Day 2 began early in the dark and cold. Breakfast was terrible and the hostel workers were hostile, so we were on our way without delay. The theme of the day was rocks and more rocks. The pictures don’t do it justice, but it was magical to drive for an hour or more seeing this:
And then suddenly to see this:
The magic of nature! It was fascinating how the elements and time combined to plop down these rock playgrounds at random intervals. We had a blast exploring although the rest of the group was definitely more adventuresome than we were. Climbing is not among my skills.
“And if you go chasing rabbits, and you know you’re going to fall
Tell ’em a hookah-smoking caterpillar has given you the call”
Go Ask Alice was my mental soundtrack often throughout this surreal trip.
This view reminded me of a sand art picture someone had when I was a kid.
Despite the desolate landscape, we saw some animals on the trip in addition to the flamingos and viscacha.
One challenge of the long drives is the lack of bathrooms or shelter for a “natural” bathroom. We were all desperate on the second day, which wasn’t a big issue for the men but a hardship for us women. At one stop we found some scrubby bushes, but when I saw evidence of prior use, I managed to hold off until we hit a store about 2 minutes from our hotel. Not a moment too soon!
We stayed in a salt hostel the second night. The tables, chairs, beds, and interior walls were all made of salt. It was still frigid, but the accommodations were slightly better – we had a private, windowless room – and the workers were friendly.
In order to see the sunrise from Incahuasi Island, we were on the road shortly after 5 a.m. on the third and final day. Of course, there was no road; we were driving in the dark across the salt flats. It was disorienting: I felt as though we weren’t moving because the landscape never changed – the salt flat is over 4,000 square miles! I spent the entire day convinced we were on a frozen lake as opposed to a salt flat. I kept expecting to see some ice shanties and snowmobiles.
The island was amazing. It was the top of a volcano back when the salt flat was covered by a sea. Now it is covered by cacti, but you can still see the coral and other fossils. We got there and hoofed it to the top to get perfect pictures of the sunrise. For some reason, I had a hard time getting to the top, possibly due to the altitude or because I am not a morning person, but I managed to get there in time to see the sunrise along with a crowd of tourists. I tend to find sunrises overrated (don’t get me started on the Grand Canyon sunrise trip!) but this one was spectacular.
After breakfast we zoomed across the
ice salt to get to the “perfect” spot for our photo shoot. Due to the expanse, the horizon is messed up and the shots are surreal. We played around for a couple of hours. Beatriz and Jorge came well prepared – shots off the salt flat!
After a fast stop at a salt hotel, which apparently was only open for the Dakar rally, and a small town for trinkets, we were on the outskirts of Uyuni at the Train Graveyard. This is always the part of every trip when Matt and I would call it a day, but the tour operators want to give you your money’s worth even if obviously not everyone welcomed tourists.
Uyuni was a desolate, depressing town. While there was plenty of space because it was surrounded by the salt flat, there was garbage dumped on just about every corner. I couldn’t imagine why anyone would live there if they had a choice. I asked our guide if he lived there and he spoke with pride as to how healthy it was there and how people never get sick because they have a good quality of life. I was stunned, but to each their own. We checked into one of the nicest salt hotels in town (at about $55 a night) and enjoyed the hot shower and comfy beds!
“What a long, strange trip it’s been” sums up the Uyuni salt flat tour perfectly!
“We are 20 years too old for this trip,” I protested. “This trip” was a 3-day, 2-night SUV trip through the high plains of Bolivia and ending in the Uyuni salt flat, the world’s largest. The reviews and tour operators were blunt – there is nothing luxurious about the trip. We would be bumping along basic roads, staying in hostels, and paying for cold showers. The basic accommodations weren’t my main issue – I’ve grown more accustomed to roughing it than I ever expected – road trips are not my thing. No matter how beautiful the scenery, my attention span is short. But Matt was set on going, and our friend Lisa enticed me with some fantastic photos and assurances that the scenery is different at every turn, so I ultimately acquiesced.
We were in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, and would cross the Chile-Bolivia border at the onset of the trip. We didn’t have Bolivian visas, but the tour operator told us that all we needed were two headshots each, our yellow fever cards and passports in order to get the visas at the border. We had one one photo each, and he assured us that it would likely be fine. We were booked on day tours in San Pedro and when we tried to get new photos in the late afternoon the day before our Uyuni tour, we were out of luck: the store was open, but the woman who took the photos wasn’t working that day. Four years ago we would have freaked out at this news and railed about how inefficient it is to have only one worker who can take a picture anywhere in town, but we just shrugged and hoped for the best.
On the day of the trip, a Chilean driver picked us up in a van early in the morning and drove us about 6 blocks to the Chilean immigration office where we joined the the long line of fellow travelers. After about an hour, and somehow with our group being corralled to be dead last, we had our exit stamps and were free to leave the country.
We set off through the desert to the border. That is, first we hit the Chilean border and then after 10 minutes of no-man’s land, we hit Bolivia.
We headed inside to immigration while our Chilean driver transerred our stuff to the SUV and our Bolivian driver. We were a little nervous about the one-photo issue when we got to the front of the immigration line. There were two men working: a policeman and the immigration official. The policeman took our documents and asked for our color copies. Ummm, what? We had passport copies somewhere in our luggage that was now strapped down on the SUV, but no copies of our yellow fever card. Matt let me do the talking and I played the stupid card – because we were. I apologized profusely, asked what we could do, and explained that no one told us we needed copies. The policeman feigned concern for us, explained they had no copy machine in the building (obviously, I’m not sure there was electricity!), and told us how much they needed the copies. We danced the dance, both knowing that the universal finale was inevitable – cold, hard, American cash. When the policeman pulled out his phone and started taking pictures of our documents, I knew we were in. He told us that he would drive to San Pedro on his lunch break to print off the photos and a small tip would be appreciated for his effort. I knew I had $30 in one pocket but also knew that there was no way to surreptitiously separate the $10 from the $20, so I pulled out the $30 and asked if that would compensate him for his time. No surprise: it would.
He passed us over to the immigration official and explained how he would come with our documents later. I believe this to be true in that everyone else had copies that were attached to the paperwork, but I suspect that no special trip was made and that he simply printed off the documents when he went home for the night. The immigration official was friendly and didn’t raise a fuss. The fee was $320 and I handed him 4 hundreds. He peeled off 3 twenties and handed them to me one-by-one while complimenting my Spanish, showing me the 10-year visas he gave us and urging us to return many times to Bolivia. I knew, and he knew that I knew, that he was ripping me off but after about a 10 second stare down, I smiled, said thanks and we skedaddled with our visa stamps.
We lucked out and had a great group – Beatrice and Jorge from Puerto Rico and Eilidh and Justine from Scotland. While they were all at least 20 years younger than us, we got along well and had good laughs. The fact that Beatrice and Jorge were bilingual was an added bonus as our driver only spoke Spanish and they could translate as needed (although Matt and I understood most of what he told us). We were not traveling in a caravan, but all the SUV tours were going to the same places along the way. We ran into a few groups and they all seemed crabby compared to ours, so we felt fortunate. Although our food was so terrible that a stray dog wouldn’t even eat the cake I offered it. One day I traded my pâté and stale bread for another traveler’s cake. Both parties considered themselves to have received the better end of that bargain.
We settled into our hostel for the night – all 6 to a room! Our companions gave us the “matrimonial” bed – two twins pushed together – but it was so cold in the unheated hostel at over 15,000 feet that Matt and I snuggled into one twin bed to keep warm.
Next Up – Rocks, fox and more!
When we arrived to Mexico in August, the restaurants were advertising chiles en nogada, a seasonal dish that also commemorates Mexican Independence. There are variations to the legend of the dish’s origin, but it is generally believed that it was created in Puebla for the military commander Agustin de Iturbide, as he passed through the town on his way to Mexico City after signing the Treaty of Cordoba, which freed Mexico from Spanish rule. The prevailing legend credits the Augustine nuns of the Santa Monica convent with creating the special dish that used local ingredients and incorporated the colors of the Mexican flag. Chiles en nogada require fresh ingredients, and the season runs from August through September although we found that some places continued serving the dish throughout October.
The first time I ordered the dish, I had no idea what to expect. The stuffed chile was roasted, battered and fried and covered in a sweet, creamy sauce. The chile was lukewarm and the sauce was cool – was this how the dish was meant to be served or had it sat too long under a heat lamp before being sauced and brought to the table? I wanted to make sure that I was tasting the dish in all of its glory, so we called the waiter over for clarification. He assured us that the dish was served properly and I got down to the business of enjoying every bite. I loved it! It was savory and sweet, crunchy and smooth – each bite was perfect. I resolved to enjoy the dish weekly throughout the season.
Once my culinary quest began, I noted that no two chiles en nogada were the same. They all started with a roasted poblano pepper stuffed with a meat, fruit and nut filling that was covered in a creamy walnut sauce and festooned with pomegranate seeds. But only my first one was battered and fried, the fillings varied considerably in the meat to fruit ratio and, at one restaurant, you could order sweet or savory sauce or both. I had both, naturally, and decided that the sweet sauce was definitely for me. Similarly, discussions with locals confirmed that every family has its recipe that it swears is the best. One of Matt’s co-workers was delighted that I loved the dish so much and sent home some of his family’s batch for us – delicious!
I met Chef Paulina at an event in early September, and when she told me that she was teaching a chiles en nogada cooking class, I was sold. The class was postponed a month due to the earthquake that rocked the city, so I was suffering from chiles en nogada withdrawal by the time the class was rescheduled for late October. This was my second Mexican cooking class and both started the same way – I showed up at a stranger’s house and was instantly made to feel welcome by the assembled women. The first cooking class was as equally wonderful as Chef Paulina’s class, but it included stiff margaritas, so no blog post about that one!
Despite our propensity to chit-chat, Chef Paulina put us to work. In addition to chiles en nogada, we were also making tinga de pollo, agua de tuna and a salsa. First up was a chat about the fresh ingredients and how to peel those pesky walnuts. Not crack, people, peel! Thank god that Chef Paulina had already done that step. She then dropped a chicken breast in a pot of water and added salt, garlic, onion and, later, a cinnamon stick to prepare the chicken and a stock for the tinga. The chiles were placed to roast on the open flame and we peeled, diced and sautéed the ingredients for the filling.
With the exception of the acitrón, the candied flesh of the biznaga cactus, the ingredients for chiles en nogada were not exotic, just numerous. Even with her purveyor connections, Chef Paulina made a few substitutions from the written recipe due to the quality of the ingredients this late in the season. The first big test of our skills came when we were each provided a roasted pepper for us to seed, remove the membrane and peel off the charred skin. It became obvious why restaurants merely roast the pepper quickly so it doesn’t char and leave the skins on! We all managed to end up with fairly intact peppers.
While we were struggling with our peppers, Chef Paulina casually tossed a few tomatoes, slices of onion, garlic and a serrano chile in a frying pan. We students panicked, looking at our recipes – what was this?! She laughed and told us it was just an easy salsa to use to top the tinga tostadas. While you can prepare a salsa with the same ingredients without roasting them, it gives the salsa more depth if the ingredients are roasted before blending. She also started sautéing the onions, garlic and chipolte for the tinga. Ultimately, Chef Paulina would add a puree of tomatoes, chicken stock, raw onions and the sautéed chipolte to the onions and now-shredded, cooked chicken and allow it to cook down until the liquid was absorbed. The blender got a workout as the sauce for the chiles en nogada was easily made by tossing the ingredients into the blender and processing until smooth (but not too smooth).
After a quick lesson on agua de tuna – which has nothing to do with fish as “tuna” in Spanish means prickly pear, or cactus fruit – we were ready for assembly. Chef Paulina explained that the tinga de pollo could be made into a taco or a tostada. If made into a taco, only the chicken tinga would be added to the soft tortilla shell. As a tostada, the tinga was topped with crema (a less-acidic, more liquid sour cream), panela cheese, lettuce and salsa. She laughed at our Tex-Mex ways of overstuffing a taco and explained that it was not done here.
As we enjoyed the tostadas, Chef Paulina prepared the chiles en nogada for us to take home to share with our family. It was a great class: Chef Paulina was a patient instructor, everything was delicious and I met some new friends in the process.
Lest you think only a professional chef can pull off these recipes, a few days after the class, I gave chicken tinga a shot.
The dish came together easily. I was pretty excited when I learned that fresh corn tortillas at my local grocery store were $.67 for about 40 of them! Of course, we ultimately gringo-ized our tinga tacos and added panela cheese and lettuce. They turned out great! Maybe next year I will have a chiles en nogada party… or maybe I’ll just keep eating them in restaurants.
Several years after both of my parents had died, they both appeared in my dream one night. The dream was nothing special: we were milling about doing normal things in my final childhood home. No words of wisdom were spoken or cryptic message divulged. I woke up so happy as though both had visited me after so many years apart. That is Día de Muertos.
Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) is actually celebrated on 2 days in Mexico – November 1 and 2 – and is when the path between life on earth and the afterlife is open. This allows the dearly departed to return to earth to visit their living family. The living entice their dead relatives to visit by setting up altars (ofrendas) in their homes dedicated to their beloved – their pictures, favorite foods, mementos, sugar or candy skulls (calaveras), pan de muerto (sweet bread with a cross of “bones” on the top), candles and flowers. Or you can try to entice the famous – we were told of ofrendas for JFK, Marilyn Monroe and James Dean, among others. Marigolds provide the dead a path back to the living and are everywhere in the days leading up to the holiday. November 1 is the day for departed children and November 2 is for adults. Families will celebrate in their homes or in the cemetery where their loved ones rest. Unlike Halloween in which the dead are feared, Día de Muertos is when the dead are welcomed. And who wouldn’t want to see their deceased loved ones, if only once a year? Matt and I did not make an altar this year as we didn’t fully understand the holiday, but next year we will be inviting our deceased loved ones to pay a visit.
A new tradition for Día de Muertos in Mexico City is a fantastic parade. Spawned by the James Bond movie, Spectre, which (apparently) begins with a (staged) Día de Muertos parade in Mexico City, the municipality now sponsors a parade. Matt and I headed into the city early on Saturday to check out the scene and get a good spot. We were rewarded by happening upon the staging area and getting a good look at the floats before the parade began.
After wandering around for 3 hours, we secured our spot an hour before the parade and were not disappointed. What an amazing spectacle! It began with a moment of silence and a moving tribute to the earthquake victims and rescuers.
The next part of the parade, “The Living Dead,” was a walk through history and began with Mexico’s pre-hispanic roots.
Next up were the Spanish Conquistadors and the Widows’ Altar.
The colonial period was represented with some great dancing and costumes.
A devil chasing an angel provided some comic relief and some interesting, but inexplicable (to me and my Spanish teacher) costumes followed.
Revolutionaries put on a show and then the press got a nod.
The next part of the parade – Carnival of Skulls – continued the fun.
A wonderful introduction to Día de Muertos and a great celebration.
We left the Galapagos Islands for the opposite end of the spectrum: Mexico City! A city* of 9 million people, with a metropolitan population of around 22 million, Mexico City is a booming metropolis filled with parks, plazas, museums, shopping malls, world class entertainment and fantastic restaurants. The Mexica people (Aztecs to us) built their capital city of Tenochtitlán in 1325. The city is over 7,000 feet above sea level but was originally built on an island. As a result, it continues to sink at a rate of up to 4 inches per year. Conquered by the Spanish in the 1500s, and renamed Mexico City, it is the oldest capital city in the western hemisphere. After the cultural desert of the Galapagos, we are thrilled to be back in an environment where traditions abound, the climate is temperate and there is more to do than go to the beach.
We live in Cuajimalpa, the most western “delegation” or borough of Mexico City. Cuajimalpa is situated in the Sierra de las Cruces mountains at an elevation of 8,900 feet. It was a separate rural town until being engulfed by Mexico City’s urban sprawl. As a result, it has a local feel, similar to our home in Cajamarca, Peru, but minus the farm animals. We are not in a fashionable ex-pat district of the city, although there are both McDonalds and Starbucks within a couple of blocks of our house (not that those make it fashionable, just typical). While it takes us about 45 minutes to get into the city, Matt has 3-minute, door-to-door walking commute that can’t be beat in a place where 1 1/2 to 2 hour commutes are not uncommon. A large, Walmart-owned supermarket is around the corner, but the neighborhood also has a Saturday open air market, which are called tianguis here, and there is a permanent market about a mile from our house. There are countless shopping malls throughout the area, with a few nice ones 15-20 minute car rides from our house. With some very minor exceptions (decaf black tea, parchment paper, Shout colorfast sheets), we can find pretty much everything we want or need in the city. What a difference that has been compared to our last two moves!
We learned from our other moves that it is best to get settled in quickly by buying what we need to make our home comfortable. We spent our first two weeks here going to the mall or some big box store almost every day. It wasn’t that we had more than a car-load of things to purchase, but when you don’t own a car, you can only buy what you can carry. One day, in a Home Depot, Matt looked at me and said, “Are we in Wauwatosa or Mexico City?” Apart from the language, it is hard to tell when you are in American stores that look exactly the same. We were lucky to have our shipment from the U.S delivered 2 1/2 weeks after we arrived – it felt like Christmas! We didn’t waste any time and had a chair reupholstered, paintings framed, our apartment painted and our artwork hung. We are having a media console and end table built and have a few more odds and ends on the wish list, but it feels like home.
It hasn’t been all work since we arrived. I joined a book club and knew it would be a good fit when 50% of their titles matched the titles my Milwaukee book club has read. I’ve met nice people through the club and the International Women’s Club. While the drive time from the city makes it rare that we go there on a week night, we head to the city most weekends. Depending on who is counting, Mexico City has more museums than any other city in the world, so we have plenty to choose from. In addition to visiting several permanent collections, we have seen a Pablo Picasso – Diego Rivera exhibit and an Andy Warhol one, complete with a reproduction of the Factory’s balloon room. Mexico City is famous for a movement to bring art to the people via enormous murals so those pop up in plenty of places too. But my best museum visit thus far was when our friends, Beth and Chris, were visiting last week because we were going to the U2 show and we ran into Bono at the Soumaya Museum! He was incredibly gracious with his fans and I even shook his hand. What a great brush with fame!
While I know that we are in the honeymoon phase with Mexico City, so far all signs point to it being a lasting love affair!
* Mexico can refer to three political units. First, the country, officially the United States of Mexico. Next, the State of Mexico, which is one of 31 states in the union. Finally, Mexico City, or the District Federal (D.F.), which is separate from the State of Mexico and its own federal political unit, like Washington, D.C. in the U.S. While in 2016 the city’s name was changed from Mexico Distrito Federal of Mexico to Cuidad de Mexico (Mexico City, CDMX), many people still refer to the city as D.F.
When I 15, I went to Niagara Falls and was underwhelmed. I don’t know what I was expecting, but I recall thinking the gardens were pretty and feeling cheated by the falls. I was expecting something majestic and it looked like a big dam. Decades later, Iguazú Falls provided the majesty I was seeking.
Iguazú Falls is on the border between Argentina and Brazil and is described as the “largest waterfall system in the world,” which I learned is because there are various ways to measure waterfalls in order to maintain bragging rights! We wanted to go to both sides of the falls but didn’t have time to get the required Brazilian visa. While I read posts that said sneaking visa-less over the border in a cab was no big deal, we decided not to become an international incident and stayed in Argentina. Compared with many of our adventures, it was pretty easy to get to the falls – we walked into town from our lovely hotel, the Iguazú Jungle Lodge, and caught a bus to the falls. Once there, it reminded us of the Milwaukee County Zoo – walking paths winding through wooded areas, kiosks and concession stands and even a train to take you to the “Devil’s Throat” to see where about 1/2 of the Iguazú river’s volume crashes over the top of the falls. The Devil’s Throat is 80 meters (262 feet) high and 2,700 meters (8,858 feet, 1-3/4 miles!) in diameter. The entry to the falls had an amusement park feel, but soon we were taken by the natural beauty. I had so much fun the first day and we didn’t get to see every corner of the park, so I decided to return the following day. Matt opted to join me and was glad he did as our first day was overcast and the second day sunny, which gave different perspectives. Plus, it had rained considerably overnight so the falls were noticeably fuller the second day.
First stop both days was the Devil’s Throat. Spectacular!
Thank goodness that I had to get over my grate phobia in El Calafate, because I really had to get over it to enjoy Iguazú Falls!
On the first day, we had bought tickets for a boat ride under the falls. We lingered at the Devil’s Throat and then needed to scurry around the park to find the boat launch. Somehow we missed a turn and arrived 5 minutes before the boat was leaving. Thankfully, we were obviously not the first clueless tourists and the worker provided us tickets for the following excursion. I had been ambivalent about doing the ride, but it was great fun. You cruise down the river and look at the falls and then suddenly the captain guns the engines and drives you smack into one. Despite the ponchos, there is no escaping the deluge of water. I thought the women who brought swimming goggles were brilliant as I feared my contacts were going to get pushed out of my eyes! When you are on the trip, you feel like you are directly under the falls with the amount of water that crashes down on you, so I was surprised when we watched another boat cruise into the falls and saw that they really just go to the perimeter.
I loved that there were so many waterfalls to see – between 150 and 300 depending on the amount of water flow. Each one was pretty in its own way.
The lush jungle setting made it so much more magical than Niagara and allowed us to see capuchin monkeys, toucans and other birds, coati (raccoon-like creatures that will shamelessly try to steal your food) and butterflies. There were boa constrictor warning signs and jaguars in the park, so I watched for those although I couldn’t decide whether I was disappointed or relieved when we didn’t see any!
Iguazú Falls is a magical place. It is no wonder that upon seeing it, Eleanor Roosevelt is reported to have said, “Poor Niagara!”
Wine, grilled meats, gorgeous scenery: how could we not return to Mendoza? After an amazing visit there in 2014 with our friends So Much Wine and So Little Time – Mendoza, Argentina we were eager to return. We again arranged winery tours with Ampora Wine Tours but this time added on an asado cooking class to learn the art of Argentine grilling.
Mauricio Camenforte was our host for the asado class that was held in his backyard. http://asadocookingclassmendoza.com/ We enjoy seeing how people live and his home and its view were lovely. Mauricio clearly loved having people in his home to show them a true Argentine experience. There were three other Americans from Seattle in the class – Norberto, Jeff and Holly – and we quickly bonded over a shared love of travel, wine and food.
An asado is made on a special type of grill: a long, flat concrete surface with a metal grill and basket. Only wood is used and the idea is to take your time, drink some wine and enjoy the process. Mauricio started by creating a wood fire. As the wood burns, you knock off cinders and spread them under the grill. Once you have a suitable amount to start grilling, you place the burning wood in the basket, replenish as needed and continue to knock off cinders for under the grill.
As we waited for the fire to burn, we started our feast with delicious bread accompanied by an eggplant spread, blue cheese spread, chorizo and olives. Next up were some amazing empanadas. It goes without saying that there was an endless supply of malbec wine as well.
Then we got to work. We sliced the veggies and put them on the grill with small, fresh chorizos. Beef ribs were expertly placed for slow cooking. Holly and I volunteered to make the chimichurri and we chopped the parsley and garlic as we sipped our wine. Mauricio put green and red peppers and onions directly in the fire basket, which wowed us all. We were even more wowed when they were done and we simply rinsed them under the tap, cut them up and seasoned them with some olive oil, salt and pepper.
Mauricio oversaw the completion of the chimichurri and then we were ready to make choripan – little chorizo sandwiches with chimichurri. Delicious! We also learned to make matambre a la pizza – flank steak topped with tomato sauce and mozzarella. Mauricio warned us that this dish is hit or miss as sometimes the meat can be tough, but his was a big hit.
The food just kept coming! We made provoleta – provolone grilled in a special cast-iron skillet. While we were eating the ribs, veggies and a salad, Mauricio snuck some gorgeous tenderloins on the grill. Just when we thought we couldn’t eat more, we did! The meal ended with a dessert of baked apples with dulce de leche and the popular Argentine drink of Fernet and Coke.
The class was a top notch experience from start to finish. While we didn’t think we could eat or drink for a week, we rose to the occasion the next two days with our wine tasting tours. Both days were excellent and we again met great people and sampled fantastic wines.
I ♥ Mendoza!
I’m weeks behind on writing any posts, but anyone who knows me knows that I am all about chronological order. When we left Chilean Patagonia’s Torres del Paine National Park, we crossed the border into Argentina and headed to El Calafate. Still in Patagonia, El Calafate is a cute tourist town capitalizing off the proximity to Glacier National Park. After some pampering and a day of rest in a nice hotel, we were ready to check out some glaciers.
Our first tour was to El Perito Moreno glacier. El Perito Moreno’s claim to fame is that it actually is advancing as opposed to retreating like most of the world’s glaciers and every several years it forms a bridge with the land that lasts for a period of time until it crashes into the water. While I was interested in seeing the glacier, I had no idea how wowed I would be. The park has a series of metal walkways (I had to quickly get over my grate phobia) that allow many different views of the massive glacier. It looks like an advancing ice army and its creaking and groaning are spectacular. There was no ice bridge, but we were fortunate to see several calving incidents. Despite the dreary, drizzly day, we had a fantastic time.
The next day was our big adventure: kayaking at the Upsala Glacier. Matt and I are experienced kayakers, but I was still nervous about kayaking near a glacier and in frigid water. What a great time! The tour company, Upsala Kayak Experience, was fantastic. We had excellent gear (although I can’t stand things around my neck and the dry suit was a necessarily tight fit!) and the staff was fun and engaging.
Not everyone had kayaking experience, but after some instructions and paddling demonstrations, we set off. We intended to go to the face of the Upsala Glacier, but a storm blew in and our guides wisely determined a better course was to paddle around a large iceberg.
After we paddled around the iceberg, we headed back to shore. It was strenuous paddling as the wind was against us and the guides worked to keep the group on track. One kayak needed to be towed when they got far afield. Matt kept us on course and we paddled well together, which is unusual! The weather cleared up a little and we were offered the treat of paddling under a waterfall. Matt and I gamely went first and had a ball. I was shocked that we stayed dry. Each kayak had two trips under the falls, then we returned to the boat for the ride back to the dock.
After two active days at the glaciers, we relaxed on our last day and enjoyed walking around town and through its park. We recognized our pal Darwin with a few of his animal friends.
After 10 days enjoying nature, we left El Calafate for Buenos Aires to enjoy some city living for a couple of weeks. Stay tuned!
Our South American adventure started in Southern Chile’s Patagonia in the Torres del Paine National Park. It’s not the easiest place to get to – 24 hours of flights from Mexico City to Punta Arenas, Chile, and then 5 hours of bus rides to get to the park and another 40 minute bus ride to our lodge* – but it was well worth the long journey. It may be the most beautiful place I have ever been. Or maybe that was because I was so happy to be in the mountains again after island living for 2 years. Mountains, glaciers and lakes, oh my!
There are two ways to visit the park: backpack and do one of two multi-day hikes – the circuit or W – or stay in a hotel and take day hikes. As my camping limit is generally 2 nights and I don’t carry gear, we opted for a hotel. There are not many in the park, so we chose the most economical and had low expectations based on the reviews. Once again, my life experiences of rustic Wisconsin cottages served me well as Hosteria Pehoe has seen better days.
The point of the park is not the accommodations, but the views. Hosteria Pehoe had the best hotel views in the park, hands down. Our bartender showed us where to take the path to the scenic view for our first sunset, and the sunrise the next morning was equally spectacular. Even better – sunrise was around 8:15 a.m. My kind of place!
We were out of hiking shape, but raring to go. On our first day we took a walk on the road to the Salta Chico waterfall and then hiked up to a lookout where we saw soaring condors. It felt great to be back in the mountains.
Day 2 was intended to be our easy day. We were building up to a 12 1/2 mile hike to the base of the Torres that we planned for Thursday, so on Tuesday we arranged to take the boat cruise to Grey Glacier. This is where traveling in a remote place with primitive hospitality services has its drawbacks. The wifi at our lodge wasn’t good enough for us to make the reservation for the cruise. The desk clerk at our lodge assured us that while the cruises were scheduled four times a day, the only one running was at noon and that we would have no problem booking it upon arrival the Hotel Lago Grey, where the boat departs. Unfortunately, she was not willing to make a call to reserve it for us. So we, together with another couple, hired a driver to take us to the Hotel Lago Grey where they informed us that there were no spaces on the noon cruise, but we could get on the 3 pm cruise. As we had 5 hours to kill, our options were to hang around the hotel or to take a hike to a scenic lookout above the lake. Feeling energized by the mountain air, I pushed for the hike.
The beginning of the hike was pleasant and I was happy with our choice. Then it got steep and I was slogging along. We were hiking with the other couple, and I felt like I was holding everyone back, a feeling I hate. I missed the stability of my hiking poles and regretted pushing for the hike. The other husband bailed while we forged ahead with the wife. Shortly thereafter, a couple of American men overtook us. They were trying to rally me to keep going, but I threw in the towel and Matt elected to descend with me while we sent the other woman off with them.
We cruised back down to the road and then our driver took us to the beginning of the trail for the hike to catch the boat. We trooped across a rocky beach, admired the bobbing icebergs and waited for the Grey III.
What a fun trip! The clouds that had blown in made it all the more interesting when trying to stand on deck in the driving wind. The color of the icebergs was an amazing blue and the glacier was impressive. I was surprised by how close we got to it. I was lucky be on deck to catch a moment of calving – when ice breaks away and falls into the lake. Fantastic!
I was demoralized after my failed hike to the lookout, but the next day we decided to walk to Salto Grande waterfall. Somehow it escaped us that it was an 8 mile walk, which wasn’t exactly our plan for the day before our big hike. But it was another lovely day for a walk.
Finally, the day had come – our hike to the base of the Torres. I was nervous about managing the hike, but I got the lowdown from a family we met who did it the day before us and our driver gave me a pep talk on our way to the start of the trail. We stopped to buy some provisions and then as we prepared to leave, one of my hiking poles was stuck! I was looking at the ridiculously priced gift shop poles, wondering whether it was a sign that I was too out of shape for the hike, when a workman walked by. We asked him for a pliers and he willingly helped us get my pole in order.
The hike was hard. It was not as steep as the Grey Lake lookout and we were prepared for hiking, but it was not easy. At least not for us – plenty of people practically skipped by us. The hardest part was the end when you are climbing up boulders, sometimes through shallow streams. But it was spectacular – the terrain changed a lot throughout the hike, you could dip your water bottle into the stream for water and the day was fantastic. I am not sure that I will ever be in a landscape so breathtaking again.
On our last day our driver took us on a half day tour of the rest of the park before catching our bus to Calafate, Argentina. We enjoyed strolling on the shores of the beautiful Lago Azul (Blue Lake), admiring the rainbows in the Paine Waterfall and observing the wildlife. We saw so many guanacos on our days in the park that we felt like we had seen 90% of the entire population. I was keeping my eyes open for a puma, but we never spotted one although we enjoyed seeing many lookout guanacos on the hills standing watch for their herds.
Another grand trip to remember!
* In retrospect, we should have rented a car instead. Despite reading about a “shuttle” there was no public transportation within the park and we paid a small fortune in private transfers.