Tuesday, March 29, 2005


Well, after five days in the Lakes District of Argentine Patagonia, I can declare with some authority that this is the Switzerland of South America. Lakes, mountains, wooden houses...even a Hotel Edelweiss. And they make chocolate here, too! The view from Bariloche, across the lake to the mountains, looks eerily like the view from my former office in Lucerne. And today I took a cable car up with some people from my hostel, to a mountain outside of town with a rotating panoramic restaurant.

And like Switzerland, this area offers fantastic hiking opportunities. I spent three days in Nahuel Huapi National Park, which was the first established Argentine National Park. The first day, I went to the Black Glacier, which is entirely accessible by car and therefore frequented by lots of Argentine families with kids. I´m sure they thought I was a nut for walking the 14 km return trip to see it as they sailed past me in their cars.

The next day I undertook what turned out to be a challenging 18-km hike up to Refugio Otto Meiling. I was totally exhausted from the hike--halfway up through the woods, and the rest along a slightly treacherous, rocky footpath above the treeline. But the view from the top was absolutely amazing. Looking out from the refugio, you see mountains on three sides, as far as the eye can see. Behind the refugio you see the imposing peak of Monte Tronador, with glaciers spilling down on both sides. And then the sun went down, spilling shades of pink and purple across the mountains all around.

Downstairs at the refugio was a cozy restaurant and bar where the 35 or 40 other hikers could spend the evening, before retiring with their sleeping bags to the giant dormitory upstairs...only to be kept awake all night by some of the worst snoring I have heard in my life! One guy was responsible for most of it, but when I was lying awake at 3 AM wishing I had my earplugs, suddenly the cacophony of a roomful of sleepers (and fellow non-sleepers) was deafening! So I was pretty tired for the long walk back down yesterday, and deserved every minute of the 10.5 hours I slept last night!

Click here for more photos of Bariloche, along with further commentary on the hike and the city itself.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Bariloche, Argentina

Today´s a special day! What is it? Well, it´s my...two-month anniversary of being in South America! Amazing, isn´t it? How does it feel? Well, I don´t feel any different than I did yesterday. I´m not making a big deal of it, and especially after a 14-hour transportation day yesterday, I´m planning on taking it easy. I´m getting a massage this afternoon, so that should be nice.

I don´t have any impressions of Bariloche yet, so let me share one more bit of information about Chiloé (I missed the accent before). Chiloé is known for its folklore, especially its legends about mystical beings which live in its forests. Before I left, I bought a little booklet about the traditions and folklore of Chiloé. I bought the English translation, figuring that would be the best way to understand it. I may have been mistaken. I´m not exactly sure where Señor Gonzalo Sarabia G. learned his English, but this is the most hilarious translation I have ever read. Also, obviously there was no spell-checker involved in the printing of the book. So, for your education and amusement, here is my favorite myth, about the horrible Invunche.

Is a bean who care the wizard caves, is like a bebe kidnaped by some wizard; they take care of him, and give to him human flesh and cat milk when grown up, the wizard make him in a monster, and they put another leg in the back, in that way he cannot go far from the cave.

He only can go out when must to eat, makin with difficult with three legs and making guturals sound, frighten to the people whom listen, if a "Cleand see him, he make magic change him in animals"; only the wizards can look him.

If somebody punch with a wood to a "Invunche" means death and siknes, coming.

The meat of this bean cure sikness, and when some die the wizard fight for this meat.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Castro, Chiloe, Chile

Another gray day here on Chiloe, and I took off on an expedition to the small towns of Achao and Dalcahue to visit some of the wooden churches the archipelago is famous for. This photo is of the Iglesia San Francisco, in Castro, the capital of Chiloe, where I´m now staying. The churches date from the 18th century, and most were originally made entirely of wood, including the use of wooden pegs instead of nails. Over the centuries many churches have been damaged and re-built, and these pegs have been replaced, so that now very few remain (i haven´t seen any). With these wooden buildings and hilly coastlines, Chiloe is often compared to many parts of the world. I´ve heard comparisons to Scandinavia, Brittany (in France), and Cape Cod. It personally reminds me a bit of the coast of Maine, and the wooden churches added to this impression.

In Dalcahue (these are Mapuche indian names), I visited museum of relics in the back room of the church, and noticed what seemed to be graffiti on the wooden walls. But I quickly realized that this was religious graffiti...prayers and notes of thanks from visiting parishioners and others. Mostly the notes asked San Antonio or God (Dios, or sometimes Diosito, which I love) to protect their family or children. One said "San Antonio, let our love as man and wife never end, and bless our family" and one, obviously written by a little kid, said "Diosito, yo te quiero pedir que mi hermana se mejore de su resfrio" (God, please help my sister get over her cold.) My favorite simply said "Hola Diosito".

So...I´m pretty much done with Chiloe, so on to the next step. My plan was to take a ferry to the mainland, and catch a bus down the Carretera Austral, which is a highway through the mountains, past fjords and glaciers, which is usually described by the words "spectacular", "marvelous", "breathtaking", yadda yadda yadda. However, the ferry isn´t running from here since it´s now the off season, so I´d have to do some backtracking to get there, which would take longer, and I´m afraid the buses may also be really infrequent--and even spectacular places start to lose their charm when you´re stuck there for a week. Also, it´s cold and rainy, and I´m really, really, really getting tired of the cold and rain. So: change of plans, and tomorrow I head back to Argentina, to Bariloche, my last port of call in Patagonia before heading northwards (again).

Check out all my pictures of Chiloe here.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Ancud, Chiloe

No, it´s not a typo...I´m on the Isla Grande de Chiloe, an island in southern Chile. After the tourist splendor of Pucón, I decided to get away from the Gringo Trail and come out here for a change of pace. Don´t get me wrong, I had a good time in Pucón, and appreciated that they sold microwave popcorn and Starbursts in the grocery store, but really, I didn´t need a Benetton store or 100 adventure-tour operators. For my next destination I was looking for something a little more...authentic.

Well, I´m happy to report that so far Chiloe seems "authentic", and I´m pretty excited about that. It has lots of boats, but they´re not for tours of the harbor, but for fishing! And it has residential neighborhoods, and accountants, and shops selling normal things. However, I should add that if I had come a month ago it might have been overrun by tourists. I see some evidence of this in the fact that it seems every other building offers lodging for tourists. (Check out the decor in my room! That, plus cable and breakfast for $6/night!)

Chiloe is a very rural place, and very traditional, but it gets the reputation of being a little backwards. I read that in Chile, in jokes or on TV, if someone wants to be portrayed as, let´s say "simple", they might be a Chilote (person from Chiloe). I´m not saying this is true, and far be it from me to perpetuate stereotypes after a mere 24 hours in a place; also let me stress that the people are all really nice and friendly. But let me just tell two quick stories. First, the man at the Tourist Office told me that one of the sights to see in Ancud is the artisan´s market, and when I arrived it was obviously closed, and taken over by a huge construction site. I found this a little strange, especially since the artisan´s market/construction area was less than two blocks from the tourist office. Hmm. Then, I inquired about visiting the Corona Lighthouse (another top site) and the same tourist-information man produced a list of bus times. I asked, if I take the bus there, when do I get the bus back? And he said, one hour after you arrive. That seemed pretty clear, so off to the bus station I went, and bought a ticket from the woman there--we even had a moment of clarifying that I wanted "ida y vuelta" (round trip). The bus was clearly marked "Faro Corona". This was a local bus, filled with old ladies and schoolkids, and I enjoyed the ride. However, after an hour and a half on the road, (when the bus turned around and started heading back to Ancud with no lighthouse in sight) I learned that not only is there no other bus, but also, the bus doesn´t even go all the way to the lighthouse! So, if I got off there was no way for me to get back to town, and what I had actually bought was a ticket for a 3-hour bus ride. Well, at least I got to see the lighthouse eventually. Actually it was a really pretty and enjoyable ride, with rolling hills, coastal inlets, and lots of cows, pigs, sheep, chickens and llamas. But still! Apparently, I should have taken the morning bus (which runs on Tuesdays and Thursdays) and then taken the afternoon bus back (which runs every day). Anyway, I should look on the bright side: after the touristy sheen I experienced in Pucón, the fact that things are a little less well-oiled here than other places is actually a relief, and I am thankful.

Saturday, March 19, 2005


This was my lunch-a Completo, a Chilean specialty. A hot dog with tomatoes, avocado and mayonnaise. Yum! This one came with its own special holder, carved with the name of the café.

Volcan Villarica

The volcano climb was really fun. It started out as you see here, clear and blue. We were fully equipped with jackets, pants, boots, gloves, hats, helmets, crampons and ice axes. The first hour and a half is a hike up the volcanic rocks and dirt, after which you strap the crampons on your boots. I might add that the boots were similar to ski boots, although slightly more flexible at the ankle, and rather awkward for a major hike and ascent of 1047 meters! Unfortunately, as we got about half way up the clouds rolled in and by the time we got to the top we could hardly see our hands in front of our faces, let alone the magma and fountains of lava that are supposedly visible inside the volcano. We could certainly smell it, though, and luckily we had gas masks to filter out the stink. The best part was the descent: the pants they gave us had abrasion-resistant seats and we sat down on the snow, in paths carved out by hundreds of previous tourists, and slid down! It reminded me of going down a slide in a water park, with similar dips and twists, and sometimes I got going really fast and had to brake hard with my boots and ice axe to avoid slamming into the person in front of me. It was loads of fun. (And an evening dip in the hot thermal baths was the perfect way to ease my sore muscles).

I´ve been taking it easy yesterday and today, by choice yesterday and today an enforced rest due to torrential rains. Luckily my hostel has cable with many options, including a Wild West version of MacGyver which was playing when I left, so I am sure it´ll have something to occupy me for the rest of the day.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Valparaiso Colors

Well, I´ve left Mom and Dan to their own devices and have returned south to subject myself to some more rain and cold! (Well, it does make my backpack lighter if I am wearing all my warm clothes.) We had a nice couple of days in Valparaíso, enjoying the sun and the colorful buildings lining the city´s many hills. Many of the buildings are made with corrugated iron siding, such as the one you see above. While there, we also experienced a very minor earthquake, which apparently happens frequently, as it is located on a major fault line. Click here for more Valparaiso photos.

Tomorrow I will be exploring another result of this geothermal activity: climbing the Villarica Volcano. It will be another attempt at climbing ice and snow using ice picks etc, and hopefully this time it will not be cancelled by weather! It´s an active volcano, so at the top you have to be careful not to breathe in the Sulphur fumes. Hopefully after that I´ll be able to continue the Geology 101 lesson by soaking in some hot springs.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Wine and Food in Santiago

It´s been a couple of eventful days in Santiago, mostly involving trips outside of Santiago, as well as a healthy dose of traditional foods and wines. Mom and Dan and I ascended to the top of a city-center hill to try to discern the outline of the Andes through the smog, then toured the Concha y Toro winery in the rain (where did that come from? it was sunny in the morning and we were shivering and unprepared in short sleeves), including a look at the infamous Devil´s Cellar. We have been enjoying our public-transportation adventures, which involved riding through bustling suburbs on a packed minivan, and once taking a bus to the side of the highway, where we waited and flagged down another bus to take us back to the city. Today we came to Valparaíso, which seems really nice so far, and hopefully soon we´ll find a place to stay and won´t have to sleep out in the street (I am guarding the bags in this internet place while they go door-to-door looking for a place). I am anticipating a long-awaited trip to the beach any day now.

NOTE: I have uploaded some photos from the last few places I visited, and linked them to the relevant parts of the last few blog entries...take a look below for the new links.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Reading List

I´ve added a feature to this blog: my reading list. I like to read books that are pertinent to places I am visiting, and when I do (and find them worthy of a recommendation), I´ll post them here. For instance, at the moment I´m really enjoying Darwin. It´s full of descriptions and impressions of many of the places I´ve been or am planning to visit, and it´s fascinating to read a travel journal from the days when these areas were still mostly unexplored by Europeans. I´m sure I´ll be quoting from him one of these days. In the meantime, if anyone´s read any of these books and wants to discuss them with me, just send me an e-mail!

Blowin´ in the Wind

Well, it´s official, the romantic thrill of being in Patagonia is starting to wear off slightly. Actually, it´s being eroded away little by little by the wind. Today at the Argentina-Chile border crossing (a stop in the middle of nowhere, exposed to all the power of the wind sweeping down off the Andes and across the pampa) my foot was nearly blown out from under me as I stepped out of the building. It would be so embarassing to trip over air! Luckily I didn´t actually fall. But then I had nightmares of my freshly-stamped passport being blown out of my hand and lost forever in some Patagonian prickerbush, and later eaten by llamas. So I clutched it tightly as I hurried back onto the bus.

The second trekking expedition (this time in El Chaltén, AR) didn´t turn out exactly as planned. I had met up with my friends Celia and Sylvine again, and we planned a three-day adventure: camping three nights with some moderate hikes in between, an early morning for the "sunrise of fire" at Mount Fitz Roy, and the highlight, a one-day glacier trekking adventure, including ice picks and crampons. The first night, we woke up at 3 AM to the sounds of the roaring wind, and of tent flaps slapping back and forth, with the tent completely bent and folded over on itself. Sylvine was windward, and (besides occasionally being smothered by the tent) took a beating from the flimsy tent poles, which were actually bent around inwards. By some miracle the tent didn´t actually fall apart, but continued for the rest of the night to flap around in the wind. The situation was absolutely ridiculous, but we managed to get back to sleep; unfortunately the next day the glacier trek was cancelled because of high winds. If this wasn´t enough, then it started to rain. Ugh. We were now faced with the idea of plan B: packing up the tent, and hauling it through the wind and rain to another campsite, in order to get up the next morning and catch the sunrise (if it wasn´t hidden by clouds) then hauling it back for the re-scheduled trek (if it wasn´t cancelled again). Instead, we decided to abort the mission, and straggled back to town, wet and grumpy, with sand and grit in everything from our backpacks to our cooking gear to our socks and our teeth. This left us with several unexpected free days, which we spent exploring the booming metropoli of El Chaltén (population 500) and El Calafate (slightly larger and happily equipped with several very nice ice cream shops and chocolate shops). It was actually fine, and it turned out Sylvine knows how to play Spit, one of my favorite card games, and she taught me a new game, amusingly called Crapette.

Anyway, I´m off to Santiago tomorrow to meet up with my mom and her boyfriend Dan, who are coming for 10 days vacation. I am so excited at the thought of putting on summer clothes again (and dare I say, possibly going to the beach!?), I can´t even express it (it´ll be nice to see them too, of course).

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Off the Radar

Well I spent an eventful day at the Perito Moreno Glacier, which is huge: approximately as tall as a 6-story building (that´s the part above water; the underwater part might be just as big or bigger) and with an area the size of Buenos Aires. I am off tomorrow for more trekking! Including trekking on another glacier. I´ll be away from the internet for up to a week, but I promise photos and stories when I come back!

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Torres del Paine National Park

Torres del Paine-View from Boat

Well, I made it back to civilization after a challenging five days in this beautiful national park. Let´s just say that if I hadn´t quit the Girl Scouts in the 5th grade, I would certainly have earned myself several new merit badges. I think I hiked around 35-40 miles, which is about 1 mile for every pound of gear I carried on my back. Here is the summary:

Day 1: On the boat to the start of the hike, I meet three Frenchman and an American, and we head up the trail to the Glacier Grey. My plan is to do the open portions of the W-shaped trail, which is called, unsurprisingly, "the W". The easternmost-leg of this hike is closed to visitors because of the forest fire. The trail is not too difficult, but it is humbling to lag behind the relatively unprepared French Guys, two of whom are wearing jeans and smoking, one of whom is wearing loafers! The wind coming off the glacier is vicious! It is so intense that I have to fight to remain upright, and Sophie gets blown off her feet twice! But the views are beautiful. About halfway up the trail, we see icebergs in the lake! I have never seen icebergs before! They are small, and an intense blue color. I try to get a good look and we take pictures, trying not to get blown over in the process. I have chosen the wimpy route for this first night, and I´m staying in a "refugio", or sort of lodge. At $20 in a room with 8 bunks, where I have to provide my own sleeping bag, this wins for the most expensive accommodation so far on my entire trip. I vow to stay in free campsites from now on. The others stop with me for a break and we get some beers, however we judge them too warm and decide they need to be cooled down. What better way than by resting them on an iceberg! We feel that we are enjoying our break in true Patagonian style.

I continue on with them for another 45 minutes until we get to the viewpoint looking out over the glacier. It is beautiful, and I am surprised at the shades of blue that I see. I thought it would be white and gray! It is huge, and comes all the way down to the water. We take some pictures, and agree to meet up tomorrow at the next campsite. I return to the warmth of my refugio.

Day 2: I take off at 8 to head back down the trail. All of my muscles are sore and the first half of the trail is uphill, so there is some grumbling and a small amount of swearing. I take a break at the bottom, and in a better mood head up for the second leg of the W. This is a beautiful trail, with panoramic views of lakes and mountains, but the wind is doing its worst again! The lake I walk near is so blown by the wind that clouds of mist are being blown off of it, and there are waves large enough for medium-sized rodents to surf on! But I plow through to the campground and set up my tent. I am happy to meet the French Guys, and later Sophie, again, and even happier as they cook dinner for me to use up the last of their supplies. Soup, hot dogs and mashed potatoes, as well as bread with butter and tuna. Delicious!

Day 3: A rest day. This doesn´t mean that I rest, but that I get to leave my tent behind, with my backpack inside, to hike up the Valle del Francés and back, about 5 hours. I am floating over the rocks and trails without that heavy pack! What´s more, the wind has died down and the sun has come out. I love nature! It´s a great hike, not too difficult, with a gorgeous panoramic view at the top and a flat rock for napping. All is right with the world.

At night, I cook up some pasta on my gas stove, then bundle up to sleep. By some horrible form of trickery, the beautiful warm day has turned into a freezing cold night! I wake up at 3 AM curled into a whimpering little ball, and see by the glowing light of my alarm clock (also featuring thermometer) that it is 5 degrees celsius, or 40 degrees fahrenheit! It´s supposed to be summer! It´s coooooold! I am wearing every single layer of clothing I have, with hat and hood, and manage to keep myself from freezing.

Day 4: Happy to be moving (and therefore warm) again, I pack up my stuff to hike the 2 hours back down, the last leg of my hiking plan. It´s another beautiful day and I can feel myself getting sunburned. I think to myself that it´s a shame I didn´t get to see the actual Torres (Towers) del Paine themselves...especially since the trail to see them re-opened yesterday, but it just didn´t work with my plan. But the glorious thing about plans is...they can change! And when the bus stopped to pick up and drop off people at the Torres trail, I spontaneously decided to push on for one more day to see the park´s centerpiece. Feeling commendably adventurous, I stock up on what feels like approximately 800 pounds of provisions and head up the trail for the 3 hours to the next free campsite. Well, if someone had told me what hell this first hour would be, I would probably have stayed tucked away on that bus. It is straight uphill, with the sun beating down, and I feel that my heart might actually explode...and my legs and feet might actually fall off. Really, I can´t overemphasize how hard that one hour is. I do not like it one little tiny bit.

However, what I do like is the next two hours. This is the most often visited trail in the park, but that´s a crazy thought when you see it. This is not a trail for little old ladies (although I did see several, and to be honest, they seemed to be doing fine, and one of them even passed me) or small children...it involves climbing through the woods hanging onto tree trunks for leverage, crossing streams by walking across a log or jumping from rock to rock, or descending a small cliff with the aid of a rope. It is loads of fun! With a giant pack strapped to your back, it becomes slightly more challenging, but I enjoy it immensely. I reach the campsite worn but pleased, have some dinner in the company of my new neighbors: an Israeli I met the day before, and and Irishman who comes bearing half a box of wine. I go to bed early, and set my alarm for 5:35 to catch the sunrise.

Day 5: I wake up at 6 AM by the sound of feet pounding past my tent: other campers heading off to the sunrise. Whoops! I set my alarm for 5:35 PM! I throw on my clothes and shoes and in a daze wake up Gal, my Israeli neighbor, and we head up the trail. Climbing over boulders and up stream beds in the dark is challenging, and it´s a pretty tough trail, especially when you´re half asleep. But I was hurried on by the approach of orange light in the east and the thought that after all that I might miss the sunrise! But happily we arrived with 15 minutes to spare, to see the towers glowing pink, then bright red, then orange and then yellow. A truly beautiful sight. I am truly happy to be there, and proud of myself to have made it. More than anything, I am blissful at the thought of a relatively easy hike back and a warm and soft BED to sleep in tonight.

I hike back down happily, thrilled to be able to enjoy the scenery, and to have enough breath to say "hola" to all the passing tourists, 90% of whom I´m sure don´t speak Spanish, though we all say "hola" to each other anyway. At the bottom I meet my two Irish neighbors and two Englishwomen I had seen on the trail and we bask in the sun with chocolate milk and ice creams, rewarding ourselves for our efforts.

On the way out we pass through the burned-out part of the park, and it is shocking to see. Fires are still burning in some areas, and firefighters are still working to put out the fire. The fire was started by a Czech backpacker who lit his gas stove in an area where fire was prohibited, then accidentally knocked it over. It is amazing to think that all of this damage (about 10% of the total area of the park) could be started by one backpacker, who, while admittedly careless, was almost certainly without ill intent.

Now I´ve moved on and I´m back in Argentina, preparing to see the Mother of all (Patagonian) Glaciers, El Glaciar Perito Moreno.