The Patagonian “Wild West” Circuit

As the cowboy stood up from the table and took a last swig of coffee, he folded his newspaper and casually walked down the steps of the saloon to the side of his stead.  Annoyed at the slow pace of his partner, he hopped on the beast and road down the street, trying to raise the ire of his fellow traveler.  Dressed head to toe in riding gear and packed for weeks of riding, he looked ready to battle the rough, windswept countryside for months to come.  Eventually, his partner finished his own coffee, and joined the cowboy as they rode off into the desert.

I sat watching this scene, not in Doc Brown’s DeLorean transported to the 19th century American West, but in the similarly sparse Patagonian town of El Calafate, Argentina.  Though the travelers in question wore body suits of leather for their modified dirt bikes; with a few changes they could have been taken for Wyatt Earp or John Wayne.  And just like the wagon trains of yore, travelers today follow the “Patagonian Circuit” like a family of homesteaders setting out for Oregon.  Constantly as I traveled through the greatest hits of Patagonia, I found myself loathing my fellow circuiters, but in awe of these cut-off outposts.

Briefly, the Patagonian circuit involves traveling through the following towns in Argentina and Chile: Ushuaia, Punta Arenas, Pureto Natales, El Calafate, and El Chalten.  Travelers start at both ends, but most invariably travel to all of them in order.  As a result, the towns are largely miniature tourist rest stops, catering to the travelers who come to visit the nearby natural attractions like Torres del Paine National Park or Mount Fitzroy.  The towns feel less like authentic communities and more like a stopover on the pony express.

El Calafate, for instance, has a population of around 20,000.  To get to the town, you have to take a bus for 10 hours, and almost the entire route is through the bleak Patagonian steppe.  Traveling from Puerto Natales, the bus navigates small two lane roads and is only interrupted by the occasion sheep or cow and scattered shrubs.  Every few hundred kilometers, a small “estancia” or ranch appears, but the landscape largely retains its natural look.  Finally after traveling all day, the town comes into view like an oasis in the desert.  It sits beside an enormous lake, but lacks any native vegetation because of the dry landscape.  Houses on the outskirts have dirt or stones for yards, while the mainstreet sits flanked by barren hills rising into the distance.  All of the town’s commercial options exist for tourists, with restaurants, bars, and even a casino dominating mainstreet.

While the towns look like glorified rest stops, the weary travelers trudging along their streets similarly fit the landscape.  Since the transportation options are infrequent and lengthy, most of the backpackers have just arrived on a long-distance bus, most likely after completing an epic trip.  Like a cowboy arriving in Silverado, these backpackers look ready for a drink and a distraction.  Even the waitresses and hotel workers in the towns appear wearied by their distance from society – moving a step slower than their urban counterparts and embodying the isolation of the town.

El Chalten’s lack of internet proves the point.  Since the less than 1000 residents live hundreds of kilometers from the nearest settlement, no company has taken the time to install a fiberoptic cable.  Instead, hostels have to buy satellite internet at the cost of tens of thousands of dollars per year.  While Doc Hollywood would have scoffed at the idea that such an inconvenience counts as a “disconnect,” in today’s ever connected world where hostels and buses are booked online, the slowness really impacted logistics.

After a month of traveling on the circuit, I was more than ready to end my time in Argentine Patagonia.  Whereas the Pacific’s moisture gets dumped on the Chilean side, the lack of vegetation and wildlife in Argentina proved disconcerting.  Finally, I arrived in El Bolson where I was transported from the 19th century west to San Francisco in the 1970s.  Walking through the local crafts market with goods like dream-catchers and incense burners for sale, I didn’t see any cowboys looking to cause trouble.  And as I made my way to the campsite, only Argentines flooded the streets – enjoying their Easter holiday.  Like a 49er headed for California, I loved the experience of traveling through Patagonia, but I was ready to move on to a warmer, wetter climate with the trappings of normal life, not just tourist kiosks.

How I caught a 20 lbs Salmon

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On Friday afternoon, I stepped off a bus into the ugly outskirts of Puerto Varas, Chile, berated by rain and discouraged by cold.  As I dragged my 45 pound pack to the town’s information office, however, the weather turned from Chilean normativity to an encouraging clam of blue skies and rising temperatures.  I took this fortuitous change as a sign from God to abort my plan to stay at one of the town’s hostels that night.  Instead, I found a minibus headed straight for Petrohue – gateway to Vincente Perez Rosales National Park.  And that has made all the difference:  by the time I left Petrohue two days later, I had caught a 20 pound salmon, met seven Chilean friends, two American adventure women, and a dog named Flor.

Despite the one obvious omen, the signs started to change for the worse rather abruptly.  When I arrived at the Petrohue’s boat and bus station, at the junction of Lago Todos Santos and the Petrohue River, the rain accelerated its deliverance to tierra firma.  An old man with few teeth and little hair, told me the park’s campground was closed, and that my only option was to camp across the river at the private run campground.  Not believing him, I first asked the park rangers who confirmed his instructions.

After paying the boatman, I arrived at the campground, where Walter, Gabriel, and Melanie were seated inside the campgrounds lone’ shelter trying to stave off boredom.  At this point, the weather continued to work against me, with the rain increasing its tempo.  As I laid my tent on the ground and began setting up the rainfly, the heavens opened to unleash hail on my half-covered tent.  Finally, with all of my gear thrown inside and in the midst of changing out of my wet jeans, thunder rippled through the air.  I couldn’t wait to get out from underneath the tree that was protecting my tent.  My nerves also started to perk up – when I camped in El Bolson, Argentina, the incredibly strong winds snapped one of my tent poles in half – making me worry about a subsequent break.

In a sea change, however, the next five hours proved transformative.  After meeting my fellow tenants, I learned how Melanie and Nicki, two American girls, were traveling through Chile to showcase two kayaks provided by an American company looking to expand its market share.  They had settled in Petrohue for a few days to film descents down the river’s rapids.  Walter and his large extended family owned the campsite and the dozen houses that sat flanking it, and Walter worked as a fishing guide.  Gabriel, a goofy native of Santiago, had spent the summer working as a guide in the nearby national park.  During the afternoon and evening, the five of us successfully started a campfire, crossed the river to fetch ingredients for pisco sours, and returned to cook homemade salmon.  The day before I arrived, the Chileans and the Americans had spent the day fishing, and Walter brought home a 30 pound salmon.   It was delicious even on the second day, only needing some salt and olive oil to bring out the taste.

After finally getting to bed at around 2 am, I got up the next morning to say good bye Melanie and Nicki.  They were leaving this part of Chile for Patagonia to film shots of running the kayaks through caves.  After their departure, Walter informed me his mom was making us pancakes, but he gave no timeframe for when they would be ready.  And since he only speaks Spanish, all I could understand was, “despues”, later.  In the meantime, I decided to hike up the trail behind the campsite.  The entire reason I came to this national park was to hike the path that passes near the Orsono Volcano.  But for the first two days, the weather was too awful to even try.

As I walked out the back of the campsite, Walter’s nephew’s dog, Flor decided to inquire as to what I was trying to do.  After telling Flor my plans, she decided to tag along.  We fought through branches and pig manure to ascend the mountain, but we eventually reached a rock wall too steep to surmount.  As I sat looking at the obstacle, Flor ran up behind me.  Looking down at her small legs, I concluded she couldn’t make it up the wet, rocky face, so I moved to turn around.  At that point, she scampered up the trail without inhibition.  Despite her encouragement, I decided to return, hopefully to pancakes. Image

Arriving back at a damp, windy campsite, I turned on my stove to some tea and continue reading the salmon farming chapter in The Ethics of What We Eat.  Just as the authors were detailing the horrors of salmon fishing and how it had led salmon to infiltrate Chile’s natural riverways, Walter asked if I wanted to go fishing with him and some of his friends.  Of course I agreed, and he said we would leave in a half hour. This being Chile, I figured we would leave in an hour or later.  But in less than 30 minutes, he yelled for me to hop in his boat, so I threw down my book, grabbed my rain jacket, and ran to the dock.

We only drove across the river, where some of the friends picked us up in an F150.  Driving downstream for four miles, we reached another outpost of the national park, a set of waterfalls.  We parked in the woods, and found an illegal path that heads into the national park via some local trails.  After walking for 20 minutes, we made it back to the river beneath the rapids.  Salmon jumping out of the water greeted us as the fishermen attached lures to their rods.

For the first 30 minutes, I was content to take in the views watching the experts rake in fish.  One of the guys from nearby Puerto Montt, caught two salmon much to the chagrin of his friends.  Walter’s brother took pity on me and shoved a rod in my hands to keep me busy.  After 10 or 20 abysmal casts, nearly taking out some of the other fishermen, I finally remembered how Grandpa Baumhover had taught me to fish.  I had similar luck, though, and didn’t haul in any fish.

As the day was winding down, and the pescadors were getting restless, Walter finally hooked a salmon.  Again looking out for me, the brother shoved Walter’s pole into my hands, ensuring I would bring dinner home for everyone.  A bit nervous, I took over the pole as the salmon ran with the line down the river.  Walter and his brother were constantly shouting instructions at me, very little of which I understood.  Eventually, I got the hang of reeling, lifting the pole, and keeping my finger on the line so the salmon couldn’t run too far.  Despite two long runs, I got the salmon to shore where the brother clubbed it to death with Walter taking as many photos as possible.

Walter’s brother took the fish off the line and cleaned it immediately along the river, but not before Walter got some pictures of me holding the fish up for size.  We fished for another half hour before the light ran out, and we had to head back.  Back out our campsite, the fishermen all came with us, making for a party of 8 hungry men.  The fire was slow to get started, so we had to wait for it to warm up and smoke the fish. Image

Throughout the day, I was the butt of many jokes.  Chileans speak Spanish very distinctly and the rural inhabitants speak with extensive use of slang and modified pronunciations to the point where I could understand almost nothing.  So, while my Spanish is hardly fluent, I can understand quite a lot, except when I’m in rural Chile.  Periodically, the Chileans would attempt to talk to me or invite me into the conversation, but the barrier proved too stark.  Besides, I was too exhausted from sleeping in a tent and the late night before to converse intelligently.

Finally, around 11:30, the fishermen left to drive back to Puerto Montt.  In the end, I couldn’t help thinking about what an ordinary experience it would have been in back in the U.S.  Simply, I spent an afternoon fishing and drinking beers with a bunch of guys.  We got lucky, caught a salmon, and grilled it for dinner.  Because it was in the rural backwoods of Chile, it one of the favorite moments of my trip.

Finally, on Monday morning I decided to leave the little campground that provided me so much enjoyment.  I think company can overstay its welcome, so I decided to leave before I became a nuisance.  And on this particular morning, the volcano decided to show its top, beckoning me to climb its foothills.Image

I tracked down one of Walter’s relatives to give me a ride back across the river to begin climbing the trail up to the volcano.  Sad to say goodbye to the campsite, I knew the two days would leave a lasting memory.  Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back.

Torres del Paine

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On the cold, moonless night of March 17, 2013, I lay shivering in my tent, grasping at the last straws of sleep, just as my iPhone’s marimba melody pierced the Patagonian silence.  As I slowly awoke in Torres del Paine National Park in southern Chile, I was already dreading my planned predawn hike to the park’s namesake towers.  Having arrived at the campsite at 8:30 the night before after a tough hike, I wasn’t prepared for the early return to the trail. But as I opened the tent flap and saw a parade of white headlights ascending into the distance, I found my motivation to get out of bed.

Torres del Paine is one of the world’s greatest parks, and is centered around three granite towers that lurch 6500 feet straight out of the ground.  Most hikers opt for the “W” circuit, which takes them along two river valleys that provide views of both sides of the towers before meandering along a mountain lake to an active glacier.  One of the circuit’s best features is that hikers can reach the towers at sunrise, in time to see the sun cast its first rays on the giant chalkboards.  Despite the promise of such an awe-inspiring sight, the marimba failed to preface the breathlessness to come.

Putting aside my reticence, I woke up my camping partner, Olivia, and we rustled out of our sleeping bags to join the conga line up the mountain.   For 45 minutes, we crept up a steep hill, tacking large boulders and small streams before reaching the rock field that holds back the tower’s accompanying glacial lake.  Though we departed in complete darkness, we hurried along as we saw the sun starting to rise over our left shoulders.  Not wanting to miss the requisite photograph, I would rush ahead, but then turn around and shine my headlamp me so Olivia could see the path.  Tired and cranky, we reached the viewpoint with plenty of time to spare.  From 7:00 until 7:30, we watched the sun slowly break into the sky, but it failed to light up the towers, thwarted by a low lying cloud. 

But around 8:00, the sun won out and cast its bright, orange rays, directly on the pillars, lighting them like a stove’s coasters turned on high.  For fifteen minutes, we took in this surreal sight, too enamored to address our tired and hungry bodies.  Eventually, the sun reached a height where the coasters lost their glow, and only the granite peaks remained.  Acknowledging our hunger and the long day ahead, we began our lukewarm descent, along with 50 other early risers, back to the campsite to make breakfast and pack up our gear. 

In planning my trip to South America, hiking through Torres del Paine always stood out as one of the highlights of the entire trip.  Trekkers come from across the globe to hike the park’s storied trails.  After some minor hiccups in Buenos Aires and Uruguay during the early parts of my trip, I badly needed to get out into the wild.  Having hiked for a couple days in Ushuaia, I felt like I had only had a taste of what Torres del Paine would offer.  And traveling by bus and staying at hostels on the way to the park, I ran into countless people who had hiked the W and raved about its beauty.  So by the time I was taking in the sunrise, I felt like I had been waiting for far too long. 

We arrived in the park at about 6:00 pm on Sunday, after getting a late shuttle out of the gateway town of Puerto Natales.  I had met my hiking partner, Olivia, when I stayed in Puerto Madryn on the east coast of Argentina.  After realizing we were traveling in the same direction, we fell in step traveling from Ushuaia to the park together.  Olivia is from Switzerland, and was planning on traveling around South America for four months before starting a master’s program.

Since we arrived at the park so late, we only had two hours to get from the entrance to the Torres Camping Ground, the only free site on the first leg of the trek.  Olivia and I successfully made it into the camp at around 8:30 just after sunset, having survived a grueling 4.5 miles with a combined 60 pounds in gear.  We quickly made camp, and grilled our chorizo – by far the best meal we had during our trip. Exhausted, we passed out around 11:00, fearing the 6 am wakeup call.

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After our sunrise rendezvous, we got back to camp, cooked and departed by 10 am.  Our Sunday trek made for a really long day, over 13 miles of hiking back down the same river valley, around a mountain, and back up another streambed to another free campsite.  The first few hours of the hike proved uneventful, calmly making progress while enjoying the green, snake-like lake that unwound before us.  Along the way, we ran into various characters who joined us for a few miles at a time.  Tom, a boatman from Port Townsend, Washington, provided the most enjoyable distraction of the trip.  Tom looked like Ishmael from top to bottom, wearing a grandpa’s fishing hat, fishing pants, and a t-shirt showing one sail boat eating another one.  After spending a month on a research ship around Antarctica, Tom had come to Torres del Paine to hike what he called a capital F before flying back to Washington.  Tom had an optimistic quip for just about every lull in the hike, more than making himself welcome in our company.  “That sure is a lot of grass, but I wouldn’t want to mow it.”

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Since this was St. Patrick’s Day, numerous hikers donned their brightest green attire.  As we took a water break, a young woman, with a bright green fleece and Irish red hair marched on past us.  Also noticing her, an elderly Irish gentleman with a wonderful St. Patrick’s beard, called out to her, “Now that must be an Irish lass, if ever I saw one.  Happy St. Paddy’s day!”  The girl, confused by the interaction, simply said,

“Oh right, Happy St. Patrick’s Day. I forgot that was today.”  And she said it all without slowing down.  As she made her way down the trail and out of site, the Irishman’s wife called out to her, “Of course you knew, that’s why you wore green!”

After two more hours, we came to one of the fancy refugios that are sprinkled throughout the park.  There are a couple of different financial options for trekking the park’s famous trails, catering to hikers of different budgets.  Backpackers can do it on the cheap, staying at free campsites and bringing all of their own food.  One percenters can bring almost nothing with them  and stay at these miniature hotels that serve meals.  A bed in the refugio can cost as much as $100 per person per night, but after walking several miles on a mosquito infested trail in 90 degree heat, it almost makes the price worth it.

Reaching one such refugio, Olivia refused to hike the final 3 miles to the campsite.  Not wanting to pay for the refugio, I sat down and agreed to wait awhile.  I paid $4 for a can of Fanta – one of the best Fantas I’ve ever had – and waited for Olivia to regain her strength.  After resting for an hour, with nothing but mountains and a big blue sky to occupy us, we donned our packs and struggled through the last hour to the campsite, arriving at around 6:00.  Dinner on day 2 lacked the first day’s panache, just pasta and tomato sauce without any spices.  Still, the carbs felt good in our tired bodies.  After a final chat with Tom, we went to bed, beating the sun. 

On day three, we resolved to hike up the second river valley, see the towers, and take the boat out of the park that night.  Instead of a W, we’d complete a cursive U.  The dedicated hiker in me felt a little morose at not completing the obligatory W, but having acquired a cold during my second day in the park, my runny nose and sore throat encouraged me to get out.

The first 9 miles of the day were a relief.  The only gear we had to take with us was water and food before returning to grab our packs.  For the first hour, we navigated dense forests, hearing a roaring stream beside us and assorted avalanches above.  Eventually, we emerged from the trees, allowing us to climb atop a giant boulder that afforded a 360 degree view of the river valley, surrounded by peaks reaching up to 8000 feet.  Having viewed the towers from a closer vantage point at sunrise, we were unimpressed.  The views down to the mountain lake, though, were more than I expected, providing an excellent backdrop for our ham and cheese lunch. IMG_0606

Back we went, descending the river valley at a rapid pace, pausing only to take pictures of waterfalls in the accompanying stream.  Once we made it to our camp, we gathered our gear, and at 3:00, we began the long march to meet our 6:30 boat.  The last three hours provided just the trail we craved, a narrow route that undulated softly over easy hills along another azure lake.  At one rocky overlook, we paused for a snack, with the wind subsiding enough for the lake to become still – providing impressionist reflections of the towering mountains in the distance.  In the short 20 minutes we sat there, every single hiker that came along the trail interrupted our peaceful lunch to take a picture.

Back on the trail, we entered the section of the park that suffered a horrendous fire in 2011.  A hiker lost control of his stove resulting in the carnage of one-eighth of the entire park.  This unfortunate site was yet another reason why we decided to end the hike prematurely.  Walking through burnt trees and open fields, we climbed the last hill.  The final refugio came into view, more than a mile below where we stood.  Despite my tired legs, I nearly ran the rest of the way there, eager to get out of the wind and from beneath my pack.  We rushed the refugio’s small store, buying the most overpriced but delicious mango juice I’ve ever had.  After a short rest, we pressed on to one of the park’s catamarans, beginning the 3 hour boat/bus ride back to Puerto Natalales. 

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Torres del Paine will no doubt be one of the highlights of my South America trip, simply because of the three days I spent in the woods.  But overall, I came away from the hike slightly disappointed.  After having read and listened to so many superlative accounts of the hike, I think I had unrealistic expectations for what I would see. To me, the park’s offered nature was beautiful, but certainly in line with other hikes I’ve completed in the United States and Europe.  One Austrian guy I met along the trail said of the towers, “I wasn’t impressed.  We have taller ones in Europe.”  Part of me agreed with him.  Part of the problem, though, was that many of the superlative hikers I listened to as I approached the park were not outdoor enthusiasts and hadn’t hiked very much in their respective countries.  As a result, one of the reasons so many are enamored with the park is that it’s the only real hiking they’ve ever done.

Additionally, I was also disappointed by the park’s amusement park feel.  There are essentially four ways of trekking through the park – all along the same path – and all four are extremely organized and crowded.  So hiking through the park at times feels simply like waiting in line for a ride.  This is one of the same complaints I have about Shenandoah National Park back in Virginia, so it’s hardly a new feeling.  As I continue my hiking career both in the U.S. and here in Argentina, I’ll constantly be looking for trails that allow a real nature lover to get off the beaten path.    

Where’s My Bike?

Despite my best efforts to make this a biking trip around South America, it has yet to turn out that way.  Originally, I conceived of this trip as mix between biking and busing around South America.  For the first month, I hoped to move mostly by bus while bringing my bike along with me – allowing me to bike around the cities where I landed.  The buses here, however, don’t have room to carry bikes with them.  They either charge a lot of money to ship the bike, or require it to be shipped ahead or behind you.  And they usually require you to take the bike apart and put it in a box.

Due to these intervening factors, my bike has gone on ahead without me.  The Surly is waiting in the Lakes district of Argentina in a town called Bariloche.  I am scheduled to stay for a week in Bariloche in mid-April, so it’s a good place to get back on my pedals.  For now, a hostel (Hostel 41 Below) has graciously agreed to hold on to the bike until I arrive.  So for the next month, I’ll be traveling with only my pack, and feeling a little lost without my bike.  This will mark the longest stretch of not riding a bicycle since my bike was stolen in D.C. four years ago.

What I’ve Been Up To

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Over the last week, I’ve been working my south to the southernmost part of Argentina.  After visiting the wildlife preserve near Puerto Madryn, I hopped on three buses over the course of 36 hours and landed in Ushuaia.  Along the way, I met a friend from Switzerland with whom I’ve been traveling.  

On my first day in Ushuaia, I found a trail out the back of the town that leads straight up into the mountains.  Casual hikers can take a taxi for the first 7 km and then hop a chairlift that unloads near the top of the trail.  I hiked the route in its entirety, making for a 12 mile hike.  Since Ushuaia’s supporting isle, Tierra del Fuego, is home to hundreds of thousands of sheep, I was craving lamb for dinner.  After the long hike, the Swiss girl, Olivia, and I made an amazing lamb and salad dinner.

The following day, we bussed to Tierra del Fuego National Park to hike the Cerro Guanaco Trail.  The hike turned into one of the toughest I have ever done – covering roughly 3 miles and ascending 3000 feet.  The trek provided diverse scenery, starting in a dark forest beside a green lake.  The trail then climbed steeply for a few hundred feet before the trees cleared enough to offer a view of the lake.  Then, the trail turned to high mountain grassland where the snowmelt created a muddy minefield to navigate.  After tuning all our clothes brown, the trail then began traversing a ridge of loose shale rock.  Thankfully, the trail was well worn eliminating much possibility of slipping on the rock.  After three tough hours, we reached a breath-taking summit – a 360 degree view of the Beagle Channel and Tierra del Fuego National Park.

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After finishing the trek, we ran to the bus stop just in time to get a ride directly to our hostel.  Too tired to cook, we dined on hamburgers at the local Irish Pub before tackling our last loose ends in Ushuaia.

Now I’m back on a bus.  I’m headed to Puerto Natales for a night before tacking the “W” trail in Torres del Paine National Park in Chile.   After a week of going off the grid, I’ll be back to post pictures of one of the world’s great parks.  

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Wildlife

Today, two new friends and I rented a car and drove out to the Peninsula Valdes to see the assortment of wildlife that calls the island home.  We saw penguins, elephant seals sea lions, and flamingos   Unfortunately, the killer whales didn’t show for us.

To see my pictures from the trip, click here.

Update

I’ve posted several updates to the blog below – please read them at your leisure.  I’ve also been posting a lot of stuff on my tumblr page, which you can check out for more pictures and updates.

 

Today I arrived in Puerto Madryn, after a 20 hour bus ride from Buenos Aires.  Tonight I’m staying a hostel before traveling to a wildlife reserve with elephant seals, sea lions, penguins and if we’re lucky, killer whales.  Hopefully, I’ll be heading south in the next few days to Ushuaia and up from there to Chile.  In Ushuaia, the pictures of mountains will begin.  Until then, I just have pictures of cities.

Travails

Despite my attempt to not complain about the problems of traveling with a bike, there have been a few hiccups already.  Caitlin and my family have received the brunt of my complaints, so I just wanted to take a minute to thank them.  Also, I wanted to write in detail about some of the logistics problems I’ve faced in case anyone has questions.

When I landed in Buenos Aires, the first few problems that came up were resolved easily enough.  Luckily, I had wifi on my bus ride into the city, so I could get the contact information for my host, since I hadn’t received his email before I arrived.  Indeed, the luck held throughout the bus ride – it dropped me at the company’s headquarters about 6 blocks from where I was staying.  Since the ATMs at the airport wouldn’t let me take out any cash (didn’t like American cards), I was arriving with no way to pay a taxi to transport all of my gear.  The six block walk to the apartment was tough, but only six blocks.

One problem that has yet to be solved, my phone still doesn’t work in Argentina.  Verizon told me before I left that if I upgraded to an iPhone 4S, it would work in Argentina.  Something is wrong with mine, though, so that emergency contingent plan is out the window.  Again, I have to thank my brother Matt who is investigating this for me.

The real problems started in Uruguay.  When I tried to get my boat back to Argentina, I found out that Uruguay is an hour ahead of Argentina.  As a result, I missed the 5:00 boat, and I had to wait for the 9:45.  At this time, I also realized I had left one of my debit cards in the ATM when I had arrived in Uruguay. So, that card has been cancelled and a new one is on the way.  I also forgot to take proof with me to Uruguay that I had paid the Argentina entry fee tax.  It seemed obvious to me that I had paid the tax since my passport bore proof I had entered Argentina two days before.  This though, wasn’t enough for the boat officials who scolded me before letting me in.

The final set of problems stem from when I tried to get a bus to Puerto Madryn.  My working assumption was that the bus companies would be able to take my bike on the bus without a problem.  The only long distance buses I’ve been on have cavernous compartments underneath them where a bike would hardly be noticed.  This working assumption proved correct for the ride in from the airport, but that’s where it stopped.

My bus to PM was supposed to leave at 3:00 on Thursday, but was delayed until 7:00.  One bus company official turned out to be really helpful, and said we could ask the bus driver to take the bike despite the company’s strict rules that bikes aren’t alloed.  The driver said no, and put an end to it.  The helpful employee then made me ship my bike via the company’s cargo arm, while I got on the 8:00 bus.  I hauled all six bags of stuff down to the shipping kiosk, sent my bike at a cost of $75 on top of the already $150 bus ticket, and then hauled my six bags back up to the bus platform to get on the 8:00 bus.  So far, the bus has been incredibly pleasant – fully reclining seats with dinner and breakfast served on board.  Now, I hope my transfer from the station to the hostel proceeds without any major problems.  And I’ll have to wait a day before my bike arrives.

What’s funny is that all of the logistics challenges that I thought would be problematic, have proceeded without incident.  Despite not having any cash, I was able to get from the airport to my apartment relatively quickly and easily.  On Thursday, I had to get my third rabies vaccination shot.  I had read that hospitals in Argentina can take hours to serve patients.  The experience for me though, was quick and pleasant, taking only 30 minutes and costing $15.  And finally, before the snafu with the bus, my bike had been operating as if it had never been taken apart.  To get it to Argentina, I had to disassemble it extensively (for pictures click here).  I was worried about how well it would take the fight, but it came together surprisingly easily and allowed me to enjoy Buenos Aires and Colonia.

I’m sure there will be more difficulties as this trip continues.  I hope to keep the whining about them to a minimum.  But this latest snafu has proved to me that I won’t be continuing with the bike by bus for much longer.  At the moment, I’m contemplating shipping my bike to San Carlos de Baricoche where I will reconnect with it in late April.

In the Right Mind Set

On Wednesday, I escaped the hot and crowded streets of Buenos Aires and took a ferry across the Rio de La Plata to neighboring Uruguay.  Colonia del Sacramento, a Portuguese colonial city, sits just 50 kilometers from Buenos Aires.  Since the boat ride takes only an hour and a half, it’s a popular day trip for expats living in Argentina to renew their tourist visas. 

The trouble with Colonia, though, is that it has a different speed limit than Buenos Aires.  To enjoy the city, I first had to slow down to meet its stride.  BsAs is a city of 2.8 million people, and there are dozens of neighborhoods for tourists to visit.  To keep up with the frenetic pace of portenos, tourists feel compelled to race around the city like one of the many motorcycle drivers cruising around.  After adhering to that pace for two days, the slower, casual touch of Colonia was jarring, but eventually welcome.  (For more pictures of my trip to Colonia, check out my tumblr page here.)

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When I stepped off the boat in Uruguay, I hopped on my bike to ride around the city.  I quickly realized that Colonia was far too small and concentrated to explore at a bike’s pace.  Additionally, Colonia’s old town is paved with cobbletones and spread out over just 10 blocks and two plazas on a point surrounded on three sides by water.  The rest of the city extends out to the east and north, providing miles and miles of beaches for locals and portenos to watch the sun set over the river.  I spent most of the morning walking my bike around the old town like an aged pet, picking it up to cross rough streets.   

In the end, I loved the feel of the old city and enjoyed taking my time to explore its history.  But for the first two hours I was there, I felt hurried, rushed to see more.  I kept trying to plan out what to do with my whole day.  After sitting on a bench in a plaza for 30 minutes contemplating these questions, I realized I was insulting Colonia.  Instead, I got up off the bench and started walking, just letting my feet take me wherever they led.  Over the next four hours, I had a pleasant and unremarkable day in the town.

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For instance, I rode my bike out to visit a failed tourist development that includes a bull ring, horse track, and a 3,000 person stadium for a Basque sport called jai alai.  The horse track still technically works, but it looks like it shouldn’t be allowed to.  The other buildings are fenced off, and I fought my inner explorer’s desire to investigate.  Following this stroll, I stopped by the beach and dipped my feet in the Uruguayan water.  After the ride, I found a pleasant café with an agreeable ham and cheese sandwich and café con leche.

Nothing about the day stood out, but it aptly demonstrates how to enjoy a town like Colonia.  During the day, I found myself thinking about the other ways it is important to slow down or speed up to match the pace of a place.  I often mismatch speeds when I’m about to embark on a hike.  At the trailhead, having navigated the suburbs to get out to the mountains, my mind switches to calculating the needs of the hike.  But a hike is a much different beast than navigating a highway.  Just like in Colonia, during the first couple hours of a hike, I find myself thinking about how long it’s going to take, where to stop for lunch, or at what time will I be done.  Enough.  Once I get settled, I again let my feet take me, and push all my worries and planning from my mind.  The hike then becomes much more enjoyable, almost like a meditative experience.

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Which brings me back to Colonia and the difficulties of travel.  When moving from place to place, tourists bring with them the pace from their previous location, and probably also the calculations of their journey.  Sitting in Colonia on that park bench, anxious about my day, was actually quite instructive for the long-term viability of my trip.  Each time I get to a new city or new landmark, I’ll have to try to match the pace of the city and its residents to get the most out of the experience.

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