A Travellerspoint blog

January 2010

Santiago and Valparaiso

We took the overnight bus to Santiago, hoping to leave the wet weather behind us. It was a first class bus with seats that were almost horizontal. I should have slept, but as usual, while everyone was snoring around me, I was stone cold, wide awake. I have sleeping problems under the best of circumstances. I like to say that it had evolutionary value in cave man days. I would have been awake when the wild beasts came to eat me, and would have had time to run away while everyone else would have been dinner. That's the rationalization anyway. It's probably more like your typical anxiety neurosis. You know what they say about shrinks.

We found the capital to be a big modern city of 5 to 6 million. The streets were wide and clean, where we were anyway, and the parks well kept. We visited the Mercado Central, a lively place with sea food restaurants and shops, although the meal we had was not especially good despite what The Handbook said.


What follows are some random photos of streets and buildings.


We also went to a few museums, the most memorable of which was La Chascona, one of Pablo Neruda's houses. The house was named The Uncombed, after the unruly hair of Mathilda Urrutia, who later became his third wife, but was his secret mistress at the time. It is a delightfully whimsical place that looks and feels like a ship built into a hillside, full of memorabilia. Neruda has become a kind of national hero in Chile, which is interesting given his frequent clashes with the government.


La Chascona in fact, was vandalized by some of Pinochet's goons prior to his death, which occurred when Allende was overthrown in 1973. Urrutia was then harassed by the military government, and eventually wrote a book about it and her life with Neruda. A movie, Il Postino, was made about an earlier time, when he was in exile in Italy, though it is really a love story based on his poetry.

Allende on a Wall with Funny Caption


After a brief few days in Santiago, we went on to delightful Valparaiso. Situated on steep hills by the sea, it reminded us very much of San Francisco.


It was by far, our favorite city in Chile. Neglected for years, it is slowly being renovated after being declared a World Heritage Site in 2003. However it is still full of ramshackle wooden and corrugated tin houses, many of which are painted in vibrant colors.


It is the cultural center of the country with a large art scene, music, cafes, etc. The murals which appear all over the city are spectacular. It is the kind of place which invites random wandering along curvy and narrow lanes, often with one vista after another.



The first few days we stayed in a hostel run by a Brit who was the primary author of The Footprint Guide to Chile.


Our street continued down a very steep hill.


Very conveniently, the city has many ascensors, a kind of cable car/elevator to assist you in getting up the hills. These are practically antiques, and were a real gas to ride in for about a quarter. They didn't go far, but it was the elevation gain and not the distance which counted.


We met an Aussie couple while touring La Sebastiana, Neruda's home in Valparaiso. Located on one of the city's high hills, it feels like a combination bird house and ship, and is named after its first owner, who in fact, wanted to turn the third floor into bird house.


The harbor is a busy place and one day we took a tour of it with our Aussie friends.


The views looking back over the city are......


On a role with Neruda's houses, we went to see the third one, Isla Negra. It is not on an isla, but is right on the sea about an hour from the city. It has a very ship-like feel, even more so than the others, and is full of shells and other nautical objects.


The setting is dramatic.


Equally as eye-catching, was the young, German/Indian couple who came with us that day.


For most of our time in Valparaiso we just walked around the streets, looking at buildings, eating in the cafes, checking out the art galleries. People were quite friendly, though not as effusive as the Argentinians with their Italian background.

We noticed these folks eating some unusual fruit and they insisted on giving us some. And of course, they wanted their picture taken.


We could have stayed longer, but after a while the weather deteriorated. It stayed damp and chilly, and we decided to push on, back across the mountains to Argentina.

Posted by jonshapiro 07:06 Archived in Chile Tagged postcards Comments (3)

Chilean Lake District and the Meaning of Long Term Travel

We then crossed over into Puerto Varas, Chile, a resort town on a large lake with a big German influence. I took few photos here because it was pouring almost the entire time. In general, there is more rain on the western side of the mountains, and this was certainly the case when we were there. If you go to the following site you can see what it looks like on a nice day: http://www.trekearth.com/gallery/South_America/Chile/Lakes_Region/Los_Lagos/Puerto_Varas/photo110165.htm

We had big plans to go other places when we arrived, but the continuous damp, chilly, weather dissuaded us. The hostel we stayed in was cold and drafty, which didn't help my disgruntled mood. At one point our friends, who were traveling just two weeks, decided to spring for a night at a much more upscale and warmer place. Chile was more expensive than Argentina, and, despite the atrocities of Pinochet, the economy was in better shape. They had avoided the Argentinian economic "crisis" in 2001, and yet many buildings, like our hostel for example, were old and needed work. It was obvious that the Chilean economy had not lifted all boats.

We did take a few wet walks along the lake and to some nearby towns. We also went by bus to nearby Vulcan Osorno, though it was covered in cloud much of the time.


The weather did not improve and we all began to go a bit stir crazy. Perhaps having too much time on my hands, I began musing about "bad travel days," and the overall meaning of long term travel. Certainly dealing with the frustration of these wet days in Chile is a part of the process. You learn to cope with circumstances beyond your control, and to surrender to them. There are obviously many positive days, as you can tell from my writing, but the meaning of travel is also contained in the bad times as well. You have to learn to let go and roll with what comes your way. Before we left, everyone wanted to know what our itinerary was, and although we had a rough idea which countries we were planning to visit, the schedule was very loose. This involved another type of letting go. There is simply no way to plan a trip of nine months in advance without driving yourself crazy, and locking yourself into a plan that you will want to change later on. Not that this is easy, and it is different than the way I usually live my life.

Another challenging thing is learning to live with a small backpack of clothes, though this proved easier than deciding what to pack. It's amazing how few THINGS you really need, but how often do you realize this in your daily life. Travel is about divesting your attachments.... to things, to people you know, and to control.

Who would really want to do this? As with so many things, it is a trade-off. What you get in return is a kind of freedom that is hard to obtain in other ways. You also get to meet a lot of very interesting people of various ages, and you experience a kind of intimacy with them that might otherwise take much longer to develop, or wouldn't happen at all because you wouldn't meet them in the first place. You get exposed to amazing new experiences and cultures that you would otherwise never know, except vicariously. You learn to tolerate and deal with things that you never thought you could put up with, and yes, you do learn what your limits are since you keep bumping up against them.

In our culture, North American or Western European, it is easy to assume that we are in control of most everything in our day to day lives. This is not necessarily the case in other places or other cultures. On a trip to India, the same one I alluded to in another posting, my buddy and I stopped in a small shop in Dharamsala. It had been raining for days, and we needed to get some plastic bags to keep our stuff dry, as we were about to embark on another trek. In the States we would just go into a supermarket and buy them. Here it wasn't so easy.

This particular shop was a tiny variety store, and we asked the proprietor if he had any plastic bags.

" No," he said, "but not to worry."

He then pulled out a roll of thick plastic and proceeded to sew, by hand, the number of bags we needed. While he was doing so, we got started talking, and of course the weather came up since we had to change our plans because of the extended monsoon season. We told him about getting caught in a blizzard at 17,000 feet, and having to retrace our steps after a week of hard hiking.

"Well," he said," when you come to India, you have to put yourself in God's hands."

How true, and its not just because of the weather. Anything and everything can happen in India, and in so many other places. It more or less forces you to give up the illusion of control that we Westerners have in our nice ordered lives. Scary perhaps, but it is also liberating.

This type of travel is easier in your 20's or 30's, as opposed to your 50's or 60's, but maybe it is even more important for us old farts to challenge ourselves so that we do not go gently into that goodnight. After all, most of us know some things about loss of control, things we didn't know when we were younger and thought life went on forever.

Posted by jonshapiro 07:11 Archived in Chile Tagged living_abroad Comments (3)

The Lake District of Argentina

Renting a car in Bariloche, we took the famous Seven Lakes Drive through more beautiful mountain scenery, to San Martin de Los Andes. This is a small, upscale resort town near the Chilean border, which also has a vaguely Swiss feel. I won't bore you with more mountain photographs, or lake shots for that matter, mainly because they are crunched somewhere in the bowels of my computer, or else they got erased somehow, and hence are lost forever. No great loss I know. After you've seen 100 admittedly fabulous mountain scenes, how many more can you look at without your eyes glazing over. (For those of you just tuning in, feel free to look at previous posts so you'll know what I'm talking about).

Alright, I confess that despite my fear of heights, I am an unrepentant mountain person. I can walk amongst, and gaze at mountains, or pictures of them, indefinitely without ever tiring. Along the same lines, I am not much of an urban type. Urbane perhaps, but not urban. Yes, I like my share of museums, serious theater, and music of all kinds, except rap and country. But don't loose heart here. After a brief stint in the Chilean countryside, we head for the URBAN settings of Santiago, Valparaiso, Mendoza and of course, Buenos Aires. So you city lovers out there will get your time and descriptions. You should also stick around when I start blogging about Southeast Asia, China and India. There are urban centers in that part of the world teeming with more people than you can imagine, unless you have been there. And no, this isn't a commercial announcement, though it might sound like one.

But for now..... what I can tell you is that, yes, we went for yet another hike, this time up the trails of Cerro Chapelco, a nearby ski resort. It took several hours to get to the top and maybe 1/3rd of the way, our friend Natalie decided she had enough, and was going to rest in an open field near a closed restaurant (since it wasn't ski season). The rest of us dutifully carried on, and eventually got to the spectacular summit. It was well over tree line, and the far side had an almost sheer drop of 2,000 feet into an area that looked something like the Grand Canyon, with the addition of spiky, red rock towers. It was, to use the Spanish, increible. We spent some time up there taking it all in, and then descended, thinking we might run into Natalie on the way down. We got to the place where we left her in late afternoon and there was no trace of her. We assumed she went down, and we would find her in the open base lodge.

By now you can probably figure out how this story goes. Naturally, she wasn't there. It was still an hour before it was going to get dark, so we didn't worry too much at first, thinking that she had gone off for a walk someplace and would turn up soon. She didn't show up, and as time went on we became concerned that something had happened, though it was hard to imagine what, since all she had to do was follow the lift line back down. It was more or less a straight shot. Now there is one thing you need to understand about Natalie, and I love her dearly. If you're ever skiing or hiking with her, and there is a choice of which way to go, she will invariably choose the wrong way. In fact, it's reasonably safe to assume that if she goes one way, it must be the other way. She is, what you might call, directionally challenged. Even so, she just had to go straight, as I said. Well, it began to get seriously dark and cold. The sun was setting, and there was only 20 minutes left before the last traces of daylight evaporated. Allen, her boyfriend, was understandably beside himself. We started to look around for help, and noticed a nearby hut that looked like an emergency first aid shelter. Luckily there were a couple of guys inside who had an ATV. Nanette and I tried to explain what happened since Allen had no Spanish. It took a while, but they finally understood that this was a serious situation, and they needed to go and look for her. It would clearly not be good for her to spend the night up there, lost, cold, and possibly hypothermic. Fifteen minutes later they came back, just as it was getting completely dark, with a smiling Natalie, sans jacket, sitting on the back of the ATV.


"Oh" she said nonchalantly, " I fell asleep for an hour, and I figured I could find you on the way up. I thought I could catch up."

"YOU WHAT,?" we all said in unison.

"I started up, and after about 1/2 an hour, maybe more, I realized it was quite steep and far, and I'd better turn back.

"YOU WENT UP?," we said incredulously. "Why would you go up?"

"It didn't seem that far," she repeated.

"And what happened to your jacket?"

"I think someone must have taken it. I got up and walked over to the other side of the field where I left it, and it was gone. I couldn't find it."

"YOU LEFT IT ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE FIELD? Why would you do that?"

"I don't know. I didn't really think about it. I wandered around the field after I put my jacket down, and then felt tired in the sun, sat down and fell asleep."

Allen was starting to loose it at this point, so I said,

"Okay. And then what happened?

"I started down, and there were a couple of different trail junctions that I hadn't noticed on the way up and I, well you know, I must have taken the wrong one because I couldn't get back to the field."

"All you had to do was follow the lift line?"

"I know, but the trail I ended up on was away from it, and then I couldn't figure out how to get back."

"Ahhh," we all said, once again in unison, knowing of her predilection to always go the wrong way.

"It's really not such a big deal. When they found me I was most of the way down, and I would have made it without any help."

It was a little difficult not to react to this sarcastically, but I could see that Allen was practically apoplectic and this would not help matters.

"Okay, it's good you're safe, but how could you go up? That would never have occurred to me."

She smiled sheepishly.

"Never mind," I said. "It all came out right."

Somehow Allen and she got past it, but needless to say, she has taken a lot of ribbing over this one from the three of us. Directionally challenged. Count on it. Maybe her judgment ain't so hot in situations like this either.

The next day, after a good meal and a comfortable night, all is well. We took off on another ripio road looking for a trail to some hot springs, just what we all needed after this ordeal. Unfortunately, the road was in bad shape as it continued toward the mountains, and we didn't have four wheel drive. At a certain point we decided to stop and walk, not wanting to get stuck. It was much further along the road to the trail head than we thought. Natalie once again decided she had enough, and Allen, despite the fact that it was an actual road, albeit with no traffic, wisely decided to stay with her in another nearby clearing. As usual, we persevered, not really knowing how far it was. We finally got to the trail head at around 2:30, and practically ran the last two miles to get the the hot springs in time for a soak. We had come so far and didn't want to give up now. We got there just as a couple of people were leaving.

"Where are the hot springs," we asked.

They pointed up the hill to what looked like a small trickle in the rocks.

"That's it?"

"Yes, that's it. You can squeeze in between the rocks and just about get your body in."

What a disappointment. We had come all this way for that. If we had known, we wouldn't have bothered. Alright we were here and by God, we were going to have a soak if it killed us. We walked up the hill to the rocks. It was maybe, m a y b e, 6 to 9 inches deep. We got rid of a few more rocks and tried to make it deeper, and then tore off our clothes. At least it was hot, and I stretched out to a prone position, not an easy thing to do in this place, and could just about get my back in. We stayed for about 15 minutes trying to make the best of it, and it was better than nothing. Then we started back for the long, l o n g, l o n g, trip back. We got to the road and it was already past 3:30. It was two hours minimum, probably more, to get back to the car, and it was dark, really dark by 6, and I didn't have a headlamp. What was I thinking? Maybe when it comes to hot springs, my judgment ain't so good either. Who was I to criticize Natalie?

We started back, walking as fast as we could. After an hour, the Gods smiled on us. A four wheeled pick up came by, and almost as an after thought I stuck out my thumb. They stopped. "You'll have to ride in the back."

"No problem," we said as we clamored up the side. It was bumpy, but it was sure better than walking. After 15 minutes or so, we came across Natalie and Allen, who by this time had walked most of the way back.

"Can you stop for our friends?" I shouted through their open window. And once again they stopped.

"Hey you guys need a lift or what?"

  • *************************************************

The next day we headed back to Bariloche a different way, on another bone rattling ripio road, though this one was passable without 4 wheel drive.


It took us through mesa country, and more impressive rock formations, and as you can see I do have pictures.




We also passed some interesting animal life. Was it a squirrel, or a larger rodent?


Or was it a woodpecker?


Posted by jonshapiro 06:38 Archived in Argentina Tagged postcards Comments (3)

Tronodor: Border of Argentina and Chile

We gave our friends a couple days to rest, more or less, at the Hostel La Morada. Located most of the way up Cerro Otto, it has, arguably, the best view of any hotel near Bariloche.


After that it was on to Tronodor, or Thunder mountain, because of all of the avalanches that come crashing down. The mountain is located an hour or more down a one-way ripio road, near the border of Chile. You have to get the timing right because at certain times you can get in, but you can't leave, and vice versa. We stayed at the comfortable Hosteria Pampa Linda,which was good, since we didn't have good weather.

This was taken on the day we left

We befriended a Chilean maid, who seemed eager to talk about Chilean politics, especially the overthrow of Allende. She left the country disgusted with the excesses of Pinochet, but depending on when she left, which I frankly can't remember, things might not have been much better on this side of the border.


In the mist and rain, we walked up to the base of the mountain to look up at the many waterfalls fed by melting glaciers.


The next day, Allen and I took long hike up to the refugio, just at the snow line. It was good 8 or 9 hours there and back. We saw nothing for the duration, as Tronodor was socked in during the intermittent rain. It might have been snow at the summit, as we did hear the dull roar of distant avalanches. Had we prepared for it and brought sleeping bags, we could have spent the night and gotten clear skies late the next morning. The shots you see here were all taken then, from our Hosteleria.


Posted by jonshapiro 10:09 Archived in Argentina Tagged postcards Comments (0)

El Bolson

About two hours south of Bariloche, this restful and scenic town has been a place to get it away from it all since back to the land hippy-types came here in the 60's and 70's. It is known as the Woodstock of Argentina. How it fared during the Dirty War in the late 70's is an interesting question, and not one I know the answer to. I'll just have to come back to do the research.


It is located in a large green valley surrounded by rocky peaks, and is known to have a micro-climate which makes it warmer than surrounding areas. There are small chakras, selling some of the best berry preserves I have ever tasted, as well as microbreweries, (very micro) selling their own beer. Perhaps these are still being run by ex-hippies, but most are older and straighter looking now. There is also a craft market several days a week, selling jewelery, knitted clothes, some food, and the usual assortment of mediocre art.

We rented a small cabin with mountain views on the edge of town. Our hosts, who indeed seemed like back to the land types, had migrated from Buenos Aires 25 years earlier. They were extremely sweet to us with whatever we needed, and complained about the recent population growth in the valley. For them, it was no longer the quiet place that it had been.


We had our own kitchen for the first time in 6 months, and what a treat it was to "play house." We shopped in the local market, and did some cooking so that we could eat something other than meat and potatoes, the staple foods in Argentina. We had our "on the road" friends, EJ and Michael, over for dinner. When we didn't want to prepare a whole meal, there were different kinds of ready made empanadas, almost as good as in Salta. Pop 'em into the oven for 10 minutes and they were done. We even had a living area separate from the bedroom. It felt almost palatial. One of the luxuries of being home is having your own space. Of course, once you have it everyday it is easy to take for granted.

When we first arrived, we had no idea that we would spend more than two weeks here, but things really slowed down for us. We took a number of day hikes and bike rides throughout the valley. Often we were sidetracked by the wild blackberries which seemed to grow everywhere. We'd start out on a hike, come upon huge berry patch, and stop to pick and eat for hours. Belly aches were not infrequent. We could also buy raspberries very cheaply in the craft market. Between the wild and cultivated berries, I'm sure we ate at least two quarts a day. There couldn't be a better time to be here than fall. The days were comfortable, around 70 degrees, and the nights were chilly, sometimes with frost. We had heat in our cabin so that was okay.

El Bolson is also known as a kind of new age power spot, like Sedona, Arizona, and after five days it felt like some of that positive energy was rubbing off on me. We biked to a water fall and while Nanette painted, I just stared at the falls and the mountains for a few hours. I am not usually one to spend time just hanging, or contemplating, but it seems I did a lot of that here. Full of fruit and nut trees, the place just lends itself to that.

Quiet Country Lanes Abound

Oh sure, I did take some more strenuous walks up to a mountain refugio.



And we biked to Lago Puelo one day.



But mostly we did things for a few hours, and then read and relaxed in our "backyard." Nanette commented that she was sleeping a lot, like she often did in Culebra, in the Carribean.

View From Our "Backyard."

Somehow it just seems easier to relax while traveling away from home. There are no bills to pay, projects to complete, friends to meet, schedules to complete. You step away from the world you know, with all of its obligations, into the wider world, and you leave so much of that behind. Of course to many, our whole trip must seem like a long relaxing vacation, but that's not really the case. Extended travel is like the rest of life, with good days and bad days, and certainly not always relaxing. You do leave some of your baggage behind, but not all. I'm not saying that it doesn't beat working, and I am certainly not complaining, but it isn't always easy. It isn't always, well.... like El Bolson.

Piltriquitron at Sunset

Unfortunately, after 10 glorious days, our little home was rented to another family, so we decided to rent a car for a few days and go south to Parque Nactional Los Alerces, a large wilderness area. It is home to 2000 year old Alerce trees.


Renting a car might not seem like a big deal, but it was the first time in six months that I had driven a car, and this too seemed like a treat . And yet... in many respects, it was good not to have that responsibility. There is much to be said for having all of all your belongings confined to a mochilla, (backpack).

On the way there we took "the scenic route," a long and bumpy ripio road . En route we went looking for Butch Cassidy's cabin, where he lived for almost 7 years with the Sundance Kid and Etta Place. Etta was initially The Kid's girlfriend, but depending on you believe, they had some kind of menage a trois while living on their farm. We thought that this would be an obvious tourist attraction, but it turned out not to be so easy to find it in the small town of Cholila. We managed to do so, and then spent time exploring the deserted homestead.


We couldn't resist stopping at "The Butch Cassidy Teahouse," as it is described in The Handbook.


This is a stone farmhouse a few miles up the road, and is run by an elderly woman who is full of stories about Butch and his exploits, including the children he fathered whose relatives still live in the surrounding valley. She has some old pictures and memorabilia, and insisted on giving us meriendas, tea and pastries, usually served as a late afternoon snack, although we were there about noon. It was delicious, but expensive. I assume that she makes some much needed cash serving it to tourists like us, while talking about the Wild Bunch, as Butch's gang came to be known.

After a few years hiatus, possibly getting bored with semi-retirement, or with Etta, he and The Kid starting robbing again in other parts of Argentina. They were eventually killed in a shootout in southern Bolivia, though the bodies have never been found.

I digress, but I remember, dimly perhaps, seeing the movie many years ago, somewhere in the wilds of Montana, (Not Missoula). We thought many parts of it were funny, almost campy, but nobody else was laughing. People in our own wild west seemed to take it very seriously.

From there we continued to the national park, and took a few short walks in the spooky and damp forests, also deserted, and were able to see some Alerce trees. The oldest were in a remote and hard to reach spot, so we didn't see them. We went on to Esquel, a western feeling town with wide streets. It felt like you could hitch your horse up to the posts outside, but we pulled up to our hotel in our tiny Toyota, along with everyone else. This was originally a Welsh community, but we didn't see or hear any evidence of that. We did see La Trochita, otherwise known as The Old Patagonian Express, per Paul Theroux.



On the way back we had a paved and more direct road, but elected to spend the night in an isolated and funky farmhouse on Lago Epuyen.


We took one of the canoes out on the lake, in the sunny and warm afternoon.


We discovered a large floating Buddha beached on an island, and knew we had some to right place despite the lumpy beds.

When we returned to El Bolson the other family was still living in OUR cabin, and so we negotiated with the owners to rent a different one, not quite as cute, for another few days. On one of those days, we hired a taxi to take us to the top of Piltriquitron, the mountain outside of town, and took pictures of the valley and mountains.



We hiked to sculptures of Bosque Tallado, before walking the 10k back to our cabin.


It truly was difficult to pull ourselves away, but we had to return to Bariloche to meet our friends from home, Natalie and Allen.

Posted by jonshapiro 07:51 Archived in Argentina Tagged living_abroad Comments (8)

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