Sunday, May 9, 2010

Home Sweet Home

After arriving back in the US I quickly set in to resume my life. It didn't take more than a couple of weeks before the entire trip felt like a dream. I spent a couple of weeks indulging in the foods I missed the most and getting my activity back up after some slow lazy weeks in Argentina. I also had my great friend Istara give me a new tattoo as a reminder of what I've been through and where I'm going. Feeling back to normal I took off for Charlotte, NC to sit tight and wait on my sister Lisa's birth. After a couple of weeks of taunting things finally started to happen. My niece Delainey was born on April 23rd at 7lbs and 13oz. She has a full head of hair and can sleep like mad. We had trouble waking her to feed but I'm not complaining. Here are a few photos for those who haven't seen her yet!

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Punta del Este

The small town of Punta del Este is about 10,ooo people, maybe twice that during January and Feburary but by the time I arrived the high season was over and things were begining to return to normal for the locals. I had been worried about the crowds of people after seeing some photos online (clearly taken during peak season) but was pleasently suprised when I landed. I picked a guesthouse that was 2.5 kilometers from town, just to be sure the party music wouldn´t keep me up late. I stayed at La Lomita del Chingolo and couldn´t have picked a better spot. The owners are a couple around my age with a 2 year old boy, he was a spitting image of cupid, and a chocolate lab named Hush. I checked into my room, splurging for a private room and bath for the week, and picked one out in the garden attachment away from the main house. Perfect, clean and quiet.. I highly recommend this spot if you ever travel to Punta del Este. I headed to the chill area off the kitchen and right away met a couple from Australia and a girl from Canada. I have to admit I was relieved, my brain was fried from trying to interpret and speak spanish for most the past couple of months. I spent the day wondering on foot, the main part of town is about 20 minutes away and there are beaches up and down both sides of the peninsula.

The following day the Aussie couple (Sarah and Bowen), the Canadian girl, (Kelsy) and an Engligh girl (Ally) and I rented bikes and decided to hit the beaches. The first location was way too windy, nothing like sand in the eye and a little free exfoliation. We decided to head up and around the top of the peninsula where there is an inlet protected by sand dunes. After a good hour of sun the clouds rolled in so we decided to make a break for it and go get lunch. By the end of the day I knew I wanted to stay for the entire week so I cancelled the rest of my reservations and extended my stay. Warm sunny beaches and cool temperatures at night for jeans and sweatshirts is my idea of heaven. It reminded me of summer in Seattle (when the sun comes out).

The third day, Kelsey and I stopped to buy some sushi and then biked to the beach where we had a little picnic in the sand. The sun was hiding behind some serious clouds so we hoped back on the bikes and went down to the piers where they fishermen hang out, it is know to be a good spot to see sea lions. Along the water´s edge we found several taking a nap, they were amazing and massive. At first there were only 2 but after walking around to look for more we came back to find 2 additional guys lounging. After taking some good photos we decided to go have a sit in. We went down to a beach close by and sat until the sun came out; it wasn´t so bad considering in 20 minutes the clouds parted to blue sky and tons of sun. It was a beautiful day. After a day of sunning ourselves we headed back to prep for the BBQ. One thing I´ve learned is that when someone here invites you to a BBQ, you must go. Our host, Rodrigo, served up lamb, chirizo, several cuts of beef and chicken with roasted onions. Everyone had a bottle of wine and we didn´t start eating until 11pm so by 1am I was tipsy and stuffed to my limit. I think I had enough protein for a week in one sitting.

The following day more Americans showed up until we had a monopoly on the place. I spend the last couple of days just relaxing on the beach and riding my pink beach cruiser around town. When it came time to leave I was really sad. I can´t wait to come back here in the future and next time I will make it to some other destinations in Uruguay.

Montevideo, Uruguay

After deciding I didn´t want to stay in Buenos Aires for any longer, despite finding the Celiacgourmet store in Palermo where I had some of the best cake I´ve had in years.... I decided to catch a ferry to the coast of Uruguay. I kept hearing how beautiful it was and a little beach time for the end of my trip sounded perfect. The ferry was actually a large catamaran/ship that moved at some serious speed. In a short 3 hours we landed in the large city of Montevideo. The weather was crappy and raining for the trip so I was dreading another week of rain and humidity but by the time I arrived it had cleared. I stayed in the Che Legarto hostel in the old town, the downtown of Montevideo where folks work but few live. I don´t recommend this area of town, there wasn´t much to look at and the crime is high. I was told not to wonder off the main strip after dark so I decided to stay in the hostel and partake in the BBQ they were hosting. It wasn´t bad but far from the best meat I´ve had in South America. The two girls sitting next to me were from Switzerland and spoke decent engligh so we had some caipirinhas (Brazilian drink with white rum, limon, sugar and ice) and played a couple games of pool. I sucked as usual but it was fun, we even taught a young Chilean girl how to play. Before hitting the sack I managed to catch some of the Olympics; unfortunately this was the first and only time I got to watch any of the winter Olympics. The following day I walked through town a bit and by 1pm I was ready to vacate the large city and head for the small town of Punta del Este. I hit the bus station and grabbed the next one out for a 2 hour ride along the coast to my new destination.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Buenos Aires

I flew into Buenos Aires on a Tuesday, opting for the 2 hour plane ride over the 20 hour bus ride. Worth every stinking penny! As I flew in I got a birds eye view of the city and have to remark at the similarities to New York. The building sytle is a bit different and some is much much older but it feels distinctly like NYC. Tons of concrete, very few trees but a handful of little parks and a really large green area near the water. I spent the first couple of days walking around, getting slightly lost a few times and really getting to know the neighborhood, Palermo, where I was staying. On the third day I was wondering around in the Microcenter (main downtown part of town) searching for a book store with English titles. After scoring a new book to read and hitting up Starbucks (there are several in Buenos Aires) for a classic iced green tea... I started walking in the direction of home. I didn´t get very far before I found a spa. I ducked in to make a reservation for a massage and to my delight they had an opening that evening for 8pm so I took it. It was now about 4pm so I decided to head back to the hostel (on the other side of town)and relax for a few hours before grabbing a cab back. When I stepped back out of the spa it was almost dark out, I looked up to see the darkest clouds I could ever remember and realized I needed to get moving fast.

Up to this point I´ve been taking the subway but its like a box oven with more people on the cars than should be legally safe. Considering its over 90 degrees and 100% humidity, the subway is far from a pleasurable experience but its cheap and fast. I started walking in the direction of home as it started to sprinkle, realizing it wasn´t going to get any better I decided to duck into the subway and catch the train to my neighborhood. Apparently a million other people had the same idea, I waited for 2 trains before I could find room to squeeze into the train before the doors shut. I was instantly soaked with sweat, hating every minute but blindly unaware of what was happening on the street above me. As I jumped off at the location closest to my hostel it was already raining hard and the water was really flowing down the streets. I didn´t make it more than 2 blocks before it was raining so violently hard I was completely soaked, including my bag and everything in it (like my new book). By the time I made it the next 4 blocks the water had overflowed the streets and was running down the sidewalk at a good 3-4 inches deep. I got inside and changed into dry clothes, assessed the damage of my bag and laid everything out to dry. As I headed into the living area the employee had switched on the news and we were amazed. In the area where I had been just 15 minutes before, the street was completely flooded. People were wading in waste high water, transportation was cut off and they were sending in life boats to rescue people. Of all the places I´ve been, I could imagine this happening in several of the remote areas but I never thought it would occur in downtown Buenos Aires. We watched for hours as the rain continued to pour with lightning and thunder. Its a good thing I had made a run to the grocery store earlier in the day, it turned into a movie night in the hostel.

By the next morning all the water had drained away but the trash and damage was still visible. At breakfast I talked with the Swedish girl, Ingrid, who had been stuck in that part of town. She had taken refuge on the stairs of a building and met a guy who lived there, he invited her inside and gave her some dry clothes. Turns out he is an actor and currently in a play that has been running since September. He gave her 2 tickets to come see the show and escorted her home later when things calmed down a bit to make sure she didn´t have any trouble. She invited me to see the show with her and we thought it would be a good Spanish lesson. The play was the story of a previous president of Argentina, Arturo Umberto Illia, his life and how it came to be that he took and lost his run as President. I didn´t understand a lot of it, but could follow the flow of the play based on context and the emotion of the characters. It was well done but I had to resort to the internet to read up on him later which helped me put together the pieces I didn´t understand.

Its been an interesting week in Buenos Aires full of sweet, street vendors, large shopping malls, fantastic architecture and a park full of cats.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Salta, Argentina

Upon arriving in Salta, I was picked up from the bus station by my hostel. If you ever go to Salta, this is the place to stay; Molles del Puertozuelo is up on the hill just away from the center of Salta and its surrounded by trees. There is no street noise or loud music to interrupt your slumber and you are blessed with the sound of birds and insects all day long. To top it off the owner, Tito, is one of the nicest people I´ve ever met. The first day he met me I told him I was gluten free and immediately he was offering to make me some gluten free bread. For breakfast, the traditional fare here is bread, instead I was greated with fresh fruit and yogurt everyday. Tito made a wonderful loaf of gluten free bread and he also suprised me with gnocchi and some pizza crusts. Of course the rooms are great and I was more than ready to be away from the noise of town. My friend Charlotte arrived a couple of days later from Cafayate and we moved into the apartment where we had a kitchen and more room for hanging out. Tito was so helpful and his family was so kind. It has been a great treat to stay here with all of them.

On the second day Charlotte and I went to San Lorenzo just a 20 minute bus ride away. For something like 40 cents, we jumped on a local bus and before we knew it we were there. Folks this is the place, if I ever have the extra cash to buy a second home, I think it will be in San Lorenzo. Its a quiet little sleepy town with lush green rolling hills and mountains. The houses are a mix of Spanish and Italian influence but most were absolutely beautiful with large lush yards. From what folks have told us, these nice houses would go for something around 80k. Not bad if you ask me, sounds incredibly cheap for the type of houses and the land. Unfortunately there isn´t much work here, most of the money in this town is from tobacco farms and old family money. Either way, I recommend it if you ever make it to the north of Argentina. The canyon area near by was also beautiful and full of families playing and relaxing in the water that cut through the middle of the hills. We made our way around a hiking loop at the Quebrada and to the top of the mountain, from the top we took a zip line back down. It was the first time for Charlotte so I went first and snapped a few photos of her. Afterwards we returned to Salta and spent a few more days enjoying the hostel and relaxing. On Sunday, Tito took us to another Quebrada about 25 kilometers from Salta in the open jeep. We had a nice hike to the waterfall and along the old train tracks. Of course, being in an open jeep means it had to rain on us. Once we got back into the jeep we didn´t get far before it was pouring. We were laughing and trying to get to the closest village as fast as possible, once there we dashed into a small restaurant and snuggled in for a feast while we waited out the storm. I had my first humitas, similar to a tomale but with fresh corn (not flour) and cheese which are steamed in corn husks. Yum town! Check out the new photos I posted on Flickr.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Cafayate to Salta

On the second day in Cafayate, Charlotte and I returned to the Rio Colorado and hiked up to the area where the waterfalls were. It was a fun hike, crossing back and forth over the water, climbing over large rocks and up through a cave along the way. Going into the hike we had some interesting jumps and sometimes sliding down rocks that were too slippery to stand on. I knew it would be entertaining to figure out how to get back up when we returned but figured there must be a way, there were lots of people along the river lying in the water in the areas where it pooled next to a little fall. If all these folks (young and old) could all make it out there, there must be many different ways to get back.

After hanging out for a bit and enjoying the cool water I noticed a small frog just next to where I was sitting. They change colors depending on where they are and the light but this one was bright green. I grabbed a couple of photos but never saw it open its eyes. I guess he was enjoying the sunshine as well. We decided to make our way back before dusk; I didn’t want to get lost in the low light. We made our way safely and only had trouble in one spot where we had jumped down before; there wasn’t anything to hold onto and we needed to get up the side of a rock. I boosted Charlotte up and then she pulled me up from a small crack just barely wide enough to get your feet on. From there we could use a tree for the rest of the climb. These truly are the types of hikes I like to make; it’s more of an adventure than a walk in the woods.

On our way back out we stopped by the campsite to check on our friend David. He was resting in his hammock and cooking up some Chabrito (I think its lamb or goat, not sure) over a fire. We chatted a bit and he showed us a fig tree just next to where he was camping, we each ate several off the tree within minutes. Tasty tasty tasty. Afterwards we started walking back to town. About 10 minutes down the road we encountered a girl who called us through the thicket to a large stone. She and her friend were German, from the exact same town as Charlotte but the gentlemen had grown up there in Cafayate so they were in town to visit his family. He gave us a history of the stone. It was large and flat, on top where something like 30 holes in perfect circular shape of equal sizes. One theory states they were used by the Indians as a mortar and pestle vessel to make flour from wheat and such. The other, more common theory is that it’s a mirror for the stars. The layout of the circles mirrors the constellations during the month of May, it’s believed they fill the circles with water and the reflection has some mystical or religious significance. Either way, it was neat to see but I couldn’t get my flash to work and it was too dark to get a good picture so you’ll just have to take my word for it. He also showed us a short cut back to town and I practiced my Spanish with him during the walk while the two girls went on in German. Another great day in Cafayate. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any gluten free food in town so I decided to head to Salta the following morning. Charlotte decided to stay for a couple more days to explore more. Off to Salta I went.

Monday, February 8, 2010


Charlotte and I took and early bus to Cafayate so we would have the entire day to play. We knew of a walk where once you get to the river you can climb up along the river for 1.5 hours to waterfalls with swimming holes, our only plan for the day. However, first things first, we stopped at a cafe for some coffee and a snack. The gentlemen playing the guitar in the restaurant told us we should stay in the same hostel he was staying in and provided us with directions on where it was located. We headed down the street to see what it was like and found a private room with 3 beds and a private bathroom for 40 pesos a night (about $10 US). Not a bad deal at all. We unloaded our stuff and realized the door didn’t lock but the folks working there were all sitting in the courtyard and assured us that they would look after our stuff. Feeling a little uncomfortable about whether it was safe we decided to take all the important documents with us and left our bags with our wishes of safekeeping. We headed across the street to an ice cream parlor (now we’ve already established I have an addiction to ice cream but it has been 4 days since my last one). Most important, and why I’m breaking my streak of abstinence, is because they have wine flavored ice cream. The main heladaria that is know for these flavors had a line out the door but we waited patiently for the treat of the day. They have both cabernet and torrontes flavored ice cream and we both decided to get a scoop of each. They are more of a sorbet, no dairy, and incredibly tasty. While we sat in the shade and slowly absorbed what alcohol was left we were approached by a guy, Mike, from Canada. I think he heard us speaking English and took the opportunity to say hello. After chatting with him for a bit we invited him to join us on our trip to the river.

We set off for the Rio Colorado thinking it was about 2 miles away; the reality was about 1.5 hours of walking in the basking sun and heat. After a couple of detours through some local farms we found our way to the river around 7:30pm. It was another 1.5 hours to the waterfalls and swimming holes so we didn’t have the time to make it up there before it got dark. Considering we were in the canyon it would get really dark as soon as the sun set behind the mountains, we decided to sit by the river and have a snack while soaking our feet. After another 30 minutes or so we headed back toward the parking lot area and were stopped by a gentlemen with a sign in book. He asked if we signed in when we arrived, we hadn’t but we inquired as to why we had to sign in. He stated that if you don’t come back and sign out at the end of the day, they go up into the canyon to search for you; such a great policy for these remote places. We struck up a conversation with this fellow, David, and he started telling us about the area. He spoke nice and clear Spanish for us and Charlotte interpreted any words we don’t know. After a bit the sun was setting and the colors in the Quebrada canyon are absolutely amazing. David tells us to follow him and we scramble up the rocks on the side of a cliff for an amazing view of the valley, the town of Cafayate in the distance, and the canyon colors. The photos I took don’t begin to do it justice but it was one of the most beautiful places. Once it gets really dark we head back down with David and into the campground next to the river where he is staying. Next to his tint is his pride and joy, a 1980 Gran Torino. He tells us that if we can wait 15 minutes for him, he will drive us back into town. We decided to take him up on his hospitality. Before we could get comfortable he pulled out a double hammock and hung it for us, then cut up a cold grapefruit for us all to share. Typical Argentine, these people are the most welcoming and generous souls. They are always inviting you to dine with them, stay at their houses, etc. Around 9:30 we jumped in the car and headed back to town. We spend most of the ride looking out the sun roof at the stars. We are far away enough from any civilization that the night sky is absolutely amazing. You can see the Milky Way clear as day and more stars then I remember in the northern hemisphere. Beautiful. Along the way David told us stories of his travels, he has been to 37 different countries; he even told us of the time he was driving and the steering wheel came off as he was heading down the dirt road. I’ll remember that story forever.

Once we get back to down David wants us to join him for dinner, of course we obliged. He took us to a restaurant where we got a table on the sidewalk (in Argentina all the restaurants have sidewalk tables) and they had live Argentina Chacarera music with local traditional dancers. I swung by the hotel and grabbed the bottle of wine I purchased in the winery outside of Mendoza. David knew the waiter and persuaded him to let us drink it by telling him it was a special gift his father had sent him. We sat and enjoyed the music and dancing until just after midnight. Exhausted we retired for the evening. Day one was a great one in Cafayate.

Tafi del Valle

I arrived in Tafi to find the smallest village I have yet to visit. The elevation is higher so the air is cooler and I loved every second of that cool air. Unfortunately I couldn´t find any gluten free options other than steak and vegetables. Even worse was the state of the vegetables, I´m under the impression they have traveled far to get here and are worse for the wear. After spending a couple of days walking around and checking out the valley I was ready to move on. I was staying in a hostel dorm room for 8 people but had the first night all to myself and the second night I was joined by a german girl named Charlotte. We hit it off really well. Her spanish was excellent and her english was still better than my spanish so we took turns talking in both so we both got practice. She had been studying in Chile for 6 months and basically spoke fluently. We decided to take off and head to Cafayate the following morning. After a four hour bus ride we arrived in Cafayate to start our next adventure.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Wine tasting in the land of Malbecs

I selected to do a fine wine tour on Sunday, the day the town of Mendoza sleeps (shuts down). I arranged a tour with Trout and Wine to visit four wineries including a 5 course gourmet meal for a full day event. I was picked up at my motel at 9am by Charles, my British guide), the driver and one other client from England, Matthew. Matthew is currently living in Columbia so his spanish is quite good, thankfully for me the tour took place in english. We made it to our first winery, Alto Vista, at about 9:45am. We start with a tour of the facility where I learn that here Malbecs are made in concrete tanks. After viewing the tanks, barrel room and the crushing room I was amazed at how spotless everything was, sparkling clean in fact. Harvest season doesn´t start for a couple more weeks so things are still calm. Most everyone here uses French oak barrels for storage, not a cheap choice at $1000 per barrel even though they can be used up to 4 or 5 times. This particular faclilty uses 80% French and 20% American. All the top end reds go into the concrete tanks and then are moved to the French barrels (1st use). Here typically only a rose or white sees the inside of a stainless steel tank. By 10:20am we were sitting down to our first tasting of the day. Charles started by reviewing the proper way to taste wine which I appreciated grately being the novice that I am. We tasted four wines starting with three reds, a Malbec, a Cab, and another Malbec blended from grapes from 4 different vineyards in the región, all located at different altitudes. The most unique was the Torrontes, a white wine known for its dryness. The nose on the Torrontes is fruity and very sweet, upon the first sip one quickly learns why this variatal is commonly referred to as the ¨liar¨. This was the dryest white I´ve ever tasted, even more suprising after smelling such a sweet treat on the nose. The Torrontes is actually grown a bit north of Mendoza in Cafayate, near Salta. Good thing I´m heading that way after Mendoza. After finishing off our first four wines of the day Charles explained that due to the climate here, all Argentine wines have low tannin levels and are on the dry side. At this point I´m starting to get really excited about the rest of the day. I´ve also realized it wil be all I can do to not get wasted by the time lunch is finished.
The second stop proved to be the most educational of the the day. Belasco de Baquedano, a very young winery has an aroma room. After first touring the facility we made our way to the much anticipated aroma room. As I stepped inside a dimly lit room I noticed the majority of the space was empty but aroud the circumference were 45 sniff boxes with a light above each one. The idea is to smell your way around the room in a clockwise motion trying to identify each smell. There were three categories (primary, secondary, and tertiary including 4 boxes with the aromas of defects). Fortunately above each sniff box was a description of the smell in both English and Spanish. Matthew and I slowly made our way around the room, testing our noses as we went. After completion we moved to the next room where 4 single sniff boxes stood. This time there were no descriptions, it was our final test. Charles had warned us that if we only guessed one, we only got to taste one wine… if we guessed 3 then we could taste three wines, etc. I´m still not sure if he was joking or not but we managed to guess all 4 correctly. Off to the tasting we went. We started with a rose and moved through four different reds. All were very plesant, smooth and dry; in my mind they were very easy to drink and could have easily gotten me into trouble. At this point I´ve noticed that we are getting the top shelf premier wines at each stop, not a bad day at all. Finally, around 1pm, and 9 glasses of wine later we departed and headed off toward our third winery for lunch.
We stopped at Ruca Malen for our gormet lunch with wine paring, another 5 wines to go. Ruca Malen is roughly translated to be ¨the house of the young girl¨ in Mapuche. We were seated in the dining room with splendid views of the grape vines outside and started into our meal. Charles had phoned head to warn them of my issues with gluten so the chef had made some slight alterations for me. The first appetizer was carmelized leek and carrot on a skewer with a citrus emulsion paired with a Sauvignon Blanc from 08. 100% Sauvingon Blanc. I´ll take this opportunity to digress for a moment. Due to the climate here and the fact that Argentina has a long harvest season (about 11 weeks) they have the pleasure of not picking the grapes until they are absolutely ready. As a result they are able to have varietals of each type of grape without blending to cover up grapes that weren´t ready or to get the desired outcome. Compared to a place like France where they only get 5 weeks for harvest, 11 weeks is a long harvest. Now back to my meal, the second appetizer was a sweet and sour pork empanada with roasted onions and rasins. Mine was served sans the dough and was instead presented on grilled zucchini accompanied by a Cabernet Sauvingion 02, 100% Cab. Next was a smoked pumpkin pure with sundried tomatoes, merlot sediments and plums paired with Ruca Malen Merlot 05 (85% Merlot and 13% Tempranillo). The main course was a beef tenderloin medallion with baked potatoes, and zucchini on a cheese and almond pesto with the Ruca Malen Cab. Sauvingion 06 and a Kinien Malbec 07. Pre-desert we devoured a chardonnay, lemon and Rosemary granittee and then polished off a dulce de leche panna cotta with fresh fruit. After a cup of coffee I was feeling sober enough for the last stop of the day.
The phrase last but not least was certainly fitting for the last winery. Carinae is the smallest operation we visited that day which only further emphasized the romatic story behind it. Carinae came into existance in 2004 by a french couple who were in Mendoza for work. Upon being called back to Paris for work they decided they didn´t want to leave. They found a vineyard to buy but the previous spanish owner had passed away 30 years ago and his family had let the grounds go to waste with the exception of the vines. They had kept harvesting grapes and sold them to another winery in town so at least the new owners didn´t have to start that part from scratch. All that remained of the winery were the old concrete tanks and a steel french press. After rebuilding around the old concrete tanks and consulting with winemaker Michel Rolland the new owners were ready to rock and roll. This is a small artisanal botique winery where the entire process is from the temperature testing and regulation of the tanks, bottling and even labeling are done by hand. We sat to taste our final four wines of the day and were treated to the company of the owner, Philip. The last wine I tasted was the Prestige which I loved enough to buy a bottle of; my next overnight bus ride will be done with style! By 5:30pm (and 18 wines later) I was more than ready for my siesta. Amazingly enough, I wasn´t even slurring my words! Truly a spectacular day in Mendoza wine country with some wonderful company. If you get the chance to go to Argentina, book a tour with Trout and Wine, hopefully you´ll be lucky enough to get Charles to share some of the amazing stories of things he has seen and done in his life. Trust me, you won´t be disappointed.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Mendoza summer

I´m just starting into my second week of Spanish lessons at Intercultural Institute in Mendoza and still enjoying the city. I´d love to say that I´m getting used to the heat, but that would be a big fat lie. In reality, I think I´m actually sweating more and more as the days go by. By the time 9am rolls around, its already close to 90 degrees and it just keeps climbing from there. The hottest part of the day is from 1pm to 7 or 8pm, that´s right... pretty much all freakin day. Its now perfectly clear why these folks hide out for 5 hours a day. Unfortunately I´m rather hot blodded to begin with so I spend sietsa looking for a cool spot or in the pool at the apartment.

My favorite little spot is a bodega in the main center of town called the Vines of Mendoza, twice a week they have a 50% off tasting menu. As such, I find myself there often and its a good spot to find english speaking folks. I´ve made some friends, a couple who are currently living in town and another couple who will be leaving this Friday. In the meantime its nice to see familiar faces and have some english conversation. Of course, going out for dinner at 7 or 8pm also ensures that you´ll be surrounded by Americans, who else would dare to eat dinner that early. Still not sure what I´m going to do for my birthday but I´m thinking its the perfect opportunity to treat myself to a fancy dinner followed by a weekend in a hotel with air. For now, I´m heading back into the heat to tackle some laundry. Its impossible to wear any clothes more than once with the amount of sweating I´m doing.... maybe I´ll loose some weight on this trip afterall.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Summer has arrived

In my last post I mentioned that its quite hot in Mendoza. I´m now under the impression that I have severly underestimated what hot means. After spending 4 days sweating at the mere thought of moving my body I am exhausted. It doesn´t help that the hostel only has AC in the common room and the bedrooms are like ovens all night long. It doesn´t really ¨cool off¨at night here so in general, it just sucks. Finally, after 4 sleepless nights I conceeded to my desire to be cool and sleep so I spent the day going from hotel to hotel. By the end of the day and hotel number 17, I finally found one that had AC in the rooms and actually had a room available for me. I jumped at a two night reservation, went back to the hostel and packed my bags. I could see the envy on my roommates faces when I said I was upgrading for a few days. A couple of girls wanted to come with me but had already pre-paid the hostal for their entire stay. Ahh the beauty of paying day by day!

I moved into my small hotel room, cranked up the AC and took a nap. Heaven, pure heaven. Not to mention, it doesn´t hurt to have a little personal space after 10 days of sharing with others. Tomorrow I will be moving into a shared apartment for the next 10 days. The spanish school I´ll be working with arranges the homestay and had many options near the town center. I decided to go with a shared apartment, I´ll be living with a mother and her daughter. I´ll have my own room and bathroom and the building has both AC and a pool which will be very handy consdiering this heat wave doesn´t seem to be letting up any time soon. The apartment option doesn´t include meals but I have free use of the kitchen and its about $80 cheaper than the other homestay option which includes dinner with the family. Considering my food allergy I figured it would be best to make my own meals and use the cost savings for groceries. The thing I love about Argentina is the abundance of gluten free products in the grocery stores. Unfortunately I can´t find all the flours I´m used to having but I have found bread mixes and some other basics so it works, far better than when I was in Chile. Kitchen here I come!

The strange thing about Mendoza, and from what I hear most of Argentina is that they have a 5 hour siesta everyday instead of the normal 2-3 hours. The stores, post office, everything closes up shop somewhere between 12-1 and doesn´t re-open until 5 or 6pm. Most of the stores stay open until 10pm or midnight and the restaurants close up shop somewhere in the wee hours of the morning. Even better is the eating schedule, many restaurants don´t open until 8pm and don´t seem to fill up until 11pm. It took some adjusting to look around and see families with small children chowing down on steak at midnight. I´m not sure how they do it, I don´t think my stomach could handle eating a steak at midnight and then heading to bed. No wonder these folks spend several hours a day resting out of the heat, they must be trying to digest the previous nights dinner. That said, as the days move along I find myself eating dinner later and later. Its now 9pm and I haven´t had dinner yet. I mean, I don´t want to look too American by sitting by myself at an empty restaurant at 7pm. As they say, ¨when in Rome…¨

On Sunday I had a rude awakening when everything was closed, other than the supermarket there really wasn´t anywhere to get lunch. All the shops and markets seemed to be sleeping. I could´t help but wonder where all the people went, until I went to the park. It was the perfect way to spend a Sunday. The San Martin Park is a 900 acre park on the east side of the city, very close to where I´ve been staying. Just inside the park entrance is a lake with a 3 km path around it and more big shady trees than you can imagine. I pulled up some grass under a tree, just to the edge of the water and started into a new book. Five hours later I decided to walk around a bit in the park and discovered the rest of the city must have had the exact same idea. Everywhere I looked people were sipping tea and eating picnics in the park. It was a lovely day!

Friday, January 15, 2010

Arriving in Mendoza

After 6 days in Pucon, Chile.... waiting for the volcano to re-open for summiting I finally gave up and bought my bus tickets to get to Mendoza, Argentina via Santiago. Wouldn’t you know, the day after I bought my tickets they announced it was going to re-open. In reality it was a ``might` re-open in a couple of days so I decided to stick with my original plan and head out. I splurged for the plush premium seats for my overnight trip to Santiago and was happy to find that the two girls across the isle from me were from Australia and they had come armed with a couple bottles of wine they wanted to polish off before flying back home from Santiago. Needless to say, I was happy to assist them with the mission. They had been travelling for a few weeks so we spent a couple hours sharing stories of adventure and drinking, then slowly we started to fade and the bus attendant came in to convert our seats into beds. The seat folds down completely flat and had an eye mask, earplugs, a fresh pair of socks, blanket and pillow. After we were all tucked in it was lights out. I woke up around 6am, just shy of our arrival in Santiago.... wish they had this kind of bus transport in the states.

I decided to kill a day in Santiago to break up the bus trip and give myself some time to try and find a few things in the larger city. I was out of face wash and knew this was the place to try and find it. Now mind you, all I wanted was some cetaphil (allergy free) face wash which you can buy in any grocery/drug store in America for about $6. After searching 4 pharmacies I finally found some, exactly what I wanted but I about choked on my gum when she rang it up and told me the price. At first I thought I mis-heard (common problem for me with Chilean spanish) so I asked for her to repeat the price. They wanted 13,000 (about $26 bucks) for the stuff. Naturally, I bought it anyway. I was tired of my face breaking out from using some other stuff so I decided to splurge for the day. No wonder my budget has been blown to hell. While I was at it, if I was going to spend some money then I knew exactly where I wanted to go for dinner. I went back to the same restaurant, Brown Cat, Morgan and I had been to for the best meal I’ve found anywhere in Chile, rabbit with a bacon cream sauce! HEAVEN. I cought the movie Surrogates and called it a night.

The following day I finished my bus trip, another 7 hours to Mendoza, Argentina. The border crossing went faster than the last few had so all was well. The streets in Mendoza are lined with big trees and there are several parks so it doesn’t look like the desert but as soon as you step off the bus, there is no mistake. It was about 5pm and well over 95 degrees, holly crap. The hostel I booked online stated it had AC and a swimming pool so I grabbed a cab with a British girl and we headed toward the hostel. Of course, the AC is only available in a private double room (bastards) which is only $180 pesos ($45) a night. As for the swimming pool, its about 4 feet wide and about 8 feet long, even so I have a feeling I’ll be in it before long to cool off. The fan was a bit noisy in the room and the British girl didn’t like to sleep with earplugs so she turned it down to stop the noise. Needless to say, I didn’t sleep very well. The hostel manager said he was moving folks to different rooms so maybe tonight will be better, if not, I may be splurging for a private room for the third night. AC here I come, those of you who know me can appreciate how much I´m melting right now. I haven´t hit the cranky stage yet but its coming, I'll be missing Seattle weather by day three or four.

Well, I’m off to explore the city, will post photos of Mendoza with my next update.

Friday, January 8, 2010

More fun in Pucon, Chile

Well, I´m on my 5th day in Pucon and still finding new places to explore and things to do. After our day of kayaking, we rented mountain bikes and headed off for a popular loop toward some waterfalls and the lake. Unfortunately we got a late start and didn´t have time to make it to the lake but we hit a few mild trails and some back roads until we came upon the waterfalls. It felt good to be out in the fresh air and getting some exercise. On the way out of the waterfalls Morgan spotted a sign that we thought might be apple butter for sale so we stopped to see. I sat out on my bike and waited while Morgan looked through the options, there wasn´t any apple butter but he did come back with some quince jam. We headed back to town on the main road which was about 20km, it wouldn´t have been so bad if there was more of a sholder to use to get away from the traffic. Regardless we made it in about an hour and managed to return our bikes just after the 8pm cutoff.

The following day we decided to rent a car and get out to explore some of the things that were harder to get to. It was a tiny base of the line chevy that didn´t have a ton of clearance or sound very good but it ran and the rental agency assured me we´d be ok with our driving plan, he commented we didn´t need 4x4 for what we were heading out to do. First we headed to the volcano caves, well one particular cave. Once you got close to the cave the dirt road turned into something my subaru would have handled with ease but the little chevy wasn´t doing as well. I managed to avoid the worst of it but did hit a rock, after that... the car sounded like parts might start to vibrate off and leave a trail behind us. When we parked and I cut the engine, I was sure the engine was going to vibrate out of the hood, it sounded just awful. All I could see was $$ signs as I thought about returning the car the following day. Anyways, we walked around a bit on Volcan Villarrica while we waited for our tour to start. The cave was a bit of a rip off, not sure I would recommend it but it was cool to walk through the old lava tunnels and see the landscape inside. At the end of the cave the guide had us all stand around in a circle and then he turned off the light for the far end of the tunnel where we stood. Talk about pitch black! I couldn´t see my hand infront of my face and suddenly realized it would be nearly impossible to make it out without a light even if we were crawling on all fours. Spooky.

We went back to town and I did some grocery shopping while Morgan went for another kayak run. At this point, the car seemed to be getting worse, I felt like everyone looked at me everytime I cut the engine, at least they are used to seeing junkers here. Afterwards Morgan got back from playing in the water we met for dinner and then headed out to some of the local hot springs, Los Pozones. On the way we saw a guy and his young son walking on a long dark road, they were trying to hitch a ride so we picked them up. Maybe that will improve my luck the next time I´m trying to hitch. The hot springs were nice, my body enjoyed it tremendously. I was so tired on the drive back it was hard to stay awake, I slept like a baby that night.

The following day we returned the car, and right off the bat I mentioned that it was vibrating badly and that it didn´t sound good. The woman behind the counter said she knew and that it was a problem. At that point I didn´t feel the need to disclose my rock incident, my conscience was clean. She refunded my deposit and I escaped quickly.

We decided to spend the rest of that day on a canopy tour of the trees. We had heard that Bosque Adventura was the best around, there are 11 different zip lines and they cross the river twice so that is the company we went with. The equipment was top of the line and seemed very secure so after a bried demo on safety we were off. As we all started to move toward the entrance the guide pointed to me and said lets go. Not sure how I got choosen to be first but I decided it might be better to just swallow my fear and go for it. Honestly the zip lines were great, the part that scared me the most was the platforms and ladders. Its a bit difficult to climb a ladder when you have big bulky gloves on but I managed without killing myself. All in all it was the most fun I´ve had in a long time. I kept thinking of the story my dad told Ellerie and I when we were little girls, he teased us that we had monkey tails when we were born and he had them cut off in the hospital. When we´d run to mom to ask if it was true she would tell us no but then dad would say Ï had to have them cut off before your mom saw you¨. It was an ongoing joke that I always think of when I see a monkey, it brings me fond memories. Swinging through the trees like a monkey brought back those memories.

The following day Morgan had to return to Santiago to catch a flight to Lima so I had planned to lay on the beach and soak up some sun. There is usually a lot of morning clouds so I was lazy and waited till about noon to see if it was going to burn off. It didn´t seem like the sun was gonna come out to play so I rented a bike again and headed up to Lago Caburga. It´s about 25 kilometers outside of town, a nice ride to do when it´s cool and the sun isn´t beating on you. I hung out at the beach for a bit and ate some lunch then headed back to town. Not a bad day.

I´m down to my last couple of days in town and the sun is out in full force so I´m getting in a little beach time before heading to Mendoza, Argentina via Santiago. I can´t get a straight bus to Mendoza so I´ll stay in Santiago for a day to break up the bus trip and then head to wine country. I need to enjoy the mild temperatures, Mendoza weather looks like its well into the 90s. I hope I don´t melt!

Monday, January 4, 2010

Pucon, Chile

We welcomed the new year in from Puerto Varas, Chile. Its a small town with a large lake flanked by 2 volcanoes. The weather sucked so we mostly stayed around town. For new years eve day we went to a local bar and had the most expensive mexican food I´ve ever had, they did however give me the largest White Russion I´ve ever had. The ´Dude´would be proud. After spending a few days in Puerto Varas hiding out waiting for the rain to stop we finally had one sunny day. We decided to head out to Volcan Osorno to hike around on the volcano. By the time we got off the local bus it was about 11am and the sun was blazing hot. We walked around and viewed some waterfalls and met a couple of guys from West Virginia who work for a kayak school where kids travel around the world with tutors and kayak instructors. Sounds like one of the coolest jobs I´ve ever heard about. Not to mention one hell of a school year, how many high school kids can say they´ve played in Patagonia white water. We had heard and read that Pucon was an outdoor mecca in Chile and these guys said they were stationed out of there.... long story short after a day on the volcano we packed up and left Puerto Varas for Pucon.

We arrived in Pucon on January 3rd in the late afternoon. No more than 5 minutes after getting off the bus I was meeting a guy from Whidbey Island, WA. The world is a small place! We wondered around looking for our first adventure and found a spot called Kayak Pucon. They seemed like a really cool group, very friendly and had some American´s working for them so I knew language wouldn´t be an issue. We decided to take it. They did a class 3 run down a river not many other local outfitters could do because it was only accessible by private property along the river. We showed up at 10am on the 4th to join a group of 7 for kayaks and 5 for a raft. Once we hit the launch site we started putting on our wetsuits and gear (fleece, dryshirt, life vest, booties and helmets). Six of us were in inflatable kayaks which are far more stable but a bitch to steer. Morgan went in a ¨real kayak¨ considering he has some white water experience. It was pretty calm when we first put in but when I saw a girl flip out of her boat on the second set of rapids I decided it was highly likely I was gonna go for a swim. Sure enough, by the 3rd set I was bombarded by waves from all directions and wasn´t sure which way to lean, next thing I knew I had a mouth full of water and was trying to remember to pull my legs up so I didn´t hit any rocks. On the fourth set of rapids I was feeling pretty good, I was still nervous considering I´d already been for a swim but went for it. At one point I popped up out of my boat with the exception of one foot and somehow managed to land back in the boat. It was great until I realized I had many more rapids to navigate and my oar was in my right hand and under my kayak. I had to lean back to pull it out, managing to stay in my boat as I did it but I hit a rapid that spun me so now I´m backwards and heading for more fun but at least my oar was in my hands. I spun as quickly as I could, which is pathetic in those boats and made it through the rest of that set without any additional swimming. The next set of rapids were going great until I realize I was heading for a big, huge rock! I was to the left of the rock but if I cut over I´d be on top of the kayak next to me and flip both of us so I tried as hard as I could to go to the right of the rock, needless to say I ended up straight on it, the front of the kayak went up and over and for a split second I thought I might make it off the side but then the kayak stopped and the water took me over from behind. Once again, I was swimming and wasn't sure which way was up. I felt my head hit something so I was relieved to be wearing a helmet but still managed to swallow a small lake. It sounds worse than it was and within seconds of each fall one of the guides would be right there flipping the boat so I could jump back in. All in all it was a lot of fun but I think I might have been more stressed than happy until it was all over.