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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)


Fall was starting in Patagonia, so we figured we'd better get down there before it got too cold. It was a long way in a big country, so flying seemed like the best option. We were lucky to get seats, as it seemed like a lot of Portenos, (people from Buenos Aires), were having their last fling before school started. Bariloche has both a summer and winter season, as other mountain towns do in the states. If we had any doubts that we were in a more "first world" place, they were dispelled with a vengeance upon our arrival . The main streets were packed with people, shopping and eating in upscale shops, foreigners and in country tourists alike. Situated on Lago Nahuel Huapi, Bariloche is like a cross between Lake Placid and Burlington Vermont, but with mountains more like the Alps.


It was a bit too hectic for my taste when we first arrived, but the crowds thinned out as the week went on. The architecture is a mix of relatively new, modern looking structures with glass and wood, Swiss chalet type municipal buildings, low rise concrete and wood houses on the side streets,


and the Hobbit-like "Trunco" wooden style, one of which was our favorite romantic restaurant.


Though not on the same scale as New Orleans, we happened to be there for Mardi Gras.



Initially we arranged to stay at a small Spanish school, run by a couple just outside of town. When we got there, it was either a tiny room in the small house, or a more private and larger space in the garage. We opted for the latter, but after a few days it got quite cold at night and there was no heat. When we were awakened in the night by rain dripping through the leaking roof, we decided to move. The teaching itself was not bad, but the couple running the place seemed preoccupied and not especially friendly. After considerable leg work, we found a room right in town, at the reasonably priced B and B, Hostel Guemes. This was a much more acceptable arrangement as we could walk everywhere and had our pick of restaurants, bakeries, and chocolate shops. Our hosts were an interesting couple, older than us by at least 15 years. Jorge was an ex-fishing guide and described a number of different places to explore around town and further afield as well. I understood about half of what he said, but no matter, they were both, muy amable. Luckily we were able to continue our Spanish studies because one of the teachers lived nearby, and was more than happy to meet us in a cafe to continue our lessons. It would take me time to get used to the Argentine, Italian sounding accent.

We spent more than two weeks here and returned to Guemes on two other occasions. Typically, We had lessons for a few hours in the morning, and then took off for a hike, or if we felt less ambitious, a long walk around town or along the lake. The surrounding countryside was magnificent, most of it part of the oldest national park in Argentina, and full of hiking, climbing, and during their winter, skiing possibilities.

On one of our hikes we took the teleferico to the summit of Cerro Otto, on the outskirts of town. From there we walked on cross-country skiing trails through the magical woods full of wild flowers.



The views of the lake and the distant mountains were outstanding.



We returned here more than once, and stopped by the small winter lodge to have a cup of tea, the only customers at this time of year. It should have been mate, what amounts to the national beverage, but it was camomile. The owner, a cross country ski instructor from the Ukraine, seemed glad for the company.


Somewhat further afield, 25K or so, we took the bus to Llao Llao, Argentina's most famous hotel. Home to Bill Clinton, The Rolling Stones, and other celebrities, it seems to deserve its reputation. I can't say for sure since they didn't let us in, but once we did manage to sneak onto the grounds.


I didn't get a good picture of the hotel, but if you google it, after you finish reading the blog of course, there are some good file shots. We returned a 2nd time and couldn't get near the place. Security was extremely tight and we wondered why. We were told by a nearby middle age Israeli couple, that the owner was having a Passover Seder for 2500 people, which was free to the under 25 set. They were pissed because they couldn't get in without forking out a few hundred bucks a piece. Bariloche has a significant Israeli population, including their own hostels and internet cafes with Hebrew letters on the keyboards. Hence it is a magnet for young Israeli backpackers.

Not far from LLao LLao, on the Circuito Chico, are other nice walks and views of the lakes.


Cerro Catedral, the major downhill ski area about 15K out of town, also makes for some very good hiking. We didn't quite get to the top, but I guess at my age I don't need to make excuses.



Samantha, or Sam as we called her, in her early 20's, was an excellent teacher. Not only did we learn Spanish, but we had discussions about her life, friends, and politics. She was an admirer of Evita Peron, as so many people are down here. Evita is a complex figure. While speaking up for the poor and working class, she was anything but democratic in how she doled out money. and ruthless if anyone challenged her decisions.

A text book that Sam used with us, intermediate level, had some short stories and dialogues about life in Argentina. One of them was about a ladrone, or thief, who stole some money from an old lady while she was out walking. He was eventually apprehended and brought before a judge, who at first, demanded to know how he could have done such a thing. The thief, ignoring this comment, and apparently recognizing the judge, said something to him about the fact that they knew each other. The judge responded by saying, "Yes, now that you mention it, that's right. I thought you looked familiar. Did you go to X school in Cordoba?" The thief nodded. "Why didn't you say so right away. Of course, you were in a class with...." There was more dialogue about the school and possible mutual acquaintances. The story ended when the judge said that because they knew each other, he was going to release him, and he then did so without so much as a warning.

I was somewhat aghast about this ending and I questioned Sam about it, wondering if I had missed something. No I had not. "In Argentina," she said, "people help their friends all the time, and if you know someone it makes all the difference."

"But, this was a bad guy who had robbed an old lady. Surely he didn't deserve to be released just because they had been in the same school?" Sam didn't seem to think this was anything out of the ordinary, and was not surprised by it.

So things were not exactly as they appeared to be in this complicated country. And yes, there is corruption everywhere including the USA, but I don't think we would put it in a text book of American English. We wouldn't openly condone it and define it as the norm. Are the Argentinian's simply less hypocritical? Perhaps, but.....

Posted by jonshapiro 10:22 Archived in Argentina Tagged living_abroad Comments (1)

To Bolivia...

Nanette and I made our way to LaPaz by what we we thought was a first class bus. It took much longer than we were told. By now you'd think we would know and expect that. It was a beautiful trip along the lake, but we were fighting about how long to stay in Bolivia. She was ready for more comfortable surrounds, and tired of the seemingly endless bus rides, whereas I wanted to spend more spend time in isolated villages and tramping around in the mountains. This was one of those times when the stress of being on the move in foreign places carried over into our relationship. It's all well and good to talk about compromise, but sometimes in the course of a long journey things break down. At that moment, I saw this as my only opportunity to see this country. I wasn't getting any younger, God Damn It, and I wanted to do all the crazy, physically demanding things I could still do. TIME was limited. I have always pushed myself to go the extra mile to the next village up the road, and well, since Nanette was with me, there were times when she clearly did more than she wanted because of my instigation.

We settled into a cold silence, as the bus stopped for lunch in Copacabana, a resort town and jumping off point for the Isla del Sol. After an hour or so we switched buses for the remainder of the trip. Apparently the bus company in Puno sold more tickets then there were seats, and an argument ensued between the driver and several foreign passengers. A few extra people squeezed in and others decided to spend the night rather than put up with the discomfort. We arrived at the Straights of Tiquina, where Lake Titicaca is essentially split in two. There is no bridge, so we all piled out and and got into a launch which took us on the short trip to the other side.


At the same time our bus was floated across on a barge. It looked precarious, but somehow everything went alright and we re-boarded for the final stretch.


Before getting to the center of LaPaz, we passed through El Alto, which may be one of the few slums of the world to be located higher than the wealthier parts of the city. The reason is simply that at these heights, 4058 meters ,13,000 feet, the people with money want to be where there is more oxygen. By now El Alto is as big as the main city, which is located in a deep canyon below the rim of the Altiplano. It took a while to get through the upper city streets, crowded with women in bowler hats, indigenous men in western dress, and the ubiquitous chicken buses belching black smoke. After the steep decent downtown, we took a cab to the relatively upscale Hotel Rosario, a place I hoped would give us a few amenities. We were not disappointed.

We spent about three days , wandering around the city streets, going to the art and coca museums, and the witchcraft market, with its fake(?) shrunken heads. The city itself had few interesting buildings, but was a mix of cultures due to the large Indian population. We ate at the convenient hotel restaurant a few times, but unfortunately we also went to a middle eastern restaurant which made Nanette ill for several days. Hard to imagine how humous could be bad, but it turned out be.

During our stay here I began to feel less pressured to see everything on one trip. This was not going to be my last opportunity to visit this most impoverished, but fascinating country, and we reached an understanding about our itinerary. We were both very excited about our next stop.

Posted by jonshapiro 10:24 Archived in Bolivia Tagged living_abroad Comments (0)

Lima to Arequipa

As we approached Lima, the shanty towns seemed to stretch on for miles down the dry and dusty hills near the coast. The last time we had been here, some 27 years earlier, it certainly had its share of cardboard slums. At that time, a large part of the middle class had been decimated by the collapse of the economy. Inflation was rampant and the Peruvian currency was being devalued on a daily basis. The Shining Path was just getting started. There was a general railroad strike going on, and the only train that was still being operated, between Cuzco and Machu Pichu, was run by the army. Badly run I might add. What would normally have been a three hour trip took us about four times that because the train derailed a number of times. We didn't crash, but I still remember the engineer and conductor standing outside and striking matches in the middle of the night to see where the train had gone off the tracks. Each time they managed to get it back on the rails, but it was excruciatingly slow. When we derailed again a few miles outside of town, at about 2 AM, we decided to walk back rather than wait for the train. We never knew whether it was simply the incompetence of the army, or whether the striking train workers, perhaps in cahoots with the Shining Path, were involved in acts of sabotage. Machu Pichu was well worth the hassle of getting there, however this time we did not feel the need to return.

On our first trip we had spent several days in Lima and despite a few interesting museums, had not found the city very appealing. Since then it has become larger, dirtier, and more dangerous, so our plan was to spend the night and then head to Arequipa, the second largest city, some 600 miles to the south.

For $100US we decided to fly and meet our younger daughter there, instead of Nazco. We headed straight for Casa de Mi Abuelo, complete with swimming pool and beautiful gardens, a comfortable oasis about five blocks from the center of town.

Outside Our Room

Located on a plain at the foot of El Misti at 2380 meters or 7500 feet, the city generally has a temperate, sunny climate. When we were there however, many of the mornings and some of the afternoons were cloudy.


The Plaza del Armas in the center of town reminded us very much of the plazas of Spain.



With its long colonnades, 2nd story restaurants, 17th century cathedral, as well as a large green space full of tall palm trees, it was a comfortable place to while away the hours and watch people, tourists and locals alike.


The buildings of the Plaza and many of the surrounding streets are colonial, and made out of a greyish-white, local volcanic stone known as sillar. The walls are frequently several feet thick to protect against the all too frequent terramotos, (earthquakes).


Many have been rebuilt or repaired after being damaged. Nearby are upscale shops, art galleries, and several smaller plazas with fountains and bougainvillaea.


There are many restaurants of course, and we found the food to be better than most other places in Peru. In addition to the more expensive eateries, there were a places that catered to Peruvians, where the Menu del Dia at lunch time, a complete four course meal, could be had for about four soles, about $1.25US.

A few blocks from the center and well worth a visit is the Santa Catalina Convent.


Isolated from the rest of the city, it was previously home to several hundred nuns who lived in seclusion, and functioned more or less as a self sufficient town within the larger community. Now there are few nuns and they live in a small section of the convent. The rest has been turned into a unique museum, with period furniture, cobblestone streets, and alleys with brightly painted walls of blue and orange, full of red potted geraniums.


There is also La Recolleta, a Franciscan monastery built in 1647, with its interesting cloisters and similarly whitewashed and brightly colored walls. It has a library with ancient religious texts.


La Compania, the main Jesuit church, is quite beautiful as well. We spent several days wandering these places, and many other 17th and 18th century churches and houses.


When we got tired of the city we took a couple of day trips to the surrounding countryside. One was to a mill, Molina de Sabandia,. Over 400 years old, it has been reconstructed and operates mainly for the benefit of tourists, but is a nice spot to spend an hour or two and look at the llamas.


From there we began walking on the winding paths around terraced fields to a few nearby pueblos.


We got into a conversation with a middle aged shopkeeper. She was surprised to see us wandering on our own and asked where we were from and where we were going. When we indicated a certain village up the road, she told us that it was okay to go there, but that we should go a particular way, as there were often malos hombres, banditos in another village if we went the wrong way. We were grateful for the information and were happy to help her teenage daughter practice her English. Perhaps because of her advice, we did not run into the banditios.

On another trip we took a collectivo an hour outside of town to a pueblo close to El Misti.We again walked amidst ancient terraced fields, oxen, braying donkeys, the occasional llama, and assorted dogs of all sizes barking furiously as we went by.


We slowly made our way closer to the base of the volcano. The upper part of the mountain was most often in clouds, though we got an occasional glimpse of the snowfields. The bottom was enormous and seemed to stretch on for miles without trees or villages. It was easy to picture where the lava flows had last been. In the distance and a few thousand feet below, we could make out the outskirts of the city in the haze. We met an old man and his younger companion on the trail. They wore jeans and cowboy hats, and smelled like woodsmoke.

Buenos Dias. Does it usually rain here this time of year,” I asked, as the weather was starting to look more threatening.

“No, not usually, but the last few years it has been different. We have had some rain almost everyday for the past few weeks. It looks like it will rain later today in the afternoon.”

“It doesn't seem like the weather is the same anywhere.”

“No, it has been different here for a while. Every year there is less snow on the mountain and more rain here.”

“Global warming, I guess.”

“That is what they say,” but I wasn't sure if he knew what that was or was just trying to be polite.

“Do you live around here?”

“Yes in the village over there,” and he motioned with his hand. “And where are you from?”

“The United States,” we said in unison. “Nueva York.

“Ah,” he nodded thoughtfully. “How do you like Peru?

“ We like it very much. We were here many years ago and now we came back for another visit.”

“And the people here, have they been good to you?”

“Yes. They have been very nice to us, especially in the countryside.

“That's good. What is the weather like where you live?”

“It is very different. Things are much greener and it is much colder in the winter time. There is often snow in the town we live in.”

“Not just on the mountain eh. That must be difficult.”

We nodded. “That is why it is nice to be here, especially this time of year. This is when it is very cold in New York.”

“Then it's good you are here then.”

“Yes it's good we have this opportunity. Do you know where does this trail go from here?”

“It goes to the other side of the mountain, quite a long way, and to other small villages.”

“Do you know where we can get the collectivo back to the city?”

“Yes. You have to go back down to Chiguata over there.”

“Thank you. Con mucho gusto de conocerles. Very nice to meet you.”

Con mucho gusto,” he replied.

We continued walking up for a while and then returned to find the path toward Chiguata after a few sprinkles of rain came down. It was exciting that my Spanish had progressed far enough to have these kind of conversations, simple though they were. Another small bridge in the cultural divide? I wondered what the old man thought.

Chiguata, which was not far from where we were initally dropped off, had its own small charms, including a small church made out of sillar. On one side was a very bloody looking picture of Jesus.


They take their suffering seriously around here, maybe because there is so much of it and their lives are difficult. We had to wait for the next collectivo, and we sat in the small plaza across from the church. In this tiny town, there were three or four small tiendas, each selling the same packaged food. I wandered up to one of them to get a snack, and asked a scruffy looking man who was standing there, “Do you know when the bus is going to arrive?”

“Not exactly. The last one left about ½ an hour ago and they run about every hour.”

“Thanks,” I said, munching on my chips.

“What are you doing around here”, he said, somewhat suspiciously I thought.

“Oh nothing much. Just taking a walk to see the mountain and the nearby villages.”

“Not very much to see. Are are you from the US.?

I nodded. I guess it was obvious from my accent.

“Your country has not been good to us. We especially don't like su presidente, Bush.

“Yeah, neither do I. I can't believe people voted for him twice. Well the first time they really didn't vote for him. He more or less stole the election.” After I said this he seemed a bit more friendly and open, glad to hear that I agreed with him about El Presidente. “What do you think about the government here?”

He looked disgusted. “ A bunch of thieves and morons.”

I nodded. “Do you live here?”

“No we are from Ayachucho, home of the revolutionaries,” he said and put up his hands in the shape of a rifle to make sure I understood.

“Are there any revolutionaries there now.?”

“No, they have all laid down their arms, for now at least. You see that guy over there,” and he motioned towards his friend with the guitar. “You see his hair. He used to be a revolutionary.”

I wondered what long hair had to do with being a revolutionary, but didn't say so out loud. Perhaps all revolutionaries in Peru were trying to emulate Che. Maybe this guy was just goofing on a gringo. Quien sabe, who knows, I thought.

“Well nice talking to you, I said.

“Yeah, nice talking to you.”

I went back to where Nanette was sitting to tell her about this conversation. Eventually, the bus arrived and we noticed we had a female cobrador for the first time. Women's liberation in Peru. Somewhat wistfully I thought about my own brief stint as a cobrador in the high sierra. Before we got on someone showed up with several heavy bags of potatoes and I helped to hoist them onto the roof of the bus. Not quite the same as being cobrador, but at least I could do something useful.

Some of the Huge Terra-Cotta Pots Around Town

Posted by jonshapiro 09:06 Archived in Peru Tagged living_abroad Comments (0)


We bid an emotional farewell to our Quechua maid and caretaker, who seemed crestfallen that we were leaving so soon. After eating a huge breakfast, our second in as many days, at the misnamed El Turista, since it was full of locals, we crammed into the collectivo that took us to Huaraz. We were given the best seats in the small combi, right up front, but that didn't prevent 15 people from squeezing in. The ride took about [email protected]/2 hours through the valley, and would have been shorter were it not for the constant stops that were made to drop-off and pick up other passengers en route. Huaraz, a bustling city of 100,000, is the capital of Ancash, and the center of commerce and tourism for the entire area. It has grown significantly in the past few years, and is full of tour/mountaineering guides and shops, as trekking has become a major industry. Despite the towering snow peaks nearby, and an elevation of close to 10,000 feet, it does not have the low key charm of Caraz. Most of the older buildings have been destroyed by earthquakes and the concrete utilitarian houses and shops sprawl out along the valley floor.

Behind hotel

Looking Down our Street

There are a number of bustling markets however, with cheap food, great pineapple and mango smoothies, and just about anything else you might think of. It is easy to get lost among all of the stalls and passageways. There are also a number of good restaurants, including a French creperie.

We stayed in Albergue Chirrup, 6 or 7 long blocks from the center. It was an excellent choice. We got a room with a balcony and breakfast for $20US. The place had 4 stories or so and looked like a Swiss chalet. There was a common room on the third floor with fireplace and a kitchen where meals were served, and the 4th floor had a balcony with even better views of the high peaks.


Views of Sunset from 4th Floor Balcony at Hotel

Our neighbors in the room next door were quite chatty, or I should say Nicholas was. He turned out to be Romanian, in his early 30's, living in Montreal for many years. He spoke about 6 languages fluently, including English and Spanish. His wife, in her mid 20's, gorgeous and exotic looking, was a black Peruvian with Indian blood who spoke little English. She could easily have been a model. We got to know them fairly well over the course of the next two weeks. It seems that Maria, after living in Canada with Nicholas for a few years, was forced to leave because of visa problems, and was now stuck in Peru trying to obtain permission to enter Canada legally. She was from a poor family and did not have much of a formal education, which contributed to her problems in getting out. I always assumed that being married was an easy way to do it, but apparently this is not always the case as their marriage was not recognized in Canada. They only saw each other a couple of times a year when Nicholas came down on vacation. He sent her money as she had little means of supporting herself. At one point he confided in me that he was worried she might end up on the streets of Lima, working as a prostitute if she was unable to leave.

The owner of the Albergue was in his 70's, wore a beret, and seemed to be a man of the mountains. He and his wife lived in a nearby house, and we spoke to them about hiring a Spanish teacher. I should add that my primary reason for coming to the high mountains was to try and arrange a trek for a couple of weeks, but Nanette was not interested and wanted to continue her language studies. Our first teacher was relatively young, well educated, and considerably more sophisticated than our teachers in Guatemala. She came from a middle-class family, and as it turned out was partly Jewish. We went to the market place with her a couple of times to practice and learn the Peruvian names for different fruits and vegetables. They were not always the same as in Guatemala and Central America where, we were told, they speak a more antiquated Spanish. For example avocado, is aguacate in Guatemala and Palta in Peru. One day Marta took us to her mother's small convenience store and said to her, “Doesn't he look just like Uncle--------?” “Dios Mio,” she exclaimed, and agreed that I did. Must have been my Jewish blood.

Marta was not always available so we also studied with someone else, an elderly, retired gentlemen who had been a university professor. He put us through our grammatical paces while discussing highbrow Spanish literature, and also reviewed the dreaded subjunctivo, which, though it it is used frequently in conversational Spanish, I have all but forgotten.


In between lessons we took several excursions with Nicholas and Maria. Nicholas was quite the organizer, and as his Spanish was fluent, we let him arrange a day long horseback ride through the mountains. It began with an hour collectivo ride to a small town in the middle of nowhere. As directed, we made our way to a stable, where after a short time our guides showed up with the horses. It was a boy of about 12 years old and his sister, maybe 15.

Our Fearless Guide in Front, his Sister walking in back, Nanette, Maria and Nicholas

It had been some time since I had been on a horse, and some of the narrow rocky paths we traversed gave me pause. The horse clearly had a mind of its own and seemingly would stop to munch on the grass at what I considered to be the most inopportune times, ie, whenever there was a steep drop-off on the trail. Often my side kicks were not enough to motivate the beast and our 12 year old leader would have to take the reins and pull my horse while astride his. After several hours of making slow progress in this way, and a very sore ass, I decided to walk some and felt much better for it. Horses, I decided, or at least my horse, was not worth the trouble. I could walk faster on these trails then they could.

The bucolic scenery gave us different views of people and fields as we meandered from one small village to the next.



Most of these villages had narrow dirt roads, and were occasionally serviced by collectivos, but otherwise we saw hardly any cars. Here the indigenous people were everywhere, and generally wore more typical native dress with colorful blouses and bowler hats.


To be more exact, it was primarily the women who dressed this way. The men looked more like cowboys with jeans and boots and more western style shirts. Our destination was a set of hot springs on a road that led back to town. It took a long time to get there and we didn't arrive until late afternoon. It was not quite what I was expecting, as it was a fairly developed place, by Peruvian standards, and we had to wait a while to get into the springs. Apparently it was a popular place with the locals, perhaps because they didn't have to heat up the water in order to bathe.

We ate in one of the many food stalls that lined the road opposite the springs.

Waiting our Turn at the Baths

On the funky side, we did manage a nice soak in our private room before taking an icy shower to rinse off.

Heading Back

After a couple of days in Huaraz, the weather seemed to deteriorate, just as I was trying to arrange my more extensive trek. I wanted to go to the Huayhuash (pronounced why wash), location of the climb and accident of Joe Simpson, described in his book Touching the Void, and later in the movie of the same name. This range is supposedly one of the most beautiful in all of the Andes, and also the most remote. Hanging glaciers practically reach into the jungle green edge of the Amazon basin. Unfortunately it was not to be.

The Albergue turned out to be a great place to meet people in part because of the large and comfortable common rooms. That is one of the advantages of staying in hostels as opposed to anonymous hotels. Although there were few people when we arrived, the place got more crowded as the week went by. We met a young American student from eastern Washington, traveling on his own, an athletic and feisty woman from Argentina who ran a gym outside of Buenos Aires, and was a personal trainer. She was going off on a small trek by herself, despite the rain, and insisted we look her up when we got to Argentina, which we did. We also met a young couple from London. They were driving down the entire coast of Central and South America, and had started their journey seven months earlier in LA. Michael had quit his job as an investment banker in order to take this trip. His mother was Spanish, father American, but he was raised in the UK. He spoke Spanish fluently. EJ, his girlfriend, was also a Brit. She had been working for a corporation deciding how to disburse funds for philanthropic projects. We liked them both immediately, and as their route was more or less what ours was, we talked about meeting up along the way, though I'm not sure that any of us expected it to happen.

One day I played hookey from Spanish school, and went on a long day hike with Nicholas and Maria. We hired a guide for this one since we heard there was a short section of rock where a rope would come in handy. Our destination was a small alpine lake part way up one of the mountains we could see from the hostel. Our guide showed up as schedualed, early in the morning, with a driver. We started up one of the dirt tracks outside of town. After driving for a while we were forced to get out and start walking because the road was blocked by some heavy equipment. As best we could gather, they had been working on it at some point, and simply left the equipment in the middle of the road . This meant that our walk was going to be significantly longer than originally planned. Undaunted or perhaps the better word might be unknowingly, we set out cross country through fields and around boulders.


Lower down the area was used for grazing and there was a network of paths crossing it. Good thing we had a guide. He set a quick pace, and somewhat smugly I noticed that both Nicholas and especially Maria had difficulty keeping up because of the altitude. By now I was fully acclimated and despite the age difference, had an easier time keeping up then they did. As we got higher the fields disappeared until we were walking on a narrow rocky path that led up through scree. The clouds thickened and the temperature dropped as we approached the lake. There was a short steep scramble for maybe 50 yards as the rock walls closed in.


Our guide went up first and top roped us one at a time. It really wasn't necessary on the way up though I knew I would be glad to have the extra security on the way down. Another 45 minutes of heavy breathing and we arrived. Maria was visibly relieved that she had made it. She was not an experienced a hiker and this was by far the most difficult walk she had taken. It was quite chilly here at almost 16,000 feet and the lake was larger than I had expected.

A Rare Sunny Moment

Higher up, maybe 500 feet or so large dirty snowfields were visible and then the glacier beyond that. The guide made us all some coca tea. Nice to have at these heights, it seems to help with saroche (altitude sickness), and gives you a little extra energy besides. Spits of ice began to fall from the clouds, but none of us wanted to rush off.

This dog belonged to Other Hikers

We ate a late lunch on the rocks, and were rewarded with occasional rays of sun through the clouds. This lit up the mist around us and gave us a glimpse of the jaggedness above. As we sat there, three kids showed up ranging in age from about seven to ten. We had passed them on the way up when they had been herding sheep. Dark skinned, they were obviously Indian, though they all wore jeans. The youngest had a cowboy hat that was too while the others each wore a baseball cap. Dirt smudged their faces, but they smiled at us in a shy kind of way. A few sweets from us brought them closer. From a nearby village, they were as curious about us as we were about them and insisted we take pictures.



When we showed them they laughed, and wanted more pictures taken while they hammed it up. Eventually we started the trek back and luckily the weather held. The kids followed us much of the way until we got back down to the grazing fields where they struck off on their own, presumably to find their village and their sheep. We waved to them and said adios. Nothing special happened, but it felt as though a cultural exchange had taken place.

Sheepherder at Lower Elevation

By the time we got down our driver was long gone, and we had to make our way back to another village and wait for a collectivo to take us back to town. Collectivos are the primary form of local transportation in this area. Meant to hold about 10 or 12, they are invariably stuffed with up to 18 or 20 people and make frequent stops. They seem to service even tiny villages in the mountains as few people have cars and the price is right at 1-3 soles, depending on distance. 3.4 soles equals 1 $US. Usually there is a driver and another person, most often a boy of about 10 or 11, not much older than our sheep herders, who opens the door, shouts out the destination and collects the money. He is known as the cobrador. On one of our excursions the cobrador was missing and because I was sitting closest to the door, the driver asked if I would open it and let people in, which I was more than willing to do. He continued to collect the money of course. So whenever we came to a village I would lean out of the minibus and shout out our destination, A Huaraz. A few times I shouted A Nueva York, and as you can imagine I got more than a few strange looks and giggles. I doubt whether the locals had ever seen a gringo acting as cobrador ever before, and some of them, at least in the small hamlets may not have seen that many gringos at all. Perhaps now that I am jubilado, more or less, I can have a second career as a cobrador here in the wilds of the Andes. Its got to be a tough way to make a living though.


On another day trip we went to look at some petroglyphs. By the time we got to the village, it was raining hard, and we had about an hours walk on a bluff near a river. Despite getting soaked and chilled, the maize fields were beautiful. When finally got to the spacious cave further up the hillside and looking down over the valley, it was easy to see why it had been inhabited. However the fences which had been erected around the entrance did not prevent many of the petroglyphs from being vandalized, and it this was disappointing, especially after the effort it took to get here. On the way back Nicholas got into several conversations with the locals. He seemed interested in going up to almost anyone, no matter how improbable, and engaging them. Half the time I had no idea what they were talking about as my Spanish couldn't keep up, but I gathered he asked questions about the caves, and also about their lives in the village. Most were indigenous farmers, and I wondered what they thought about this gringo who would sometimes ask personal questions. Maria was much more reserved than he was, and it took her a couple of days to feel comfortable even talking to us, let alone strangers. I could see that it must have been Nicholas who had approached her when they met in Lima a few years back. On the way home she told us about her background growing up in the barrios of Lima, and the contrast between her Peruvian life and the life she led in Canada. Her struggle to leave Peru had already stretched well over 2 years and involved endless amounts of paperwork and bureaucratic delays. She seemed to appreciate our concern and interest in her story, and it was frustrating that there was nothing we could do to help. If anyone could get her out it seemed like Nicholas could, and yet even he was stymied by the process. Much later, we heard she did finally manage to get out.

After spending 10 or 11 days in Huaraz, I had to acknowledge that longer trekking was out, and we took the first class bus to Lima, about an 8 hour trip. When we went to leave the owners of the Albergue wanted to charge us double the going rate for our Spanish lessons because they said we were both students. This directly contradicted what the teachers had told us. Eventually they relented, but it was a sour note on what had been an enjoyable stay. The bus ride was uneventful and comfortable, if less interesting, than the trip up the Canon del Pato.

Posted by jonshapiro 06:35 Archived in Peru Tagged living_abroad Comments (1)

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