Monday, January 28, 2008

Chile: Navimag Across The Open Seas

Atencion Pasajeros! Retiring our hiking boots for awhile, we boarded the Navimag to ferry our way northward from Puerto Natales to Puerto Montt. Unbelievably, this is one of the most efficient ways to travel this stretch of Chile, as the land is a broken (and beautiful) mass of fjords, islands, and snowcapped peaks. Eric was a tad nervous, as just looking at pictures of boats often makes him queasy, but we stocked up on anti-nausea medicine and hit the decks for adventure. Eric nervously took his first sealegs pill within moments of boarding, claiming the boat was moving, despite the fact that we weren´t scheduled to depart until the next morning. Reports indicate, however, that he did not respond well to teasing on this issue. But happily, for the most part it was smooth sailing past glaciers and undeveloped mountain scenery. We glided past sea otters, dolphins, and even blue whales spouting in the far distance.

With bunk beds, a shared bathroom for 22 of us per dorm cabin, and a dining room that was the spitting image of a junior high cafeteria, it wasn´t exactly the Love Boat. Not that we expected it to be, since it´s mainly a cargo boat that now caters to the backpacking set. Evidently in the winter, the cow to human ratio is stacked firmly in the bovine´s favor. But when the sun was shining on the deck, it felt like a decadent cruise. We ran into a charming Dutch couple that we´d met in Torres del Paine, and we spent much of our time drinking wine and swapping tall tales with them, amidst the constant multi-lingual announcements letting you know everything from when to eat, when to take pictures, when to take seasickness pills, and when to use the bathroom (practically). Sometimes these announcements came on at full volume at 6:30am, followed by a lengthy interlude of new age underwater music, which made us grumpy.

Seeing the Amial Glacier was a highlight, and the crew sent a zodiac boat out into the water to collect ice for the bar. Classy. We easily became accustomed to lazy days with nothing to do but re-enact scenes from Titanic (without the sinking part), read, nap, and drink wine until the stars came out. Lovely. At times the boat felt like a floating bar full of adventurers with stories to tell. One of our favorites was the surfer blonde Canadian who wore a white linen suit to dinner (in the cafeteria) and a shark tooth around his neck and told exaggerated tales of his time in Borneo. His traveling partner was a long-haired German sporting a lumberjack shirt with the sleeves torn off that he met in the airport. They were a reality TV show waiting to happen. As they say on the Navimag (several times a day), for your attention, thank you very much.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Chile: Puerto Natales Puppy Gang

Okay, this one´s for the softies out there. But Puerto Natales runs amuck with stray dogs. This is heartbreaking, of course, and a real problem all over Chile where puppies are loved, but then often left to fend for themselves when they get older. Spaying and neutering is the exception rather than the rule. It´s rather crazy to see these large packs of dogs roaming all over, but they never seem aggressive or dangerous. Rather they sort of seem like lads out on the town, looking for leftovers or recruiting new members. And oddly, they almost always seem to run with other dogs their own size. There´s the group of shaggy mid-sized dogs. The larger group of bigger dogs. And, on our hostel street, there was a gang of puppies. They would waddle up the street en masse and then scramble through this hole in a fence. There were usually five or six all together, but some were camera shy. Anyone want us to mail one home to them?

Chile: Torres del Paine National Park

Kathleen has dreamed of visiting Chile´s Torres del Paine for over a decade, so expectations were big. Happily, the mountains were even bigger, and we enjoyed nine glorious days of backcountry bliss. After crossing the Chilean border, we had less than 24 hours in Puerto Natales to do laundry, rent a tent and stove, buy our food, call home, reserve our ferry and send a few postcards. Thankfully, we managed all this AND even had time for a late-night pisco sour. Sleep would come later.

Packs on, we set off to see as much of the park as we could. Curiosity got the best of us, and we decided to tackle the revered Paine Circuit and the ¨W,¨ a fast-track to the park´s greatest hits. Since we can´t imagine that anyone would want to read a blow-by-blow of our trip (oatmeal breakfasts, peanut butter and crackers, hike, cheese-n-crackers, hike, pasta, sleep, do over), we´re instead including a few highlights. We hiked a lot of miles, but we always left time to stop and smell the flowers.

People: We met people from all over the world, which was much of the fun. And they had all manner of gear and experience. Often with literally everything on their back and feet rented. We met one crazy Brit who was doing 13 hour days with rented boots. On day one he already had blisters that would make a mountaineer cry. And he had failed to pack a lighter for his stove or a water bottle. But he was only 20, and youth seemed to be on his side. Plus, we can´t make too much fun, because we later learned that we had gained our own reputation at the first campground when our tent was literally being blown onto our faces with the gale-force winds. That´s what we get for being the last ones up, giving everyone time to witness our poor staking job. Throughout the week, people would mention having seen our tent (and offered to help us stake it). Doh!

Vino Caliente: While we certainly don´t advocate having a lot of man-made structures in the backcountry, who are we to argue when they sell boxes of cheap, red wine? Luckily, thanks to our friend Lu´s brilliant advice, we had prepared for this by buying cinammon sticks and dried orange slices and ginger and brown sugar in Puerto Natales. So each night we were able to stave off the cold (and the sore muscles) by brewing up a pot of mulled wine. Highly recommended. Especially when accompanied with Toblerone dark chocolate. Not that we would have ever been that indulgent. Oh no.

Walking sticks: We are completely won over. Admittedly we at first thought these were kinda dorky. But then some of our favorite and coolest hiking partners, like AC and Malsy, started swearing by them. And since our knees were aching and cracking, we decided to give it a go. We will never ever turn back. We encourage all of you to go out and buy some trekking poles. Eric even uses them walking on concrete to the grocery store these days.

Natural beauty: The sea of ice that was Glacier Grey. The stark moraine of John Garner Pass. The silent soaring of two Andean condors. The insane turquoise of Largo Pehoe (which inspired Eric to leap up and down after a particularly tiring day). We were undeniably lucky with the weather (only had to put on raingear once!). Especially on the day we rose at dawn to watch day break over the park´s namesake towers. We now feel justified in buying all those postcards with the glowing red torres---it really looks like that!

We came back to Puerto Natales with bulging calves, stinky socks, and a camera full of pics. Now, we´re off to sit on a ferry for four days, where we don´t have to walk any further than the poop deck. Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh........

Monday, January 14, 2008

Argentina: Los Glaciares National Park

Leaving Tierra del Fuego we set our sights on glaciers of every size, type, and form. First stop, after a series of endless, but amazingly well-synched, buses was El Chalten. A quirky mountain town slapped together at the foot of the northern portion of Los Glaciares Parque Nacional, El Chalten charmed us with its dirt roads and ambitious sidewalks. It´s obvious that change is coming quickly to this outdoorsy Mecca under the shadow of Fitz Roy Mountain. We´re just glad we got there before it got too slick, but after a welcoming brewpub had set up shop. It boasts rugged beauty that inspires local bus drivers to stop for sunset pictures when the weather is clear. We spent two days hoofing it past milky glacial rivers to gaze in awe at the beauty of Fitz Roy mountain and its glacier. Truly spectacular. We stayed in a tin-roof hostel of plyboard and loose screws that howled with the wind, but it was blessedly warm, which could not be said of the night air. After each day´s hike, we had no choice but to hole up in our room with wine and cheese to stay warm. No choice.

We next made a break for El Calafate, and the Perito Moreno Glacier in the southern end of the park. With a rainbow arching over it, it was just as gorgeous as all the postcards promised. The best part is listening to it creak and groan and shudder, while everyone eagerly waits to see a big iceberg calve off. It´s like watching history in the making. We signed up for the ridiculously titled glacier-trek called BIG ICE, which can only be said in a deep voice while flexing your muscles. But it truly was incredible. Strapping on crampons, we ventured off into the middle of the Perito Moreno glacier to explore the otherwordly lakes, rivers and sinkholes. Everything is this surreal mouthwash blue color that makes it look like we doctored our photos. Best yet, at the trip end they poured whiskey over glacier ice to toast the fact that we didn´t lose anyone in a crevasse. Cheers!

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Haircuts Around The World: The End Of The World

What better place for my next haircut than the southernmost city in the world. After walking the streets for a while, I settled on Osvaldo Coiffeur Peluqueria Unisex, a promising contrast to the men only places I had been to so far. (Notice the big ships in the background of the first picture...they are heading to Antarctica). This place had a pink wall on one side and a light green one on the other. There were young women getting their hair done and older gentlemen triming up what they had left on top. This place even had two helpers sweeping up the floor and preparing mate for the barbers (see the picture below).

My cape had a definite Christmas pattern (red, white and green), and the barber looked perfect for the job. His shirt was only buttoned half way up and he was drinking mate throughout - handed to him by the beautiful blonde helper lady. ¨We¨ never had those before. He was efficient with the clippers, forgoing the #1 clipper for a cleaner and shorter cut on top (I am still working on my Spanish). No straight edge razer blades were used (losing points), but he did clean up the beard nicely (Kathleen likes it). I went for a different atmosphere with this one and it lived up to expectations. But the beard never received the special attention it deserved and no head massage (like in Uganda).
Overall, I would give it a 6 out of 10.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Argentina: Camping in Tierra del Fuego

With New Year`s resolutions threatening less red wine and more veggies, it seemed like the perfect time to pack up the tent and hit the great outdoors. We initially set our sights on Isla Navarino, lured by superlatives like ¨the southernmost trek in the world,¨ but ridiculous ferry prices and rumours of chest-high snow and difficult route finding led us to Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego instead. Argentina`s first coastal national park, much of the 63,000 hectares are off limits to humans, but there are a few stretches that invite exploration. Magellan dubbed the area ¨land of fire¨ in the 1500´s when he sailed through the Beagle Channel. The name does not refer to the warmth of the area (au contraire!), but to the smoke he saw rising from local people`s fires.

Our initial idea was to rent all of our gear, but a little comparitive math made us realize we`d be better off buying a few things since we plan on camping a fair amount in the coming weeks. Unfortunately Ushuaia is better suited to buying a stuffed penguin and some Gucci sunglasses than a tent, but we managed to procure some comfy sleeping bags and pads. And then we got creative. Who needs gaitors when you have garbage bags? We bought a cheap cooking pot, plastic salad tongs (that served as our stirrers and utensils) and a whole lot of instant polenta at the local grocery store, and made our way into the backcountry for five glorious days. Admittedly, we weren`t the lighest packers, as even hardcover novels made the cut (thanks, Patrick!).

Armed with an outdated guidebook and a small map, we took a taxi to the Valle Andorra to begin our quest. And we were lost within fifteen minutes of leaving the car. The book indicated that we had to wade across the river to acess the trail, which was a daunting prospect when there were ice cubes floating downstream. We scoured the river to find the shortest distance and ended up crossing right into a soggy peat bog. With each step, our shoes filled with water as the spongy earth released its muddy goo. Determined not to cross the river again to start over, we spent an hour jumping from tree banch to larger peat mounds trying to find the trail. On the upside, it was beautiful and wierd and otherwordly, as the spongy earth breathed and gurgled as we stood on it. Of course on our way back, we discovered there was a beautiful handmade bridge just out of sight from where we crossed. Doh!

Back on track, we huffed our way up to Laguna Encantada (enchanted lake), a watery jewel ringed by snowcapped mountains, where we hunkered away from the wind and enjoyed amazing Thai tuna curry from Trader Joe`s (a perfect Christmas gift from Eric`s sister and brother-in-law). The lake, while truly enchanting, is also the result of one of Tierra del Fuego`s biggest nuisances, the non-native Canadian beaver that is busily making itself at home without predators. Originally 50 beavers were purchased by the Argentine Government as part of a commercial fur trading endeavor in the 1940`s. The project failed, and the beavers were released into the wild. The eager beavers, now estimated at 50,000 and climbing, have proliferated like mad, chewing through trees, damming rivers, and wreaking general havoc. It`s a serious problem, as environmentalists fear that the beavers could swim to the South American mainland and spell absolute disaster for the Andes. Local farmers, the government, and environmentalists are all scrambling to find a solution.

Camping here was made for our body clocks, as we could sleep until 11am (or later), not start hiking until 1pm (or 3pm), and still have a good 11 hours of daylight ahead of us. Dreamy! Not so dreamy was the really cold weather. We spent the next few days making our way toward the Paso de la Oveja (sheep`s pass). Eric dubbed the place Tierra del Frio, as we huddled in our tents from heavy snow one evening, grumbling self-righteously about the yahoos next to us who had built an illegal fire at one campsite. That is, until they invited us over and shared their flask of pisco and their chocolate. Soon we were fast friends. They were Ushuaia locals (a dad, his teenage son, and his friend), and they were an absolute highlight of our trip. They slowed their Spanish way down, regaled us with Antarctican tales (he did cargo loading and maintenance on a research boat), and we discussed music, food and the outdoors (the universals). The kids were excited to learn that we lived in California and wanted to know if we had met Blink 182 and what we thought of the latest punk music. They kept the fire going all night, getting up in shifts, and invited us to come over whenever we felt like it. This was a blessing at 6am when temperatures were well below freezing, and we needed to warm our aching bones and cold feet. As a parting gift, they gave us some raisins from his wife`s home town. So charming!

We eventually made our way up and over the snowy pass, enjoying splendid views of icy waterfalls and the Beagle Channel. The scenery was much like some of Kathleen`s favorite parts of the John Muir Trail, but decidedly colder, less crowded, and lacking in fat and happy marmots. We were amazed to only see one or two people a day, and three of the four nights, we had a camping area to ourselves. Probably a good thing, as even building a legal campfire sometimes brought out the beast in Eric.

We are now safely back in Ushuaia, where we are quickly breaking resolutions and reveling in central heating.