What I’ve Been Up To


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.


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.  



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.


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.


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.)


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.


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.


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.


Haunting High School Spanish

IMG_0034Mrs. Williamsen, my piercing high school Spanish teacher, appeared to be hiding in every establishment I patronized in Mexico City.  After a combined four years of high school and college Spanish, I figured I would know the language well enough to order food and navigate the city.  But after just a few hours, I realized how little I actually knew.  When I stopped to buy a fruit, there was a grammarian in the house.  When I tried to decipher my restaurant menu, I could sense a distant vocabulary test gone unremembered.  When I tried to find a bus to get back to the airport, the words for airport and get off the bus, escaped me.  Most frustratingly, the accent was so sharp that I couldn’t understand anything.

I made it into the center of Mexico City easily enough, taking a bus and the subway.  After visiting some of the city’s prominent landmarks, I settled in at an idle restaurant advertising a 50 peso meal of the day. For a little under $4, I could get a feast.  Immediately, though, I ran into trouble.  I thought the meal was a set menu, but on no, there were choices.  First, I had to pick between rice and soup (cam…).  I couldn’t figure out the difference, so the waitress brought me soup.  She was kind enough to work through the language divide, reiterating her Spanish until I figured out what she meant.  The soup was good, but as a hungry cheapskate traveler, hot lime and pineapple soup is less preferable to a giant pile of rice.  Zero for one.

Next, I had to choose between a taco and something else.  I chose the taco and it was probably the best taco I have ever had.  One for two.  The taco had just the right mix of cheese, jalapenos, breaded seafood, and tortilla to cue the right milieu of taste buds.  In my backpack,I had a full list of taco houses recommended by the New York Times, but given my layover schedule, this hole-in-the-wall replacement would have to suffice.

Next up, I had to decide between pollo and something else.  Since I know pollo is chicken, I kept pressing for that despite the waitress’s protestations.  As I saw her bring a giant plate of steak to my neighbor, I kicked myself under the table.  One for Three.  Luckily, dessert required no decision, just acceptance of a delicious cold, lime green pudding.  I studied the menu as I prepared to leave, noting that it was not possible to tell that choices were involved.

Mexico City Cathedral

Next, I went to the city’s giant merced market which covers several city blocks and hides its accompanying metro station like a prisoner hides his escape tunnel.  After getting acquainted with the market’s layout, passing stands full of spices, vegetables, flowers, kitchen appliances, fish, and more, I found a fruit vendor from whom to buy an orange.  I pointed at the pile of oranges, and said, “uno.”  The proprietor started to fill a bag with oranges, thinking I had ordered one kilo.  I said, “no no no, uno!”  The woman glared at me and said, “una naranja o uno kilo.”  Aha, a perfect lesson on the importance of (indefinite articles).  

Finally, after my a few hours and $10 spent in Mexico City, I made it back to the subway stop to get a bus to the terminal.  Climbing the steps out of station, I spotted a woman wearing a red AeroMexico shirt, and decided to follow her to the airport.  The bus that dropped me at the metro was a slick, new bus obviously catering to the airport crowd.  Instead, I hopped on a collectivo or mini bus from what must have been the 1980s or earlier.  As the driver blasted his music, I struggled to say airport, and from the Aeromexico woman, he could tell where I was headed. When we got to the airport, the driver helpfully pointed it out to me, and told me to get off.  I couldn’t understand him until he was adamant about it.  He was trying to explain to me that I had to get off and cross the road to walk to the airport.  This time, the lesson on formal commands came to mind, but none of the specifics came with it. 


As I hopped off the bus and trudged back to the gleaming international terminal, I looked over my shoulder to see if Mrs. Williamsen had somehow followed me off the bus.  Fortunately, that was the end of the Spanish lesson for the day.