Posted by: carogouin | April 13, 2010

the argentinean andes

The beautiful Andean mountains and lakes.

We bid farewell to our friends in Patagonia as they boarded their flight home. We were a bit jealous since we weren’t looking forward to taking a 48-hour bus all the way up to Bariloche in the Lake District of Argentina. Luck was on our side – we were able to find a flight leaving that same day to Bariloche, for only a little bit more money than taking the bus. Sign us up!

Considering we had just finished an action-packed two weeks in Patagonia, we were ready to lay low for a while and try to fight off our lingering colds. We were happy to stroll along the Nahuel Huapi lake bordering Bariloche, take in the stone and wood architecture à la Switzerland (Bariloche becomes a popular skiing base in the winter), soak in the warmer weather and eat the world-famous chocolate and ice-cream. Of course Bariloche is also known for its wonderful hiking opportunities, so we couldn’t very well pass that up. To ease back into it, we made our way to Mount Cathedral – a major skiing resort in the winter – and instead of climbing up, we took a cable car and chair lift up to the top. There we found a restaurant with a spacious terrace perfect for sunning, drinking a few beers and admiring the views of the lake district below. We did climb along the ridge for a little while to get a better perspective on the mountain range acting as a border between Argentina and Chile.

The chair lift up to Cathedral.

On the terrace of the mountain-top restaurant in Bariloche.

The Andes of Bariloche looking towards Chile.

That’s why they call it the Lake District.

Once we felt a bit better, we decided to commit to a 2-day trek and spend the night at the refugio on Mount Tronador, an extinct volcano hosting a total of 8 glaciers. As we were climbing up, we passed the manager of the refugio who had been paragliding above the glacier and valley for 2 hours and had just landed in a (rather small) patch of grass and was heading back to the refugio. Not a bad life. We trekked a total of 9 miles up 3,500 vertical feet until we reached the Otto Meiling refuge, a well-organized complex that we found also doubled as a gourmet restaurant. We hadn’t brought up food with us, so we bought dinner at the refugio – tenderloin steak with mushroom sauce and grilled vegetables – very fancy for a refuge and one of the most delicious meals we’ve had on our trip so far! Right behind the refuge, a slew of Argentinean soldiers had set up camp for 2 months to train for their post in Antarctica. They were doing rappelling and ice climbing exercises within the crevasses of the glacier. We struck up a conversation with one of the instructors who told us about life in Antarctica (for every scientist there, they need an 8-man team for support!).

The mighty glacier of Mount Tronador.

Water and ice drop off the cliffs of Mount Tronador.

Hiking the last stretch of the 3,500 ft vertical climb – the valley below us.

We finally reach the refugio right below the glacier line.

The Argentinean military had set up a training base here to prepare for duty in Antartica .

For 2 months the soldiers got to wake up to this.

Though the soldiers aren’t lucky enough to eat in the refugio restaurant like us – this was the best refugio we’ve stayed in!

The soldiers practice rappelling into the crevasses.

After climbing down from the mountain, we headed over to the ultra-hippie town of El Bolsón, known for its extensive and unique arts and food market. We spent our 2 days there eating Belgium waffles, fresh empanadas and drinking artisanal beer and juice smoothies. After we’d eaten more than we should, we took a bus north to the small town of Malargue. We were hoping to do an all-day 4WD tour to the nearby national park, but our timing was unlucky. Easter weekend left the town deserted, and the tour company needed at least 4 people to fill a group – there were no other tourists to be found. We quickly left and took the next bus up to wine country – Mendoza.

In Mendoza we did what every other tourist does – go on a wine tour. We spiced it up by choosing a wine tour that went from bodega (winery) to bodega by bicycle. It was a lot of fun! We visited three wineries, one olive oil factory and one small chocolate and liquor factory. We were given generous amounts of wine to taste, enough so that the biking in between is a little hazy. At the last bodega, which was an organic winery, they served us a delicious lunch in a courtyard right in the middle of the vineyard – it was quite picturesque. We found that a lot of the wineries export at least 80% of the wine they produce, leaving very little for domestic consumption.

A glass of Malbec Rose at our first stop on our winery bike tour.

The last winery was completely organic – we could taste the difference.

We ate lunch in a courtyard in the middle of the winery.

We also visited an olive oil factory – did you know that olive trees produce for 400 years?

We wanted to explore the area around Mendoza a bit more, so we put public transportation on hold and rented a car for 5 days! It was a luxury for us to go wherever we wanted, whenever we wanted. On our way to the Andes, we stopped at the town of Uspallata, where the movie “Seven Years in Tibet” was filmed. The area is quite reminiscent of the Asian Himalayas with its tall poplar trees and mountains looming in the distance. We made our way deeper into the Andes passing through a series of tunnels alongside a the old Transandine Railway (with its own set of tunnels). We arrived at Puente del Inca, a small village home to a natural arch forming over the Vacas River. It once was a spa resort where visitors came by train to dip in the hot springs (during the Golden Age of Bathing I presume). We stayed in the Hostería for the night, one of 3 couples in the entire building. We ended up having a great time eating and playing cards together!

On the set of ‘Seven Years in Tibet’ – the town of Uspallata closely resembles the Himalayas.

Poplar trees line all the streets.

Puente del Inca – a natural arch formed by alternating cold and hot water.

The next day we entered the Aconcagua National Park to do a trek around the mountain. It takes about 12 days to reach the summit, lots of technical gear, and not to mention a team of mules and porters to support you on your journey. We quickly ruled out summiting the 22,481-foot mountain. Even my herculean effort to summit 19,347-foot Cotopaxi in Ecuador could not prepare me for climbing the highest mountain in the western hemisphere. Instead, we went on a leisurely 16km hike up to the confluence. In fact, we weren’t allowed to go any further since the base camps were closed due to season end. We were the only 2 people on the trail, and the park rangers even asked us to bring along a bottle of olive oil, dish soap and some batteries to hand deliver to the lone guardian at the confluence base camp. He was happy to see us.

At the mirador of Acongagua – the highest mountain in the western hempishere.

The setting sun illuminates the mountains and lagoons.

Hiking up the valley towards Aconcagua.

Crossing the river on our way to the confluence.

We reach the base camp at the confluence – as far as we’re allowed to go in the off-season.

Although it was a gorgeous fall day, we were the only people on the trail.

When we finished our hike, we drove back down the Andes and north until we reached the town of Barreal – a poplar-lined oasis in the middle of the desert with the Andes to the west and Precordillera to the East. We found a super-friendly hostería who offered us a cabin by the river. Again, we were the only tenants, so we had the whole place to ourselves – even the owners lived elsewhere. They brought us a complete and delicious breakfast including home-made jams, fruit, and a ham and cheese platter. Argentinean breakfasts usually consist of coffee and bread, so this was a treat. That afternoon we took advantage of our rental and did a little off-roading through the Precordillera. We navigated through the hills by car and climbed the rest by foot until we reached the ridge. Our timing was perfect – the sun was about to set, so we had gorgeous light hitting the lush town ahead and the red rocks behind.

We were the only tenants in the lodge – even the owners lived elsewhere.

The rushing Rio de la Plata in Barreal – a microclimate in the middle of the desert.

We drove east of Barreal and climbed up the ridgeof the Precordilleras just as the sun was about to set.

The lush town of Barreal from our vantage point.

The red rock glowing in the sun.

Our little Fiat did a good job off-roading.

On another ridge gazing at the hills and mountains to the west.

We were able to follow this ridge for a while.

And there’s our car below!

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Posted by: Patrick | March 27, 2010

from the bottom up

The wind shapes everything in Patagonia.

We enjoyed three days in Salta before we hopped on a comfy overnight bus to Cordoba, which is Argentina’s second city.  I calculated that over the past few weeks, since Lima, we’ve been on buses for 67 hours!  For a few days we enjoyed sightseeing in Cordoba and really just the joyous feeling of not having to sleep upright in a seat while swaying back and forth.  We also geared ourselves up for our next destination: Patagonia!  On March 12th we took a quick flight from Cordoba to Buenos Aires, and then another from BA to the very bottom of the continent: Ushuaia!

The brothers Von Fange (Jesse & Steve) were planning to meet us down there and they arrived on March 13th in the Southern most city in the world.  With great excitement we met them at the airport and quickly plotted out our two-week Patagonian adventure over lunch and beers at a pub.  We had reserved a 4 bunk room at a nice hostel with fine views of Ushuaia and the harbor for our stay there.  It turned out to be a nice place, except for the non-stop reggae music for the Rasta wanna-be behind the desk.

First thing on the agenda was a day hike just outside of Ushuaia to Lago Esmeralda (Emerald Lake).  We piled into a taxi for the twenty-minute ride to the trailhead, which turned out to be harder to find than we thought.  The taxi dropped us off at a different spot than we had expected, so we had to do some route finding on the first half of the hike that left us a little muddy from the swampy marsh land that we had to cross.  Caro performed a graceful swan dive into a muddy creek about five minutes into the hike, but it didn’t really matter since we were all soaked in mud soon after that anyway.  We finally found the real trail and took a stroll around the beautiful blue lake surrounded by snow-covered peaks.  Steve decided that the cold wind and sleet was perfect weather for a dip, so he stripped off his layers and dove on in.  It reminded me of the time that my good friend Matt Jackson took a swim in a similar glacial lake in Nepal, he couldn’t stop shivering for an hour after that.  I think this lake wasn’t quite as bad – Steve seemed fine after a few minutes.

Ushuaia is a really cool town, sandwiched between the Beagle channel and snow-capped mountains reminiscent of the port towns of Alaska.  It is also the jumping off point for cruises to Antarctica, an expensive but tempting adventure.  Maybe next time!

Ushuaia sits in between snow-covered mountains and the Beagle Channel.

The brothers Von Fange on arrival in Ushuaia.

There were lots of beaver dams on the hike to Emerald Lake, the beavers are an introduced and invasive species with few predators.

We had decent weather with a few breaks in the clouds, but always cold.

Jesse at the Emerald Lake.

Emerald Lake, by Jesse.

Steve takes a quick dip.

Sunrise over Ushuaia.

We arrived on Penguin Island just in time, they will soon depart for their long journey to Antarctica.

The Penguins nest up in the hills off the beach which is semi protected from the wind.

A Gentoo Penguin. By Jesse.

A Magellen Penguin near its nest.

We all caught a quick flight from Ushuaia to El Calafate on March 16th.  When we landed in Calafate the wind nearly took us off our feet at the airport.  We rented a car in town and headed off to Chile and Torres del Paine National Park that afternoon.  We found a refugio which was very nice, but extremely expensive. Had we known we would have rented a tent and brought more food with us!  In general Chile was very pricey, but worth it for the great hike and perfect conditions.

We rented a sweet little Renault which just fit the four of us and our packs.

Being wind blasted on the road to Torres del Paine NP, Chile.

Jesse thought it would look cool if we both jumped up in the wind, but we stood a little too close together and I clocked Caro in the jaw with my hand on the way up. Her reaction was caught in this priceless photo. (Luckily she was fine.)

Starting up the valley in Torres del Paine, Chile.

On the trail to Mirador Las Torres.

A great perspective on Torres del Paine.

We really lucked out with clear skies on most of our hikes.

Great sign placement.

The drive out of the park was full of wildlife, we saw at least ten of these eagles along the road that morning.

Llamas were all over the place, this one happened to be in just the right spot with the Torres in the background. By Jesse.

After two nights and one big hike in Torres del Paine, we crossed back into Argentina and drove back into El Calafate.  Our timing was perfect as Caroline’s Uncle Louis happened to be in town also on a Patagonian trekking trip.   He took us all out for a great dinner at Pura Vida, a fantastic restaurant in town.

The next day we booked a ‘mini-trekking’ excursion to the Perito Moreno Glacier in Glacier National Park, an hour drive from Calafate.  The trip included a boat ride to the glacier, then a short hike on the ice with crampons.  Our guide, a Last of the Mohicans/Daniel Day Lewis look-alike, led us up and over the ice and gave us a lesson on glaciology.  A couple large chunks of ice calved off as we went by on the boat, although it’s one of a few glaciers in the world that isn’t technically receding.

Back in town we stayed at a cool little two bedroom bungalow/apartment for a few nights and made ourselves right at home.  Jesse cooked us up some tasty spaghetti with sausage and mushrooms, he’s quite the cook.  It was so much fun for us to have friends from home down to visit AND a car too!

Caroline's Uncle Louis happened to be trekking in Patagonia too. He treated us all to a delicious dinner in El Calafate, one of the best meals of the trip! Thanks again Louis!!

On the boat to Perito Moreno Glacier near El Calafate.

On a boat! We had a great day trip again with perfect weather.

Hiking out to the massive glacier.

Our guide (I will find you!) led us out onto the ice.

A deep water filled fissure in the glacier. By Jesse.

As good as water gets. By Jesse.

We're having a pretty good time down here, as you can tell. By Jesse.

What's this? Glacier ice and whiskey at the end of the walk! We actually brought our own bottle of Gentleman and a few glasses just in case.

Another fine day with friends.

Jesse walks out to the point for a better perspective and sets up this nice shot.

Relaxing with wine and cheese at our little apartment in El Calafate. By Jesse.

Our next stop was north to El Chalten, Argentina’s newest town, founded in 1985.  Apparently they have a cemetery all plotted out, but it’s empty since nobody has passed away yet!  On our first day we stored all our extra stuff at a hostel and set about trekking around the Fitz Roy region.  We stocked up on food (mostly tuna, crackers, and snacks) rented tents and headed off for the three day/two night hike.  The trails were beautiful, well marked and maintained, and the weather was stable for the first two days – day three was windy and rainy though.  The guys and I got up really early on day two to hike up to a lake and viewpoint in front of Fitz Roy.  We started hiking at 5:30am and got up there an hour later, a little ahead of schedule. Sadly it took the sun another hour to rise!  We were all freezing, but once the sun came up we got some awesome photos and warmed up quickly.  Caro was feeling a little under the weather, and slept in that day. Fortunately, we spent the second night camped at a refugio that offered a nice warm wood stove and hearty meals too.  After that hike we headed back to Chalten where we relaxed and enjoyed some more great restaurants (the best steak of the trip!) and a final day hike to see Cerro Torre.

The Cerro Torre hike was an easy two hour jaunt up a valley just outside of town.  It was clear at first but then clouded up as we got closer to the lake and the mountains.  As soon as we got to the viewpoint, as if on cue, the clouds lifted and we were blessed with a perfect view of the imposing Cerro Torre straight ahead.  It was a nice finale to the Patagonian adventure.

Day 1 of our hike around Fitz Roy near El Chalten.

Coming into camp on day 1.

A spectacular sunrise hits the mountains around Fitz Roy. Getting up at 5am paid off big time.

The three frozen amigos thawing out in the sun.

Super views with snow in the background on the hike down.

Anything but tuna and crackers! Steve enjoys a decent pizza at the refugio.

The hike to Cerro Torre was a favorite.

Looking out over the Laguna to Cerro Torre.

And we thought Patagonia would have terrible weather... A rare shot with both Cerro Torre and Fitz Roy visible.

Thank you Jesse and Steve for making the long trip south!  It couldn’t have been better.

If you enjoyed our photos of the trip, wait until you see Jesse’s, they’re stunning! Check them out here.

Posted by: carogouin | March 8, 2010

crossing the desert

The striking Atacama desert of Chile.

We are happy to announce that we have finally made our way to Argentina! We say this with enthusiasm and relief because it has been sort of an arduous journey. We were scheduled to fly out of Quito and land in Buenos Aires on February 19th – very simple and easy. However, we managed to seriously complicate matters when we missed that flight because we fell asleep a few hours before our 9:45 pm departure (due to our exhaustion from climbing Cotopaxi that morning) and didn’t set an alarm. We woke up 30 minutes before our plane took off, and of course by the time we got to the airport it was too late. The worst part was that we couldn’t find another flight to BA until March 8th! So after pleading with the airline and weighing the pros and cons of waiting vs. busing it down, we found a way out by flying to Lima, Peru instead – still a very long way from our intended destination, but a bit closer nonetheless. So thanks to our new travel alarm clock purchased in Quito, we woke up on time on the morning of February 21st to catch our flight to Lima.

Needless to say what we were looking forward to as a relatively short, painless flight skipping over thousands of miles of terrain to the dynamic, first-world city of Buenos Aires, became a series of 8+ hour bus trips, with a few nights of rest here and there, slowly making our way south through arid and barren land. We didn’t feel bad quickly passing over Peru, since we plan on being back in May. The good news is that we found that the buses in Peru were considerably better than Ecuador. We boarded Cruz del Sur – a pretty swank bus with seats that recline far back, food and refreshments at no extra charge, air conditioning and on-board entertainment. The bus attendant actually came up to us and asked if the volume and temperature were to our liking. Wow.

Our first upper class bus – Cruz del Sur. They serve food and drinks!

Our first stop was Nazca, famous for the Nazca lines, a series of ancient and large geoglyphs that are best seen and appreciated from above. Although we opted out of the scenic flight (a bit pricey, plus there was a crash recently), we enjoyed spending time in our very nice hotel and even catching a glimpse of the Olympics on tv!  Back on the bus, we made our way down to Arequipa, a charming colonial city and the second biggest after Lima. Although we’re not huge fans of cities, we did enjoy a day strolling through the “White City” – as most buildings are made out of a white volcanic rock. We dined on a terrace overlooking the plaza and ate delicious Peruvian food while our waiter decided to practice his English on us and rambled about a religious epiphany he had that day – a bit of an intrusive, but friendly fellow.

Our surprisingly plush hotel in Nazca, Peru.

The pool is necessary in desert country.

!

The Nazca lines as would be seen from above – but perhaps a tad bit smaller and clearer.

The colonial-style plaza at night in Arequipa.

Pat’s alpaca steak over a bed of risotto – new age Peruvian food.

Next, we made our way southeast to Puno, a small city on the coast of Lake Titicaca, which borders Bolivia. We had planned on crossing the border into Bolivia the next day. However that morning, we went online to verify entry requirements for US citizens and realized that we had to pay a hefty $130 “reciprocity fee” each. The US charges Bolivians that much for entering the country, so they do the same for us.  Not wanting to spend that much money for nothing, we mostly planned to use Bolivia as a transit country on our way to Argentina, we changed our plans and decided to head south towards Chile.

After 21 hours on a series of buses, one of which was cockroach-infested, had passengers smoking and no ventilation whatsoever, we arrived at our destination in Chile and were greeted with the beautiful beach city of Iquique. For the first time in about week, we were finally able to breathe easy, relax and enjoy where we were. Our hostel was clean and friendly and only a 2-minute walk from the beach. We lounged on the beach, went running on the boardwalk, shopped in a real grocery store and went out for delicious sushi one night. Chile is significantly more developed than its northern neighbors – enough that we instantly felt safer, which is kind of ironic since it was the exact same time when the earthquakes hit down south. Thankfully, we didn’t feel any side effects from that disaster and were able to enjoy the beach without the threat of a tsunami.

The Chilean desert on the way to Iquique.

Iquique was a welcome beach haven after 21 hours on buses.

We had delicious sushi on the rooftop of the Sunfish hotel.

Next we ventured southeast to San Pedro de Atacama, a true oasis in the middle of the Atacama desert. On the way there, our bus broke down, which wasn’t so bad, since they were playing the fourth Bruce Willis movie in a row, and we were happy to hop onto another bus only 30 minutes later. San Pedro is a cute, small town with lots of organic restaurants and simple and comfortable lodging, albeit pricey. The town also offered countless tours to nearby salt flats, clear-blue lagoons, geysers, sand boarding dunes, etc., all of which was too expensive for us, so instead we rented bikes and explored the area on our own. As I was feeling under the weather on the first day, Pat went for a ride with a couple friends from the hostel to hike in a nearby park and ride through a cool canyon.  Together the next day, we took off on bikes in late afternoon and climbed up to the view point of Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon). The views were exactly what you would image the moon to look like. It was so quiet and peaceful up there, and all the more rewarding after a long uphill climb.

Our bus broke down from Iqique to San Pedro - probably from climbing hills in the desert.

The charming cathedral of San Pedro de Atacama.

San Pedro de Atacama – an oasis in the middle of the desert.

Astonishing snow-capped mountains on the edge of the Atacama desert.

Valle de la Muerta – perfect dunes for sand boarding.

Pat went on a bike ride with a couple friends from our hostel, Micheal (Swiss) and Dan (US).

Fun trails through the narrow Quebrada del Diablo (Devil's Canyon).

Dan climbs up for another run down the "municipal water slide" at the reservoir outside San Pedro.

Another day of biking –it started out flat, but that didn’t last long.

The jagged terrain of Valle de la Luna – valley of the moon.

Peace and tranquility.

Overlooking moon-like craters and valleys.

The next morning we boarded yet another bus to brave our 8th border crossing of the trip, finally reaching Argentina! Since the Andes act as a natural border between both countries, the bus slowly made its way up and down the switchbacks of Paso de Jama, passing one terrible truck accident and heaps of small memorials set up alongside the road to honor those who didn’t make it. It was a little unnerving, but our driver was cautious and anyway we were enamored with the scenery. It was definitely one of the most beautiful roads we’ve taken so far, passing salt flats, shallow lagoons with flamingos, heaps of vicunas and alpacas, and dramatic peaks. As we crossed over to Argentina and descended into the valley, the climate changed drastically from brown to green.  At the end of 10-hour bus trip, we reached the city of Salta in Argentina and had our first taste of the country. We ordered a good but inexpensive bottle of wine, drank the whole thing, and didn’t even have a hang over the next morning. Now that’s pretty amazing.

Enjoying the panoramic views in seats 1 an 2.

The stark while salt flats along the Paso de Jama.

The steep switchbacks coming down into Argentina.

Posted by: Patrick | March 1, 2010

Fine in Chile

We are in Iquique, Chile about 1200 miles north of the earthquake’s epicenter, so we didn’t feel any effects the other day. Thanks for thinking about us! We’ll update more later.

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