Friday, December 31, 2010

Buenos Aires

Happy New Year!

We have had a great two days here in Buenos Aires. Our hotel, The Cocker, is fascinating. Recently remodeled, the place is gorgeous, and our room itself is an architectural marvel with the bed in an alcove underneath the bathroom. Interesting place to call home for a few days.

The evening of our arrival we met up with one of Megan's friends from the Brenham days who now lives in Buenos Aires. Erin and her boyfriend, Martin, offered an orientation to the city and excellent conversation while also guiding us to a restaurant that served our best steak yet.

We have spent most of our time meandering the city's boutiques and cultural sights. We wrapped up some Christmas shopping, and Megan ordered custom boots that should be gorgeous (the bootmaker has made boots and belts for multiple presidents of various countries, including the US, and recently designed a pair of boots for Carolina Herrera). The 2011 Dakar rally leaves from Buenos Aires in the morning, so we checked out the rally vehicles today. After seeing the fine art of off road vehicles, we went to the MALBA, which has an excellent collection of modern Latin American art (Rivera, Kahlo, Wilfredo Lam, Berni, Xul Solar, etc).

On Thursday, we went to the Plaza de Mayo to rally with the Madres of the Desaparacidos. Having studied revolutionary politics of Latin America in college, seeing the Madres was, for me, a pilgrimage of sorts. Even then, Megan and I found the experience overwhelming. For those who don't know, the Madres are mothers of people (largely students in their 20s) who were "disappeared" by Argentina's most recent dictatorship. 34 years ago, they began a weekly protest in a plaza surrounded by government buildings. The gathering continues weekly to this day. As one of the mothers said in a very moving speech: "This is the last march of the year, but of course this is not the last march for the Madres. The Madres will march forever." While the dictatorship fell (in part due to the Madres' relentless struggle), the Madres are a powerful reminder of the dangers of authoritarianism and the ability of normal people to make a profound difference in the world.

Tomorrow we head to the famous Ricoleta Cemetery and then join Erin and Martin for an afternoon in the park.

With respect to tonight's celebrations, we have learned of two new year traditions. First, people throw their calendars and shredded work papers from the year out the window. This has caused a huge mess in the business districts. Second, and a bigger problem for us, people in Buenos Aires celebrate the new year at home with family. As a result, nearly every restaurant and bar is closed tonight. The few that stay open are booked up, and we were not among those who had the foresight to make reservations. In a stroke of luck, we found a small cafe off the beaten path that has a fixed menu and an open table. Should provide more nourishment than our backup option of the Cliff bars leftover from our hikes.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A few thoughts on Patagonia

We head to the airport shortly, so I thought I´d write out a few quick thoughts as we get ready to go.

The daylight situation is remarkable. It is light outside by 5 AM and not dark until roughly 11. We are awake nearly all the time it is light, but it has not left us exhausted. The daylight makes it very easy to play, and you can start a decent sized hike late in the day and still have plenty of time to make it back safely. I understand the winter days are brutally short, but I also get the idea very few people stay down here through the winter.

The mountain ranges are impressive and make for more difficult travel. For example, the house we stayed in on Christmas Eve, Estancia Alta Vista, was only 20 KM from Estancia Cerro Guido, the place we stayed in Chile. Our hike at El Chalten was longer than 20 KM. However, the trip driving was a 5 hour trip over 200 KM through some very rough roads. The overland trip is possible with about 8 hours on horseback, but the Chilean government doesn´t like folks entering their country undocumented. Anyway, always shorter as the condor flies, but the Ford Ka has to stick to roads.

Dogs everywhere. We miss our pup tremendously, but it is hard to walk a block in El Calafate without coming on some friendly stray looking for a small something to eat. Once the sun finally sets, the valley fills with a symphony (okay, cacophony) of howls and barks and yelps. Bob Barker´s message never made it this far south.

There is almost nothing better than the food here. I don´t know if a cuisine could be more perfectly designed for my tastes. The diet consists largely of grilled meats and meat stews. Plus, forget all this organic and free range stuff we pay a premium for in the states. All the animals here feed on grasses along mountain slopes with amazingly large spaces to roam (the 60,000 sheep, 2,000 cattle, and 2,000 horses at Cerro Guido share 100,000 hectacres, for example). The animals here are likely very happy, and they taste very happy too.

Dulce de leche. This is essentially a caramel sauce served like ketchup. It is everywhere. The center of a table is not complete without a bit of butter and gobs of dulce de leche. In order to adequately blend into the local culture, I smear it on all my bread products. Delicioso.

We are already formulating plans for a return trip. There is just so much to explore and so much ground to cover. We never made it to the coast for whales and penguins, and we barely scratched the surface on the hiking. And did I mention grilled meats and meat stew? Any other takers?

It has been an awesome week in Patagonia. Now off to Buenos Aires.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Glacier update

The post-hike whiskey tastes even better with glacier ice. Traveling in Argentina is so tough.

Glacier trekking

Here is a photo of Megan and me trekking on the Perito Moreno Glacier, a glacier with a surface area larger than Buenos Aires. Behind us a pool has formed in the glacier.

Last night in Patagonia.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Hiking in Torres del Paine

Great walk today with amazing views. Tomorrow we go on a glacier hike near El Calafate.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

A Patagonian Christmas

The evening of December 23, Megan and I received some dreadful news. The estancia we had reserved for Christmas Eve had no room at the inn (well, kind of, the estancia could only be reached by ships, and the winds on Christmas Eve would be too high to allow navigation through the iceberg filled channel to get to the place). Like that first Christmas long ago, we were in need of other accomodations. Fortunately, Megan is not about to give birth, and our manger turned out to be a nice country ranch called Estancia Alta Vista (that said, we did end up eating in a barn that night. More on that later).

We arrived at Alta Vista initially skeptical. Estancia Cristina was written up in the New York Times as essentially the best place to stay in the area. The photos we had seen were stunning. We quickly moved past this disappointment. Alta Vista had a simple country elegance with beautiful and stately antiques. It was nice without being overstated. A place that simply felt like home.

Upon arrival we began to bond with our fellow refugees, the other folks who had intended to spend their Christmas in the most remote estancia in the area. Our other travelers were fascinating, and we quickly passed the time with hilarious conversation.

Later that afternoon, Megan and I took a horseback ride with our own gaucho guide. We set off on horseback, the saddles mercifully padded with thick sheepskin blankets for comfort. The horses themselves were very well trained despite constantly being distracted by the gorgeous grasses that grow this time of year.

A half hour into the ride we came upon a meadow dotted with bones. In my finest Spanish, I asked our gaucho who had massacred these helpless creatures. Turns out the mountains are full of pumas. We later learned that the toughest time for the sheep is when the puma mothers teach the cubs to hunt. To ensure the kids get great practice before prowling the hills on their own, the mother will lead them on a massacre of 20 to 50 sheep in a night. I figured sheep were easier targets than our horses, so tried not to worry too much about this apparent danger.

The ride ended on a mountaintop overlooking 300 degrees of mountains, Lago Argentino (the largest lake in Argentina), and several glaciers. Behind us in a field 20 wild horses grazed, and condors and eagles soared overhead. It was nothing short of magical.

The ride down was even more enjoyable as our confidence on horseback grew. By time we returned, delicious smells started to emerge from the barn near the house. It turned out our hosts were preparing a Christmas feast in typical Argentine fashion. They had placed an entire lamb on a metal pole over a large fire with other meats include thick cuts of beef, various sausages (including an incredible blood sausage), and chicken. After a snack of salamis and cheeses accompanied by a local favorite beverage, pisco sour, our hosts lead us to the barn where our gaucho hosts kept the parilla (grill) going. The meal was planned perfectly to avoid distracting from the meat. Sure, we had bits of green things and some potatos, but the star of the show was massive slabs of juicy meat cooked al punto (medium rare) and served on small grills with coals underneath to make sure the meats continued to sizzle throughout the meal. The Argentine Malbecs flowed as well.

During the dinner we learned some of the history of the area as our hosts joined us at the table. The area was settled essentially 100 years ago with primarily British and Scottish pioneers aching to get some land of their own. A few Italians and Spaniards moved to the area, but they quickly migrated to warmer climates. We learned about the different types of sheep to raise different types of wool and the various implications of choosing a merino sheep, for example, as opposed to a cashmere. We learned which sheep give the best wool prices and best meat prices and which would simply fail to survive the Patagonian winters.

The festivities continued until well after midnight although our group slowly dwindled. It was a Christmas to remember, and we felt extremely fortunate that our previous reservation had been cancelled.

And now, off to Chile!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Hiking to Cerro Torre

The 14 mile hike was worth it. Feliz navidad from Patagonia!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A Christmas Song

Heard a new one at dinner tonight in Buenos Aires. To the tune of jingle bells, ching ching ching, ching ching ching, ching ching navidad!

So there you go. Also, you can now post comments freely without my moderation. so feel free to express yourselves.

Yet further South tomorrow. I expect my internet access to vanish or at least decline substantially. Just in case, felize navidad!

A few thoughts on Rio

We are waiting for our departure to Buenos Aires, and I thought I would sketch out a few observations from our time here in Rio de Janeiro. By the way, you can wear your shoes through the metal detectors and don't get felt up here. The airport has been effortless.

First, Brazil (or at least Rio) is more advanced when it comes to energy conservation. Lights tended to have timers and the timers tended to run down quickly with an empty room. Escalators are activated by a platform in the floor, and napkins are just the right size. Windows and fans ran instead of air conditioning units. They just get this right.

Police were interesting to observe. We encountered them a few times, and they almost always had guns drawn and almost always had their finger on the trigger. Maybe this is part of the effort to tame the city before the World Cup, but we found it unsettling--particularly when the gun in question was a machine gun.
Salsa innovation last night. We ended up at a small but lively neighborhood restaurant called Baroquim Informal. Our appetizers were served with a remarkable hot sauce. One of the more delicious I have ever tasted. After complimenting the sauce in my best Portuguese (gastoso means delicious), our waiter brought out the manager to give us the recipe. We need to do some translating, but it has a couple types of oil, cachaca (the Brazilian brandy), and a pepper called malagueta. We found the peppers in a market this morning but anticipated problems with our next four border crossings. So our goal is to find malagueta peppers in Dallas.

After the salsa discovery, we ended up in a bar so excellent I don't think I could have imagined a better place. Extensive beer list with offerings from all over (including Brew Dog's Sink the Bismarck--a 40 % alcohol beer priced around $350 USD). Blues music too. Just great. But then a bartender pulled out a knife and started shaving his head and arms at the bar. He followed that up by digging in his hand. So we left slightly creeped out but pleased by the find nonetheless.

By the way, Santa Claus sells beers on Ipanema beach before the holidays kick off. Probably how he unwinds before the around-the-world journey. So if you have last minute requests, best head south.

Sunsets were inspirational. We went to a rocky outcropping overlooking Ipanema and Leblon beaches. Mountains, ocean, sunset, and, behind us, moonrise. The moment the sun set, the crowd, which had all paused to watch, cheered, as if to say "thank you" (obrigado) for a great day.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Rio de Janeiro update

A quick update after a great three days. Our host at the Rio Dolphin Inn has given us excellent information and been a huge help.

Our options for the first night included going to a samba school in a rougher part of town (the school itself, however, is apparently protected by drug traffickers, no worries) or going to Rio Scensarium, a famous samba bar in a neighborhood called Lapa. We evaluated our options over an excellent meal at Zaza Bistro before deciding we would pass on the sketchy joint and head to Lapa. Proved to be a good choice, and we enjoyed the samba until our overnight flight caught up with us and forced us to samba home.

Cristo Redentor was amazing this morning. Aside from that, a meal in the Santa Teresa neighborhood, and a market known as the "Hippie Fair," we have concentrated on studying local beach culture. The bathing suits are wildly skimpy, the beer wonderfully cold, and the vendors remarkably innovative. One of the most interesting beach options is a block of cheese on a stick. The vendors carry small grills and roast the cheese before serving.

About to head out for dinner. Tomorrow to Buenos Aires for a brief night before heading to Patagonia. I am shocked to be headed to jacket weather again.

By the way, your comments to the blog posts won't publish because I cannot moderate them. Feel free to comment, and I can publish them when I return to the states (which is fortunately two weeks away).


Saturday, December 18, 2010

In Rio

In a steamy Rio safely. Now we have some beaches calling. Ciao.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Rio Bound

Miami greeted us with coconut shrimp and an adequate bookstore. Rio bound!

Thursday, December 16, 2010


The photo posted.  Sure, it isn't rotated correctly, and it is apparently a picture I posted already.  But, the point is, we can now share visual images of the upcoming adventure.
Speaking of, we're still figuring out how to pack.  Rio looks to be in the upper 80s, chance of storms, and heat indexes north of 110 degrees.  Patagonia looks to be in the 50s, lows in the 30s, with hard winds, rain, and snow.  So looks like I'll pack a swimsuit and a parka and be good to go.
Less than 20 hours until departure . . .

Remote photo posting test

This is a test to see if I can post photos to the blog from my Blackberry. If a picture of me with a mustache appears, then expect some shots from South America. If not, you will just have to wait until next year.
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