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The bus ride back across the border was long, but there was mountain scenery as we passed close to Aconcagua, the highest peak in the Andes.

The Busy Border Crossing

This city, as everyone knows, is the wine capital of Argentina. It was much busier and bigger than I expected, full of noisy traffic at times. I didn't find it as relaxing as Valparaiso or as picturesque, though there were some nice parks and outdoor sculpture.



Plaza Espana had some beautiful tile work.


Futball, or Soccer is very big here, as in many parts of Latin America.


Not everyone is white, though it is less obvious than in other countries.


Our hostel was alternately very noisy or quiet. During our first two days there was a big rock concert in town, followed by a national holiday, akin to our Labor Day. Things were really hopping, and as a result I had my usual sleep problems. The owners of our hostel were absolute gems, extremely welcoming and helpful, and so we didn't want to move. In general Argentines stay up late into the night, and seemingly get by on very little sleep, much like Spain. This seems more noticeable here than in other parts of the country, and takes some getting used to for this middle-aged vagabonder. It is another way that traveling can test one's limits, especially with sleep issues. At times, I have taken to thumb tacking a blanket over the window to block out noise and light, a bit neurotic I know, but modestly effective. Sometimes I get what I call traveler's depression. I consider it a form of homesickness, a longing for the familiar and the comfortable. It lasts for a few hours, perhaps a day, and then passes. I think this is also part of the process of traveling.

On the national holiday we rented bikes, fought the crazy drivers, and went out to where the wineries are located in the nearby countryside. All were closed, even though we were told they would be open. Bummer. It was NOT a good day. The next day, however, we took a bus ride to some hot springs, and spent the afternoon talking to the locals while having a soak. That was great.


The nearby country was beautiful.



Yesterday we took an organized tour of the wineries instead of trying to do it on our own. The second bodega,
which is what they call them here, was small and intimate. It was run by a couple who came over from Europe. We got to sample several reds, and then bought a bottle of their estate Malbec which we enjoyed a few days later. The wine industry in Mendoza is a major business. The owners told us that much of the wine sold under Chilean labels, such as Concha y Toro is actually from Argentina. We also visited an olive oil factory.

On a different occasion, Nanette had some lessons with the sculptor next door to our hostel, though she swears she doesn't remember having negotiated this because she mistakenly took an ambien that morning. Here she is just about to slice off the guys ear, but it's only a bust. Just ignore that maniacal gleam in her eyes.


We have also restarted our Spanish lessons two hours a day with another good teacher, this time in a group format. My energy for studying Spanish had started to wane, but I have been re energized. Tonight we are going out to dinner with our class at 9:30PM, the normal dinner hour . We will probably cheat and try and eat something ahead of time. We have had some fabulous lomo here. Some of the best we have eaten thus far. As the French would say, boeuf de beurre. It melts in your mouth like butter.

We met a woman from Switzerland for lunch, someone we hiked with a few weeks back in Torres Del Paine. We knew she was here via email. We have been busy, as you can see. At the same time, as our journey winds down, I am thinking more about our return and what that will be like. How will our friends react to us? And we to them? Will the US seem different as we view it with new eyes? How will this experience change us.

Posted by jonshapiro 21:46 Archived in Argentina Tagged postcards Comments (2)

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)

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)

Southern Argentina: El Chalten and Fitzroy

We eventually caught a LADE flight, run by the Air Force and therefore cheaper, to El Calafate, some 1400k south. This is a tourist town whose primary reason for existence is Parque Nactional Los Glaciares, about an hour away. Plenty of Argentinians as well as foreign tourists make it down here, and it is relatively expensive. Our plan was to first to go north 200k, to the tiny outpost of [El Chalten, and spend a few days hiking around the Fitzroy Massif and Cerro Torre. El Chalten didn't exist until 1985, and now comprises just a few hundred souls, whose only business it seems, is to take care of the mountaineers and trekkers who show up in the summer and fall.

The bus ride over the plains with its stark terrain and clear air reminded me of the Altiplano, though it is not nearly as high.

Near El Calafate

Along the Road

Nevertheless, the mountains are quite serious, and were not climbed until the late 50's or early 70's, depending on who you believe.

Fitzroy From a Distance

A Little Closer

As soon as we got out of the bus, we were immediately buffeted by a cold wind that blew unrelentingly for the three days we were there. At times it was blowing so hard that it was difficult to walk. This was our first introduction to Patagonian weather, and it was a good thing we didn't get here later in the year. It was somewhat cold already, though as we later found out, it could literally change in an instant.

The trails began just outside the village, and were below the tree line at the start. At first, there was actually less wind than in town.


The weather however, did not cooperate.


Most of the time it was overcast and the peaks were obscured, with intermittent rain and grappel for all three days.


On one particular day, as we went higher and around a bend on the trail, the wind blasted us with such force we couldn't stand up, and we elected to turn back under threatening skies. I pictured climbers being blown off the mountain or clinging to their belays on vertical rock, thankful that I was not THAT crazy.

I've done technical rock climbing about a dozen times in my life, and always had issues with the exposure, mostly on the way down. Even on non-technical terrain, I can get freaked in areas where there are sheer vertical drops. I have to talk myself through it, and have resorted to holding hands with a guide on narrow traverses or steep downs. In this vein, a story I have told many times is about an experience I had in the Indian Himalaya, some nine years prior to this trip. We had an Indian guide, Nagy, who was about 4 feet 10 inches tall, spoke poor English, and more importantly, walked with a limp. That should have told me something. At any rate, we had a long, extremely narrow traverse on the way down from a particular mountain village. I'm talking here about a trail that was a foot wide in some places, dropping off more than 1500 feet to a river. Somehow it had been carved or blasted out of the rock cliff, just enough so that an Indian man of Nagy's height could stand up straight. I had to bend over to avoid cracking my head for the duration, perhaps a mile or so. In places, the trail was so narrow that I had to face into the cliff and side-step. I was holding Nagy's hand for a good part of this. I should point out that Nagy probably weighed a good 20 pounds less than I do, and I'm a skinny guy, around 145 pounds. Somehow we managed to negotiate all of this, and the trail widened to about three feet, at which point I was able to continue on my own. I was chatting with my friend David while Nagy was 20 or 30 feet ahead. Suddenly, he stumbled and disappeared over the side. We were horrified, and ran up to where he fell and peered over. Luckily the drop was not quite as steep here, and Nagy had managed to grab onto a small stubby tree about 20 feet below. In a few minutes he climbed out, grinned at the two of us, and said he was fine. The absurdity of thinking that someone of Nagy's size, with a limp, who couldn't even keep himself on the trail, was somehow going to save me if I fell, still makes me smile. At the time it didn't seem so amusing.

There was a rather hard core crowd staying at the hostel with us. Two of them were a Swiss couple, around 40, who were biking their way across the entire length of South America. They were 18 months into their 2 year journey, and they weren't taking the easy route. At times they had to carry their bikes over mountain passes and had gotten lost, sometimes for several days at a time. They were close to the end now, a few hundred miles from Tierra del Fuego. Another fantasy of mine has been to bike around the world. Sadly, I guess that one will have to wait for another life time.

Posted by jonshapiro 08:07 Archived in Argentina Tagged postcards Comments (0)

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