Our first visitor in Mexico City

Last week my daughter Abi came to stay for a few days. She spent the prior weekend in Mexico City for work and visiting with some friends. Once all the fun had ended, she came over to our place and stayed with us. She lives in London, so we don’t get to see her that often; the last time was in August when Sue and I went there to visit her for a few days.

Monday and Tuesday were work days, so we mostly sat in silence and stared at our respective computer screens. We did manage to go out to dinner on Monday night to Páramo, where Sue and I ate the other week. We wanted to do something pretty fast and pretty close, both of which it was. The food was once again, delicious, and after a dinner we headed to Freddo’s for ice cream. We knew of Freddo’s from Buenos Aires. The store in Mexico City was much smaller, but the ice cream was just as good.

Wednesday we strapped on our walking shoes and headed back to Bosque de Chapultepec. Abi and I wandered through the Museo Nacional de Antropología while Sue hung out in the park and took some photos. After the museum, Abi and I visited the Castillo de Chapultepec. Once again Sue wandered the park as we had just visited there a couple of weeks ago. It is interesting, but apart from a couple of murals, it isn’t really worth a second visit. 

On Friday, Abi and I had a tour of the Teotihuacan pyramids with Roberto from Cyrviaje Consultores De Viaje. (For those who do not speak Spanish, Consultores de viaje translates to travel consultants.) Sue and I went there last year and so she decided to pass on this trip too. (I suspect she was letting Abi and I get as much father/daughter time as possible. True, plus it was nice to have a few hours to myself.) Roberto picked up us at 7 a.m., so that we could get to the site before it got too hot. It’s about 30 miles north of the city, which meant that it would take about an hour to get there and nearly two hours to return. Mexico City traffic is just unbelievable.

We started at the south end of the site, near the Temple of the Feathered Serpent and walked the 2km north towards the Pyramid of the Sun. The pyramids are magnificent and there was much more to see this time as things continue to open after the Covid shutdowns. Roberto is a great tour guide, he had lots of information and at every turn seemed to have something interesting and relevant to say. He has traveled all over the world and when we weren’t talking about Teotihuacan, we were discussing where else we should visit, both inside and outside of Mexico. The entire story of the city is amazing and also very jarring: How could a civilization that could solve complex mathematical and engineering problems leave no written history and simply vanish with no trace? It is eerie.

Saturday we didn’t do very much of any note other have dinner at a Thai/Viet restaurant called Kiin that is literally (and I mean that in the literal sense) around the corner from our AirBnB. They have a website, but it’s just their menu, so I have linked to their Facebook page — sorry if you don’t have access to it. Sue and I have eaten there before and their food is fabulous, and appropriately spicy. Abi had a 6:30 a.m. flight on Sunday so she was up somewhere around 4 a.m., but her terrible father said goodbye before he went to sleep, just so he wouldn’t have a wake up before dawn to do that.

A week or so before Abi arrived Sue bought a 2,000 piece jigsaw puzzle based on a 1594 map of the world. She dumped out the pieces onto our dining table and has been diligently working on it. I don’t have the patience (nor the eyesight) for such things, so with the exception of maybe a dozen pieces, she has done all the work. I figured this was a good time to post a photo of how far she has progressed and will post more as the work continues.

The map from the cover of the jigsaw puzzle box
Progress to date (This is from yesterday! There’s been some more progress.)

European Castle in the Sky

Last weekend we decided to explore the city a bit. We started Saturday morning by going to the gym and following that, we ate desayuno (breakfast) at a little café down the street. We both had chilaquiles, which for those of you who don’t know, is basically breakfast nachos. Corn chips with salsa, and then some or all of the following: eggs, cheese, any sort of protein, refried beans, avocado and who knows what else. They are great, filling and the perfect food before our planned death march. Our goal was to walk over to the Bosque de Chapultepec which is a park in the middle of the city.  It is huge, about 1,700 acres and is filled with museums, a zoo, lakes, a botanical garden and many monuments to Mexico’s history. The last time we were here, we visited a very small portion of the Anthropology museum which is fabulous.

Today, our target was the Castillo de Chapultepec, which is the former home of the Spanish viceroys, Emperor Maximillian I, a number of the Presidents of Mexico and is now a history museum. Interestingly, the emperor only ruled for three years before being overthrown and executed.

The castle is at the top of (you guessed it) Chapultepec Hill (really a rock formation) that was sacred to the Aztecs and one of the last places in Mexico City to be conquered. Of course, it’s up on a hill with an excellent vantage point.

I know you’re wondering what’s up with all the Chapultepecs, but you’re in luck because I’m about to tell you. Chapultepec means “at the grasshopper hill” in Náhuatl, a group of languages that includes Aztec and is still spoken by about 1.7 million people, mostly in Central Mexico. Nice that the hill, park and castle get an indigenous name since one of its claims to fame is that it is the only castle in North America to have housed royalty.

It is a beautiful building with gardens on multiple levels, lots of open space and beautiful architecture and furnishings. While we wandered in the upper gardens we found a quartet playing classical music, so we sat and listened for a while.

Just a little classical music to raise the culture level

After a couple of hours in the park, we walked back through the city to our apartment. We always enjoy walking in cities, and Mexico City is one of the more interesting ones. There are lots of interesting buildings to look at, cool little shops and many, many, many street vendors selling everything from tacos to toys.  We always talk about eating that the street vendors, but have not yet found the time to do so. Our path took us across a couple of other parks, which seem to dot the urban landscape, and they were all filled with people enjoying the beautiful weather.

Once we were home, we put our feet up, complained about how much they hurt from walking 10 miles, and then promptly started to plan on where to walk for dinner. Last week we attempted to find a restaurant called Páramo (sorry the link is to Google maps, because the restaurant has a Facebook page, and I don’t know if everyone has an account); however, when we found the address, it was occupied by a restaurant called El Parnita. We were a bit confused but figured, “What the hell?” and ate there. The food was good and we had a very nice meal. However, this weekend we were determined to find the right place. After reviewing the address more carefully, we realized that Páramo was upstairs behind an unmarked black door. This time we had no trouble finding it, and it was well worth it. We waited at the bar for about 20 minutes, and were then seated next to the couple who ad also been seated next to us at the bar. They, too, were Americans (although she is bilingual — I’m jealous!) and we struck up a nice conversation. The food and drinks were great, and we had a really enjoyable evening.

Sunday, we decided to take it easy by riding bicycles to fancy grocery store about 3 miles away. We have signed up for the rental bike program that the city runs (it is called Ecobici) and there is a bike stand just down the street from us. The way it works is that you scan the bike using an app, the bike unlocks, you ride it to your destination and then return it at one of their bike stands. Sue had used them before, but this was my first time, and lo and behold, I managed to screw it up. I scanned the bike, it didn’t seem to unlock, so I tried another one, but kept getting an error. Then someone else came by and took a bike. After a while (and trying another bike stand), I realized that my app was telling me I had a bike. We ran back to the bike stand but it was gone. It seems that the other person somehow got my bike from the stand and went off with it.

I am proud of myself because there was an Ecobici worker there moving bikes and I was able to communicate with him what the problem was and find out the answer, which, unfortunately was that we had to wait for the bike to be returned.

That caused two issues.  First, I couldn’t get another bike so our plans were shot. Second, if the bike wasn’t returned, I was on the hook for it. I would have to report it stolen and fight with Ecobici about it. Using the app, I reported what had happened and waited. In the meantime, we decided to walk to Mercado Medellín, our local open stall market, to do some shopping. Just about the time we finished (and after many nervous checks of the app), whoever had the bike parked it back at a stand, and my app unlocked. Whew! We went home dropped our fresh produce and headed back out to the bikes to try again. I managed not to screw it up this time, and off we went to City Market. We did our non-produce shopping there and grabbed a cab home.

Géisers for Geezers

Saturday we once again started late. This time, our tour started at 2:30pm and we headed to the salt flats about 30 minutes outside of San Pedro. Our first stop was Laguna Cejar, a saltwater pond. The name laguna translates to lagoon, which to me (and Merriam Webster), is “a shallow sound, channel, or pond near or communicating with a larger body of water.” This was a small body of water, not near or connecting to anything else and fed by underground springs. [Late update – I asked my Spanish teacher how you would say small lake (and showed her the picture). She said laguna. So, I am shocked to tell you that google translate, may be wrong!] We arrived at the laguna and changed into our bathing suits, because, like the Dead Sea, you when you get in the water, you float. The temperature was hovering in the low 30s Celsius (about 90˚F) and so the cool water felt wonderful. Sue and I both kept our hats (and sunglasses) on for the dip and we all (us, hats and sunglasses) came out encrusted with salt. The park had showers (no soap or shampoo allowed) so we had a quick rinse and got changed back into our clothes.

After Laguna Cejar, we visited Laguna Tebinquiche, a small, very salty lake with a very unique ecosystem. The hard environmental conditions including high solar irradiation, extreme temperature differences between day and night, high salt, and arsenic content (related to the volcanic activity nearby), make the lagoon a very difficult place to live. Some of the things that live in the lake are closely related to the earliest types of single and multicellular organisms that lived on Earth. Flamingos are often found at the lake feeding on brine shrimp, but when we were there where none. (Our guide said that most of the brine shrimp were gone and the flamingos had moved on in search of nourishment.)

Ignore us and look at the stars. That is the milky way on the top left with the southern cross at the bottom of the milky way

We returned to the hotel at about 7:30, had a quick meal and got ready for our “evening” activities.  The Atacama Desert is very high and the thin air, lack of light pollution and clear skies make it ideal for observing the sky. Overlooking Laguna Tebinquiche is the Atacama Large Millimeter Array observatory.  We did not go there. Instead, we booked a 10pm to midnight star gazing tour that was about 30 minutes outside of town. However, this tour, like so many other things in Chile work on Standard Chilean time. So, our scheduled 9:30 pick up was actually closer to 10:15 and our 10 p.m. start turned out to be just about 11 p.m. The “tour” consisted of three parts. First, a 30-minute introduction to stars, how they form, live and die. René, the “tour guide” described nebulas (nebulae?), various types of stars and some of the things we needed to look for in the night sky. It was quite interesting and tied in nicely to what we were going to see both with naked eyes and with the telescopes.  Next, he pointed out various stars, constellations, and described how the path of the sun is tracked against the arc of the planets across the sky. (He also talked about the difference between navigating in the northern and southern hemispheres and how it was done. PLUS, we got to see the best constellation: Gemini!) To me, this was the most beautiful part of the evening as we able to see the entirety of the sky. It was simply amazing, and I cannot adequately describe (how often do I say this or something like this) how awe inspiring it is. For the third part, they had two telescopes set up and we were able to see nebulae (I am pretty sure it is nebulae, but maybe not, in which case just pretend that I wrote nebulas), a binary star, stars from various constellations and Mars (Yes, I know it is a planet). (The nebula looked like a tarantula – if you used your imagination, which all sky gazing requires.) All in, it was an amazing evening that ended at just about 2 a.m.

Luckily for us, we had decided that we would take it easy on Sunday and hang out at the hotel pool.

Only kidding, if you don’t know us already, we don’t do lounging very well, so when we planned this weekend, we scheduled a morning tour of the El Tatio geysers. The pickup time for the tour was 5:30 a.m. Just about 3 hours after we put our heads down, the F#%$^@$# alarm told us to get our ancient carcasses out of bed and find the nearest coffee. Not our happiest moment. The geysers (which in Spanish is spelled géisers and pronounced geezers, which is an English term for old people), are about 90 minutes directly north of San Pedro on a series of small, mostly (well, at least somewhat) paved roads. They are also at about 4,320 meters (14,170 feet) above sea level. Have we mentioned that Sue gets altitude sickness? I attribute it to the fact that her brain, unlike mine, needs oxygen to function (mine simply bypasses the need to function). She wears a patch that contains scopolamine and it generally works really well. However at this altitude, it seemed be losing the battle even after augmenting it with chewed coca leaves and some coca tea (I think these helped, because I started to feel better afterwards). Like always she was a trooper, even when she turned many different shades of gray. The area is a field of geysers, some of which run continuously like a fountain and others are intermittent. Sorry, but once again, like I seem to say so often, nature is just unbelievable.

After wandering through the geyser fields for an hour or so, we piled back in the van and started the return trip. Along the way we saw various types of waterfowl, vicuña (which are related to guanacos, our favorite from Patagonia) and wild donkeys. We stopped at a small lake and saw lots of flamingos, which are actually animals, not just plastic lawn ornaments for Florida homeowners.  At one point I asked our tour guide about the weather and he mentioned that they were just about to enter the rainy season. The season lasted from the last week of January until mid-February and they might get rain. Wow.

We returned to the hotel just after 1 p.m. had some lunch (I tried cochayuyo, which we mentioned in an earlier blog and it was delicious! It tasted of the sea) and waited for transport back to the airport in Calama (about 75 minutes away), then after a couple of hours wait, our flight back to Santiago and onward to our AirBnB. We arrived home just after 11 p.m., the end of an amazing and wondrous weekend. We were, to put it kindly, just a bit tired. 😉

Before I finish: This is a naked and unabashed plug for Wikipedia. For those of you who regularly read our scrawls, you know that we often link to Wikipedia articles. It is a free, non-profit encyclopedia that is entirely funded by donations. There are no advertisements or paywalls and while it isn’t a research tool (yes, kids in high school and college, I am looking at you), it does have a massive amount of information for those of us who just like to learn stuff. If you can manage, please help them.

One last weekend in Santiago

This was our last weekend in Santiago, while we are here for nearly two more weeks, next weekend we are heading to the Atacama desert, and then we leave the following Saturday for Mexico City.

Friday night we joined two of Sue’s school friends, James and Rania (friends from where she is taking Spanish, not friends from when she taught school in the U.S.) for dinner at a nearby restaurant called Quital. We arrived at 7:30, and were, of course, the first people in the restaurant. The food was typically Chilean, which means, that there is a reasonable menu of fish and meat plus a few things that Sue would eat. Interestingly, both of them are dietitians in London, although they did not know each other there.  We had a very pleasant dinner and wandered out at around 11pm.

Saturday we rode the subway all the out to Los Domingos Park and Pueblito los Domínicos, an artisan market that is at the west end of the subway line that is right at the foot of the Andes. We grabbed our trusty Bip! Cards (so named because that is the sound that they make when you enter the subway) and walked over to the station. The 13-stop ride took about 30 minutes. The market is a former monastery and has about one hundred different shops selling everything from artisan crafts to fancy food. It was fun to walk around, but to be truthful all these places are beginning to look the same. Yes, here they sell Alpaca wool , in Brazil they sold hand-crafted knives, Buenos Aires has local leather goods, but all-in-all, the shopping experience is the same. We are not huge shoppers, so we wandered around for a while then headed to the Costanera Center (a short 6.2km walk – mostly downhill, but in 30˚C temperatures.

The Costanera Center has two attractions. First, at 300 meters, it is the tallest building in Latin America. They have a viewing deck at the top, the 62nd floor, that is glassed in, but open to the sky. As we all remember, heights are not my favorite thing, but I strapped on my big boy boots and we headed up the stairs – only kidding – we got into the elevator. The view is pretty astounding. There are very few buildings higher than 10 floors, and Santiago is surrounded by mountains. I will let the photos do the talking.

The second, very much less interesting, thing in the Costanera Center is a huge American-style mall that houses the nice grocery store that we talked about in our last post. We headed down to the first floor and did our grocery shopping. I know not very interesting, but the practical things need to get done. Loaded down with our groceries, we grabbed a cab and headed home.

On Sunday morning, we walked to the Museum of Memory and Human Rights. The museum commemorates those who disappeared or were killed during the Pinochet dictatorship, which ran from 1973 until 1990. The museum is very well done and we joined an English language tour for most of it. It is terribly depressing to see what people will do to each other in the name of power. I would highly recommend visiting this museum for anyone who is in Santiago.  

We walked back home from the museum and relaxed for the rest of the afternoon. I watched the American Football playoffs via a streaming service and Sue read a book that she has been slogging through for days. (Not really slogging, it’s just a long book — Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen — with only two formal chapters and that bugs me because I don’t like to stop between chapters.)

We had an early dinner with Ann, a woman from Spokane, Wash., who is at school with Sue and Ann’s husband, Kenn. We met at Le Bistrot Viet, a Vietnamese restaurant that Sue and I visited on our first night in Santiago. We sat down around 6 p.m., and didn’t move until after 10 p.m.. They are also digital nomads and we compared notes on places we have visited, plans for the next year and tips and tricks that we found. They are headed to Buenos Aires next and we are hoping to see them again when they pass through Mexico in late April.

I keep meaning to write a few things about Santiago that struck me.

First, the volume of graffiti is just staggering. It seems like all cities have their share of graffiti, but the amount and pervasiveness of it in Santiago is surprising. (While walking home the other day, Ann and I saw a man tagging just a few blocks from a demonstration that included police wearing riot gear.) It is everywhere, mostly tagging, rather than street art and there doesn’t seem to be any effort to remove it. It reminds me of New York in the early 1980s.

The second thing is how quiet the streets are. Most of the cities we have visited the streets are busy with people walking, but Santiago feels like a ghost town. We thought it might be because we arrived around the Christmas holiday, but it really hasn’t changed in all the time we have been here.

Third, nothing opens early. When we walk to Sue’s school in the morning at 9:30, almost nothing is open. There isn’t even any activity in most of the storefronts. Nothing seems to really get moving until the afternoon.

Fourth, many restaurants have a short dinner window. People don’t seem to arrive until between 8 and 9 p.m., but then many of the restaurants are closing up around 11.  At dinner last night we were virtually the first people to arrive and the last to leave. They do generally serve three meals: lunch, once (which means 11, and so is served at tea time) and dinner, so perhaps dinner is not the most popular meal to eat out.

Finally, small stores seem to open and close randomly. There is a little corner store next to our building that was open for a few days, then closed for a while and now it is open again. When we walk around, we see stores open one day, closed the next, I suspect there is some pattern, but we don’t seem to be able to figure it out.

It is an odd city.

Patagonia – part 2

On Sunday, we did a full day tour to La Leona Petrified Forest. It is about an hour and a half outside of El Calafate. Our driver and guide, Leon, picked us up at the hotel and drove us north through the scrub desert.  We stopped at roadside hotel/bar/restaurant/gift shop, and picked up another couple for the tour. The landscape is very similar to the desert in Arizona but without cacti, just low scrub plants and grasses.

We reached the petrified forest, which is much less of a forest and much more of a huge rock formation with eroded sandstone and basalt. It is very stark, beautiful, and extremely windy. We hiked along the ridges of several the rock outcrops and slowly headed down in the lower portion of the valley. Along the way, Leon explained the rock formations, how the different layers were formed, and how they are eroding at different speeds based on the type of rock that they are. We found dinosaur bones where you could clearly still see the marrow and he explained that one way to test if a rock is a dinosaur bone is to lick your finger and if the rock (only small ones obviously) stuck to your finger, it was likely to be a dinosaur bone. We also saw many petrified trees, some of which looked like they were just bleached wood. It is always incredible to see how well the organic material has been preserved by the minerals, the tree’s rings and features are clearly visible. As we circled down into the valley, I did notice that our van was significantly higher than we were, which gave me some minor cause for concern. Anyway, we hiked around the valley finding lots of petrified trees, interesting geological features and a few dinosaur fossils.  

As many of you know, I am terrified of heights. It is quite frustrating for me. The logic and reason portion of my brain knows that I am not in any real danger, that I have great balance and never stumble or fall when walking, and just because I am near an edge, should not in any way make it more likely I will fall. However, the old reptilian, flee or flight section of my brain cannot grasp these details and just keeps shouting into my head NO! DON’T DO THAT! MOVE AWAY, DON’T GO THERE. Oddly, I have terrible balance, but no fear of heights or the edge of cliffs. Hmmmm, maybe I need more reptilian brain. I work hard to keep my mind quiet and sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Our hike out of the canyon was one of the times that I could keep my mind mostly quiet. We zigzagged across one of the walls (which to be truthful was not a sheer drop, but it was a pretty steep drop) and up to the van, rising perhaps 300 meters. Neither Sue nor Robin were the least bit bothered by the climb, I on the other hand, needed a few minutes to collect myself after we reached the top.  

We packed ourselves back into the van and Leon drove us back to El Calafate in time for dinner. Robin craved meat for dinner so she headed off to a parrilla (steak house) while Sue and I headed back to Pura Vida for another home-style dinner. We ordered a bottle of wine called Fabula, which sounded like fabulous to me, but actually means fable. Despite the disappointing name, the wine was great.

Monday morning, we checked out of Hotel Posada los Alamos in El Calafate and headed for Torres del Paine in Chile. It was about a five-hour drive, once again across the scrub desert.  After about three and a half hours we turned off the road and down gravel road, and at this point, I thought to myself, sheesh, we are in a van with a driver we don’t know, we have no cell phone coverage, on a dirt road and have no idea where we are going. Sometimes I wonder about our decision making. However, it turns out that down the dirt road leads to the border crossing into Chile. We waited in a tiny shack for about 10 minutes for the Argentine immigration guard to do something with our passports and then finally hand them back to us and we were able to exit Argentina. We drove about a half a mile down the road, there was a sign that said “Bienvenido a la Republica de Chile” and the road was paved. We went another half a mile and reached immigration and customs for Chile. Once again, we entered a tiny shack where a young woman reviewed our passports and gave us some sort of paper. It appears that she has ample free time as there was a hair straightener plugged in next to her computer. We walked to the next little building which housed the police and customs. The police reviewed our passports and the piece of paper that the passport woman gave us and then stamped our passports. At customs, we put our luggage through a scanner, but the customs official didn’t seem to look at the scans. Once we finished crossing the border, our driver put our luggage back in the van and drove us about 50 feet to the next little building and put our luggage into a van run by our hotel which took us the rest of the way.

A few scenes from the drive

We are staying at the Hotel Las Torres, which is inside the national park, but still private land. They offer an all inclusive package that includes all food and excursions. The location in unbelievable and it is a perfect place for a respite from the outside world. We have no cellphone coverage and only have single digit speed internet in the hotel itself. Once we checked in, we talked to the excursions team and booked some hikes.

The hike starts on the right at the green/black circle and moves left to the blue lake. The distance/altitude chart moves left to right.

Sue and I decided that on our first full day, we would do one of the most famous hikes, called Mirador Torres del Paine, on our own. It is a 17km hike with about a 1,000 meter vertical climb. We woke up, grabbed some breakfast and hit the trail by 8:30 a.m. The hike is broken into three sections. Section 1 is from the hotel to the Chilean refuge (green circle with a white triangle on the right). It is 4 km up through the scrub desert and across the face of the mountain gaining about 400 meters, not particularly difficult, but there were sections with a 20%+ grade.

At about the 2.5 km mark, the course turned and there was a 300-400 meter stretch of very exposed, relatively sheer cliff. It is called Windy Pass, because typically the wind is blowing right through making it extra scary. We were lucky and had a calm day. Also, Steven is very brave. The path was easily two-people wide and while I was very uncomfortable, we made it through. The rest of the way to the 4 km mark was reasonably steep downhill to a refuge and we arrived there after a couple of hours. At the refuge, there is camping, bathrooms, a small store and picnic tables to sit and relax.

We rested for a little while then headed to section 2, the forest section. It is about 3.5 km, and as the name says, it is through a forest. It is a fairly easy walk, gaining only about 200 meters over the course of the entire section and it took us another hour or so. Section 3 is the tough part (starts at the green circle with a white triangle on the left). It is only 1.5 km long, but gains about 400 meters, with sections that are 40% grade and you are literally climbing over boulders. I hate boulders! The last 250 meters are once again across the face of the mountain, with a fairly steep falloff. This was one of those times that my inner voice could not be quieted. Yes, I know no one ever falls, that hundreds of people cross that rock field every day, that I should be more frightened crossing the road, but no matter what I was telling myself, I could go no further. I told Sue to carry on and I found a nice protected place and waited for her to return. I think she double timed it to the end of the trail, took a couple of pictures and double timed back to me. I am so grateful that she knows how to motivate me, when I need it, but also how to read the terror in my eyes and realize that I can go no further.

Once Sue had returned, we headed down. Now, my usual thinking is that down is always easy, but boy that last section was the hardest easy I have ever had. Climbing down rocks is nearly as hard as climbing up and I was especially glad we had our hiking poles.  Once we hit the start of the forest section, we stopped and ate our lunch as it was just about 3 pm.  The forest was relatively easy, although both of our quads had started to tell us that they were unhappy, we still had quite a long way to go and bunch of height to gain and lose. But mostly it was just a matter of putting one foot in front of the other to get to the Chilean refuge.

We arrived at the Chilean refuge at 4 p.m. and decided to rest for a few minutes. The remainder of the hike would be a climb of about 75 meters over a 300 meter stretch, along the exposed rock face, then about 3.5 km of relatively slow downward slope all the way to the hotel. We trudged up first 300 meters, reminding ourselves that we did this for fun. Once we reached the top, we turned the corner and were on the final downward stretch to the hotel. We arrived back at the hotel by 5:30 p.m. and collapsed into our room for a little while. We showered, headed to bar, had a drink, some dinner and were both asleep by 9 p.m.. It was a very long hard, but rewarding day. Even if I didn’t reach the end of the trail.

For our second day, Sue and I decided to do a half day excursion with a guide. Robin headed off on a full day excursion to another part of the park to see a glacier. Sue and I, along with about half a dozen other people, hopped into one of the hotel’s vans and headed for a hike that they describe as “Patagonia flat.” The walk is across the Patagonian steppes and features lots of guanaco, some cave paintings, and the possibility of seeing a puma. The drive to the trailhead took about 40 minutes and since it was drizzling, we all pulled on our rain gear. “Patagonia lat” means rolling hills, lots of 30-40 meter ups and downs and one big climb upward to reach the cave paintings. The “caves” are actually covered rock overhangs and compared to the cave paintings in France, they are quite limited. We rested there for a little while, then hiked back down off the rock outcrop and across the steppes. We saw lots of guanaco, learned lots about the plants and wildlife of the area, and happily, at least in my mind, did not see a puma. The whole hike took about 2 hours, it was a perfect amount of effort for us following the very strenuous prior day.

One more day here, then we are off to Punta Arenas.

On to Patagonia

Our last week in Buenos Aires was a bit of a whirlwind. My cousin Robin, an experienced traveler on her own, joined us on Monday. We spent the rest of the week working and visiting the last few places on our must see/eat list. On Thursday night we had a goodbye dinner with our friends Marco ndt Barbara at their place where they provided a wonderful feast, and we said a bit of a tearful goodbye.

Saturday morning we headed to the airport four hours early for our flight to El Calafate, having learned from our trip to Porto Alegre that the line to check in would be enormous. We were not disappointed, but what we did not count on was that Robin is a Delta Skymiles bigshot and her status with Delta allowed us to skip all the lines and check in quickly and easily. We zipped through the security screening and were in the boarding lounge in under 30 minutes. Since we had three hours to kill, we hunkered down and had coffee and breakfast. Good thing because the woman who was cleaning our apartment WhatsApped me a photo of the clothes Steven left hanging in the closet. Steven had time to taxi back, get his shirts, and still have time to finish his coffee at the airport. Usually we are good about checking every spot for left items, but somehow wit slipped our minds.) Our flight was on time (as it seems all Aerolineas flights are – even if they only allow 10 minutes to board) and relatively quiet. Not unexpectedly, we hit some turbulence over the mountains, but nothing to write home about – although, since my mother reads this, I guess I just have.

El Calafate is desert. Sue likened it to Arizona, but it is much colder and you can easily see the Andes mountains with snow on them. We checked into our hotels and then took the opportunity to meet at the Patagonia brewing company to watch the Argentina vs. Australia match. The USA lost while we flying, so I guess I was spared the disappointment of watching the games. Oh well, and good luck to Tyler Adams – the U.S. Men’s national team champion who went to the same high school as I did, and now plays for Leeds United in the English Premier league. Anyway, we watched as Argentina made easy work of Australia and all the Argentines (and us non-Argentines) enjoyed the game and the result. Afterwards, the main street was flooded with cars driving around honking their horns and there were several impromptu parades down the street.  

We had dinner at a place called Pura Vida. I would call the style Argentine home cooking. Sue had pumpkin soup and lentil stew. Which she said was the first true vegetarian food she has had in a restaurant since we arrived. It was muy rico! Robin had lamb stew and I had a chicken pie. All were very delicious and quite large.

Sunday morning we woke up, put on our cold weather gear (multiple layers, winter coats, hats and gloves and we headed to the Perito Moreno Glacier. Iguazu Falls which we visited a few weeks ago, demonstrated nature’s raw unbridled and immediate power. The Perito Moreno showed us nature’s glory in a whole different way. It stands about 30 kilometers (18 miles) long and about 80 meters (250 feet) tall at the face. The ice on the face is mostly white with an eerie blue that looks like back lighting. As you would expect from an ice formation, the temperature hovered in the low single digits centigrade. Our bus dropped us off that the visitor’s center on the south side of the glacier. The park has about four miles of walkways and steps (many many steps) that went from about 100 feet higher than the glacier (where the visitor center was) to the waterline. Sue, Robin and I walked all of them in our allotted 2.5 hours. Words simply cannot describe the amazing beauty of it, hopefully some of our (read Sue’s) amateur pictures will.

After a quick pack lunch we hit the bus again for a quick drive over to what the sign called “Safari Nautical.” It is a boat ride that takes people right up to the face of the glacier. We were quickly and efficiently loaded onto the boat and we headed up the lake to get a whole new perspective on the glacier. Once again it was glorious. The boat takes you close enough to almost reach out and grab the glacier.

Please try and remember that the face of the glacier is 80 meters tall.

We headed back onto the bus, and back to the hotel, quite exhausted, but with views like this out of the bus.

A traditional Thanksgiving?

Yesterday was Thanksgiving in the U.S., so my work was closed. Sue and I decided that since we had been back in Buenos Aires for three whole days, it was important for us to leave again – no more accurately, we decided that since we had a free day, we would head to Uruguay. There is a little town called Colonia del Sacramento just across the river Uruguay from Buenos Aries and there are ferries that run back and forth every hour or so. Sue got us tickets for a 10:30 a.m. outward bound ferry and an 18:00 (6 p.m.) ferry back.

As many of you might remember, Sue gets terribly seasick, just looking at the water. She has scopolamine patches that really help her but have the side effect of making her terribly thirsty. She put on her patch the night before and in the morning we headed for the ferry. We sat out in the sunshine at the back of the boat and enjoyed the breeze and the rays. It has turned quite warm here and ride to Colonia took an hour and a half, and was very enjoyable.

We disembarked and walked around the town. We were expecting a cute little tourist town, with colorful buildings and a nice little central square. It was quite disappointing. First, the town is fairly run down, I guess the pandemic has taken its toll. Second, many of the places were closed, we suspect because Uruguay was playing in the world cup that morning. We made of the best of what was there, wandering through the town and walking along the river. Sometime around 2 o’clock we sat down and had lunch on the terrace of a little restaurant that overlooked the river.

After lunch we wandered some more, but by 4 p.m. we were done, and headed back to the ferry terminal to await our return trip. Once again we sat outside in the back of the ferry and enjoyed the breeze and sunshine. We both agreed that the best part of the trip was the boat ride. We cleared immigration in Argentina for the fourth and final time during this trip and headed back the AirBnB.

We had a quick change and headed out for dinner. We were meeting Marco at 9 p.m. at La Cabrera, one of Buenos Aires’ best steak restaurants. I believe the total count of vegetarian entrées on the menu was two. One was pasta, the other was grilled vegetables – and that may have been a side dish, not a real entrée. Not surprisingly, Marco and I each had a huge hunk of meat, while Sue had grilled vegetables. The food, wine and desserts were all great and finished up the meal right about on schedule – three hours after we sat down.

Today, we took a bit of time and made reservations for a weekend trip to the Atacama desert in Chile. It looks amazing and is the driest non-polar desert in the world. We will write more about that once it gets closer.

This coming weekend is our last in Buenos Aries before we head to Patagonia so we are going to pack a lot in.

Happy Thanksgiving to all our friends in the U.S.

Family, Friends, Food and Football

This weekend was all about family. When I was in college, my parents hosted an exchange student from Porto Alegre, Brazil, named Vitor. Our families have been close ever since and we think of Vitor and his family as our family. My mother decided that for her 85th birthday she wanted to visit Vitor and his family. Sue and I had already planned to be in Buenos Aires and so we quickly agreed to hop a flight and join her and her traveling partner, my sister, Judie. 

Tonight’s cast of characters:

  • My mother: Turned 85 on Saturday and is still walking 3 miles a day
  • Judie: My much younger sister (she and Sue are the same age – currently 39 and holding) Judie is MUCH older than I am. She was born in April; I, in June.
  • Vitor: Our brother from another mother and chief host of the insanity that is to follow
  • Alexia: Vitor’s fabulous wife who is smarter, better looking and in every way better than Vitor
  • Alice: Alexia aad Vitor’s daughter; she has recently passed the Brazilian equivalent of the bar and is beyond wonderful. She speaks fluent English and is happy to help everyone with everything.
  • Lucas: Alexia and Vitor’s son; He always has a smile and is just starting at college. As a teenage boy, he has an appetite that doesn’t end.
  • Bruno: Alice’s boyfriend who is also a lawyer, speaks immaculate English but has two strikes against him in my book because 1) he drinks Budweiser and 2) is a fan of the Dallas Cowboys.

…and now back to our story…

Mom and Judie arrived on Thursday morning. For reasons we cannot recall, Sue and I decided to book our flight on Friday at 5:30 AM (IN THE MORNING). We figured that we would get to the airport at about 4, as we didn’t expect that it would be crowded. Boy were we wrong! Luckily Aerolineas Argentina has a “great” system. Everyone waits on huge lines until your flight is about to depart and they call up your flight and you bypass the line. At about 4:45 they called our flight; we bypassed the rest of our our line, checked in and were on our way. Boarding started at 5:10 and amazingly we left on time for the 90-minute trip to Brazil.

4 a.m. at Aeroparque Jorge Newbery, a smaller Buenos Aires airport. Boy, do I look sleepy!

Vitor picked us up at the airport, whisked us to our AirBnB and then to his place. We met up with everyone and then piled into two cars for a trip to a winery called Casa Valduga, about 90 minutes away. We arrived at lunchtime and headed for their restaurant. The food is served continuously, by which I mean the waiters carry trays of food from table to table and you can take or not as you choose. I was not aware of this when the service started, so by the time we reached the seventh or eight dish, all of it either meat or pasta, I was struggling. The food was fabulous, and I was very full. Luckily, after lunch, we headed to a winery named Casa Miolo for a tour and some tasting. It was nice to walk around and stretch our legs. The tour was in Portuguese, but come on, it is a winery, so we all know what they do and how they do it. After the tour and tasting were done, we headed back to Vitor and Alexia’s house and relaxed for the evening.

Saturday was my mother’s birthday party, so preparations needed to be made. Vitor ran here there and everywhere getting meat, meat and more meat. Alexia made salads, vegetables, tabouleh and potato salad. The rest of the cast tried to help or just stay out of the way. The party was held in a party room at Bruno’s parents’ apartment building. Many of Vitor’s family and friends showed up and quite a few spoke enough English to have conversations, which is really great because my Portuguese is even worse than my Spanish, which is nearly non-existent. The “boys” (Vitor, Bruno, and Bruno’s dad and brother) fired up the indoor BBQ (what a great invention!)  and promptly roasted approximately one full herd of cattle.  The challenge tonight was to try each different cut of beef without bursting – it was a tough challenge, but I rose to the occasion. Sue was of no help whatsoever as she is a vegetarian. The party lasted until after midnight and everyone was exhausted by the time we got back. I would like to take a quick moment to say how welcoming everyone was. Many had never met us nor my mother, but that didn’t seem to make a bit of difference to them. In their minds, we are friends of Vitor and Alexia and therefore we are friends of theirs. It is so nice to make new friends.

Luckily for us, Vitor planned a quiet day of football on Sunday. In the morning, we watched American football on TV (there was a game being played in Germany, so it was on early in the day). We had a “light” meal of about 30 pounds of pasta and Alice’s wonderful homemade sauce. Then we hopped into the cars and headed for the nearest 50,000-person stadium to see the last game of the season of SC Inter. We sat in some box seats behind the goal and what we in the U.S. would call the bleacher bums. The area by the goals is all standing room only and the crowd sings and chants the entire game. Inter scored their first goal after 11 minutes and then piled on, winning 3-0. I hope the videos give you some idea of the electricity in the stadium.

Goal #3
The bleacher bums sing and chant the entire game

After the match we retired back to Vitor’s and watched more American football and had beer, wings and pizza – because we hadn’t eaten enough the previous few hours/days. Somewhere around midnight, we called it a weekend.

For those of you trying to keep track of where are/will be here is our schedule for the next few months:

11/15 – 11/21 (or 15/11 – 21/11 depending on how you read dates) – Porto Alegre Brazil

11/21-12/3 (21/11 – 3/12) – Buenos Aires

12/3 – 12/17 (3/12-17/12) – various stops in Patagonia

12/17 – 1/26/23 (17/12 – 1/26/23) Santiago Chile.

Iguazu Falls – the video

The enormity of Iguazu Falls is mind boggling and our “expedition” was broken into four parts, the lower trail, the boat ride, the upper trail and the Brazilian side. I have attempted to capture a taste of what it was like on video. I was using my GoPro, which I had not picked up in about 4 years, so to say my camera skills are rusty would be assume I had any skills at all.  Add to that my editing skills are significantly worse than my camera skills, so please don’t expect too much, but enjoy.

A map of the Argentine side for reference. The yellow is the lower trail; the orange is the upper trail; the blue is the boat ride; the red, which the Devil’s Throat bridge, was washed away by the flood.

The lower trail

The boat ride

The upper trail

The Brazilian side

Un nuevo continente, país y ciudad

Today we arrived in Buenos Aires. It is the first time either of us has been to South America and the first day of about seven months away.

We flew from Miami on Saturday night – our flight left at 11:15 p.m. and arrived in Buenos Aires at 9 a.m. The flight was really easy, in part because American Airlines offered a last-minute cheap upgrade to business class. We have never flown business class before, and for an overnight flight, the lay flat seats were really useful. We both slept quite a bit and arrived reasonably rested. I decided I love business class, but Steven told me not to get used to it. Spoil sport.

A colleague of a former colleague of mine is a native of Buenos Aires and was kind enough to pick us up from the airport and take us to our apartment.  He and his wife found us as we wandered into the international terminal lobby and whisked us to our new digs. They both speak excellent English and one of us (the other one) speaks passable Spanish. It never ceases to amaze me how kind strangers are. This is a young couple with whom we have only a passing connection, but they went of their way to pick us up at the airport, sent us a ton of material on what to do in the city and would not leave until we were safely in the apartment. Our new friends are Marco and Barbara.

We quickly unpacked our stuff, checked the internet speed (100mb!), had a little nap to recharge our batteries and then headed out to get the lay of the land. Martin, the manager from the apartment agency gave us some ideas about where to find things and we headed out to find a grocery store. We wandered a few blocks, found a few small stores, picked up some staples for dinner and, more importantly, coffee for the morning. It was surprisingly difficult to find coffee here as everyone here drink a type of tea called Yerba Mate. We haven’t tried it yet, but when we do, we will include a review. I am pretty sure I had some bad American version of it and did not like it, but I am game to try again.

One of the interesting (at least for me, being a money guy) is that there are two exchange rates for the Argentine peso. The official rate is about 150 Argentine pesos to 1 U.S. dollar. The unofficial, or blue, rate is roughly double that and it is so common that the rates are published in the newspaper. The way it works is that if you are accessing the banking system either through an ATM or through a credit card you receive the official rate. If you have U.S. dollars you can exchange them at a cambio (imagine the currency exchanges you see at an international airport) or on the street for the blue rate. If we exchange our dollars for pesos at the blue rate, the prices fall by half for us. Western Union will send dollars at the blue rate and so on Monday we are going to try that and see how it works. I will update this later and let you know how it goes.

Later in the afternoon, we headed out for a walk. There are a series of large parks in our neighborhood, so we took a walk around them. To give you some idea of distance on the map, from our place to the Museo Nacional de Belles Artes is about one kilometer. We walked all around the parks and in the park across from the Cementerio de la Recoleta (where Eva Peron is buried, but we have saved Dead Person Bingo for another day) there was a large arts and crafts fair that we walked through, but of course did not buy anything.

Monday is also a national holiday in Argentina. It is the Day of Respect for Cultural Diversity. The link is to a Wikipedia article which is in Spanish, but given my brilliant understanding of español (and chrome’s auto translate feature), I have found that that it commemorates when people from Western Europe first arrived on the continent. I got all excited about the respect for cultural diversity thing until I realized they just meant white Europeans. Oh well.

Monday

So here is the update on using Western Union….I transferred $300 and received 91,080 Argentine pesos. The Western Union office is quite conveniently inside a Carrefour grocery store. Carrefour is a large French-based grocery chain, and we often shopped in them when we were in France and Italy. We even found one in Morocco when we were there in 2017, but that was before we were blogging. The process is very easy. Western Union gave me a code number when I sent the funds. I presented that and my passport to the agent, confirmed my phone number and gave him my address in Buenos Aires and he handed me the pesos.  

On confusing thing is that the symbol for the peso is the same as the one for the dollar, so when we look at prices, we naturally think of dollars, but the price is actually 1/300 of that price. Since we were there, we also did some shopping at the Carrefour and bought some wine that was $1,092 – in my head – in reality US$3.64. It was one of the most expensive wines on the shelf…and it was US$3. Our wine from last night was about 400 pesos, about US$1.30. Overall, the prices in the grocery store seemed reasonable at the official exchange rate, but at the blue rate, it was all very inexpensive.