in Chile and Argentina and started January 1st. We went to the Sociedad Rural Argentina to view some of the displays and some of the vehicles. While walking through the grounds, we ran across the 2 drivers of the sole Canadian team that is entered. They are driving a prototype car/truck and are number 375 is anyone is interested in watching the Dakar. The same night while eating dinner in a Parilla (meat restaurant) in our neighbourhood, the 4 gentleman sitting next to us were speaking French and were wearing their Dakar team needless to say, Claire struck up a conversation with them in French.  They will be racing a quad and are number 264. We also went to watch the ceremonial start on January 1st, which started at the Obelisk on one of the major streets of B.A. which was closed for this event.  We watched the motorcycles starting off...quite interesting to watch. Papers reported some 200,000 spectators downtown to watch the start and probably around 800,000 around the City watching the race. It really gets started outside of B.A. on January 2nd, 2010.

Holidays are very big in South America as we saw in Mendoza over Christmas and here for New Years. On January 30th, we walked to the downtown area (only about a 20 minute walk from our apartment) and we gathered that it was the last business day of work prior to year end.  Office workers all over the downtown were throwing shredded papers out of their windows, similar to a ticker tape parade that would take place in New York. The streets were covered with small bits of paper....almost like snow!!  Also noticed that the Portenos were walking around with presents...appears that either their employers or perhaps friends exchange presents for New Years. On New Years Eve  and New Years Day, most stores and restaurants were closed. We spent a quiet New Years Eve in our apartment. Around midnight the fireworks started and went on till 2 a.m. People were still partying the next morning, and the streets were littered with bottles everywhere.  They really celebrate the holidays until Jan. 6th to remember all religions. In a mall, we saw families having their pictures taken with "The Three Kings". We guess, something like having your picture taken with Santa Claus!!

We have also signed up for some Spanish classes which will run for 4 consecutive days in the afternoon. These classes are somewhat different from the norm. We will be taking buses, going to stores, restaurants, etc. to learn how to converse, rather than classroom study. Mind you, with Robin's spanish, we have been getting along fine to date.

Visited the famous Recoleta Cemetery where the wealthy of B.A. are buried. This is like wandering through a small neighbourhood of marble statues and sarcophogi. We even saw the vault where the Duarte family is buried, including Eva (Duarte) Peron.  This cemetery is the most unique one we have ever seen...spent about one hour just walking around. Will try to post some pictures of the more elaborate statues and mausoleums.

Many markets (ferias) take place on weekends and we have already managed to take in several of these..Recoleta, San Telmo and Belgrano.  All very interesting and different. Some even have spontaneous tango shows, and of course you are expected to make a small donation. This has even happened in some of the restaurants that we have been in. Tango is a national passion here....but all of you that know Robin well, will know that we will definitely not be taking lessons....can't teach those Carribean boys how to's in their blood.

- Pastel de la Granja - Farm Pie (butternut squash and chicken cooked in a clay casserole)
- Lechuga - Lettuce
- Cebolla - Onion
- Zanahoria - Carrot