Saturday, March 31, 2007

Ray´s Comments

Well its about time that I added some comments to the blog. Thus far some of the highlights for me personally have been the swim in the spring fed stream in Bonito. The fish were almost unbelievable to anything I have ever seen either snorkelling or diving in the Caribean or anywhere even the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. I am not even sure how many different species there were but I wasn´t really able to keep track of all of the different varities. The water I have never seen anything as clear as, other than purified water coming out of a tap. We had to wear wet suits because the water was so cold not sure of the temp but it was probably around 10C or thereabouts. The other amazing thing was to watch the springs bubbling up through the sand all along the way. The volume coming up was amazing. Another interesting point about these sites in the Bonito area is that they are all on private lands but are completely protected by government legislation. The owners are not able to do anything closer than 100 meters on either side such as farming or animal grazing to protect the purity. There also were only a few of the land owners who opened up the sites to the public. The guides were government approved and everything had to meet the very strict standards, quite an experience.

Next in line was at Peninsula Valdes where we witnessed the Orcas (Killer Whales which they aren´t) swimming within 5 meters of the beach going back and forth hoping to catch a baby sea lion who was learning to swim. Apparently at 2 to 2 1/2 months of age the sea lion pups are introduced to the water to learn to swim so they in a month or so will be able to to accompany their parents back to the south of Brazil. The Orcas hunt along this particular stretch of wilderness and any unsuspecting pups will be a treat for them.

The ocean floor falls off very quickly from the beach and at high tide it permits the Orcas enough water to swim that close to the beach. They have been (that is the Orcas) known to actually beach themselves going after a seal pup and then wiggle themselves back into the deeper water. It was an amazing spectacle of nature to witness. Fortunately for the pups, there were no actual successes by the Orcas while we were there. The beach is covered in sea lions as far as the eye can see in both directions. Our guide indicated that she personally had never witnessed the Orcas at that beach so we were most fortunate to be there when we were. From what we were told, the particular group of Orcas consists of two mature females and an Orca pup being taught how to hunt the pup seal lions. There are apparently only about 28 Orcas in the pod which are in the immediate area and all distinctly different from each other and have been identified by the marine biologists and given names.

Next was.... what else.....but a golf game !!!!!!!!!!! I was also given a certificate to prove it. This was at the El Ushuaua Golf Club - 54-29-52 South latitude the southermost golf club in the world. Sorry I might sound American that being the biggest and the best!!!! It was nip and tuck as to it actually happening as it was raining cats and dogs when I left the hostel for a 11.00 a.m. tee off. When I arrived at the course early at about 10.20 a.m. the only person there was the professional. He asked if I was going to play? It was my only chance and I had all the rain gear so I said yes. I believe he might have thought I was crazy and I am sure many of you may think the smae. Well he brought out the rental clubs, tees, and some used golf balls and a carry bag and off I went. By the third hole the rain had stopped and by the fifth the sun came out. The course was only a nine holer which you played from two sets of tees and seeing as I last played in November I ended with a 92 for the 18 which wasn´t bad and only took about 2 and a half hours and then a taxi back for a six hour boat trip to the islands in the Beagle Channel at 3.00 p.m.

While in the Torres del Paine National Park we did a 3 hour horse ride and my tail bone is still suffering from the fast canters. The horses were great and it was a lot of fun but my guy had a startle and I went up and then down harder than one would have liked and I felt a severe jarring. I am assuming that I have just bruised it and that in a couple of more days it will feel better. Anyway, we arrived today back into Argentina from Chile and we are at Calafate and will visit the Petito Moreno tomorrow which is a glacier.


Pictures added Apr 9 from swimming with the fishes in Bonito

Friday, March 30, 2007

Torres del Paine National Park (March 26 - March 30at

We left Ushuaia on Monday March 26 and drove for a day and a half into Chile to arrive, after one rough camp, at our camp site at Camp Pehoe in Torres del Paine Nationl Park. The main attraction here is the Paine Massif, a collection of jagged topped mountains which somehow climb up out of the pampa. Although the mountains are stunningly beautiful, they are also indomitable. A ferocious wind constantly rages throughout the area and I can only believe that the mountains are angry and that this is a place where man was not meant to be. The main attraction of the park is to hike the various trails to experience the beauty of the mountains, glaciers, and lakes that are in the Park. There are a few alternative hikes that are popular and the majority of our group chose to do the current favourite being the "W" which is a 4 day trek away from our campsite. About 10 of us chose an alternative to this which we called the "V", the difference being that on the 3rd day instead of trekking we did a 3 hour horse ride. Also, we only spent one night away from our camp at Camp Pehoe.

So, day 1 - Tuesday - we took a ferry transfer in a catamaran across Lago Pehoe to the Paine Grande Refugio. The waves in the Lake were enormous and came right up over the catamaran - it was an exciting ride and probably in Canada the trip would have been cancelled - but we made it safely although a couple of the girls were quite "sea sick"! After arranging our accomodation in the refugio, we set off on what ended up being about an 8 and a half hour trek up the side of Lago Grey to Glaciar Grey where we sat on the rocks and had lunch. The trek was quite moderate except the last hour which was almost all uphill to give a wonderful view over the Glaciar. The return journey was not as fun and towards the end my toes were so sore pressing on the front of my hiking boots from the consistent down hill angle. We made it back on the brink of night fall - knowing that another 2 in our group were 45 minutes to an hour behind us. They eventually arrived back around 8.45 having completed the last 2 hrs by torch light. We were just about to contact the Park Rangers to let them know. Apparently, there was another group out one night recently and the Rangers were called in to find them - so it seems to happen consistently! The Refugio was super comfortable and we had dinner and talked to a lovely Irish couple Brian and Sinaid from Dublin - who we hope will read our blog and keep in touch.

The next day, we set off on a slightly shorter trek - about 5 hours this time - which took us along the shore of Lago Skottsberg up to the Valle del Frances. We ended this trek with a stunning walk over a suspension bridge which spanned a torrent of water racing down the moutainside to the lake below - two people only allowed on the bridge at one time! It was fun jumping on the bridge and swinging it as we crossed. We returned to the Refugio mid afternoon, chatted with other hikers, and caught the catamaran ferry back down Lago Pehoe - much calmer this time - to be picked up by Tony and driven back to our campsite at Camp Pehoe.

The third day, we had a stunning drive "somewhere" in the park to the estancia where we met our Criollo-type horses for a 3 hr horse ride. It rained on and off pretty well the whole time, but we had our rain suits on and were having so much fun we didn´t notice it. We rode up hill, down hill, over big boulders, across mud and smooth granite rock faces, across rivers where the water was up to the middle of the horse's belly, through valleys, along the river side and generally had an utterly amazing time - lots of flat out canters - total abandon to the wind. The horses were amazing - very responsive and comfy and the group leader had none of the caution that would exist on a "trail ride" in Canada. We all - 5 of us - enjoyed it immensely. Unfortunately, Ray seems to have severly bruised his coccyx and is quite uncomfortable over bumpy roads in the Truck!

The fourth day at Torres del Paine was a little disappointing. We had wanted to hike the Twin Towers on the Torres themselves, but unfortunately - or fortunately - the weather did not co-operate and we didn´t go but instead did a 3 hour hike around the side of Lago Nordenskjold. This proved a lot of fun as we "played" in the ever constant 30 mph plus wind, watched the eddies in the lake, the beautiful rainbows over the lake, and the spray rolling over the lake as the winds built up then quickly subsided.

All in all, an unforgettable visit to a remote part of Chile.
Pictures added Apr 9
Ray and Liz horseback riding in Torres del Paine
View from horseback ride
Gray's Glaciar, Torres
Some of our hiking group

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Tierra del Fuego, Ushuaia, and Cerro Guanaco Trail - March 22 to March 25

Tierra del Fuego is the archipelago south of Patagonia which is shared by Argentina and Chile. We reached Isla Grande - the largest island - by a 20 minute ferry ride from Punta Delgado. The landscape starts to change as you near Ushuaia in Argentina, the last town in the world, el fin del mondo, which is a small tourist resort on the south coast backed by the jagged mountains of the Cordillera Darwin. I can't say that we were greatly impressed with Ushuaia itself. The town was founded in 1869 as an Anglican mission, and then became known as a refuge for shipwrecks. In 1896 the State of Argentina founded a penal colony and built a prison which was in operation until 1947 when it was closed by Peron. So its not an old town and some of the historic sites are simple attempts at establishing tourist attractions. I did a lot of walking around town while Ray went off on his own - he will do a post on his adventures - and visited the prison, which is now a museum, the 1920s provincial legislature building, a typical old family house, the port, and restaurants. We also spent an evening in the local brewery pub which was quite an experience. It was built out of wood and stone at the edge of the ocean, with the sea facing wall made out of glass. Tiered seating, heated and padded with cushions allowed a view into the gentle waves lapping on the beach pebbles immediately on the other side of the window. The setting was spectacular and it had a vibrant, comfortable ambiance allowing us to have the odd dance, along with our local pints.

Although we did not think the town itself too interesting, its location around a bay in the stormy, icy, Beagle Channel with steep streets rising from the sea shore up into the foot hills and a backdrop of jagged mountains, is utterly spectacular. To us, Ushuaia is about the sea and the mountains. We took a 6 hour boat trip on a large catamarran in the Beagle Channel to see the penguins and other marine life on the various islands, for example we saw cormorants, seal lions, penguins and tons of birds whose names I can't remember. It is from the Channel that you truly see Ushuaia's beauty.

The next day, we caught a local bus into the Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego, and based on my discussions with Sam, a Belgian chap I met in the hostel, we hiked the Cerro Guanaco Trail which took us 970 metres up to the top of the mountain ridge on the north side of Lago Roca. The 11 km trail took us 3 hours up and 2 hours 30 minutes back down; 3 kilometres were on the flat, and 5 kilometres were straight up the mountain. Slowly we wound our way up first through treacherously rooted forested slopes then through a peat bog in the valley, and finally over the granite shale and rock to the peak. It wasn't for the faint of heart. A slight slip of the foot would have sent us tumbling down the treeless mountain side with no means of stopping ourselves. Once at the top the view over the islands and rivers of the Archipelago Cormoranes and the islands in the Beagle Channel was absolutely spectacular. The "high" we felt when we reached the top can only be equated to the high runners feel at the end of a marathon. We were almost delirious; and our shouts and whoops of joy belted out at the top of our lungs were carried silently into the ferocious wind that raged. Due to this wind, and the fact that it was freezing cold, we only spent about 10 minutes at the peak before we started on our way down to arrive back at the bus stop with zero minutes left to catch the bus back to town. It was only a small mountain, and although not too treacherous a climb was certainly a strenuous climb - just enough I think to give us a taste for higher, more energetic climbs in the future!
Pictures added Apr 9
At the top of Cerro Guanaco
Liz with Captain on catamaran tour in the Beagle Channel
The Beagle Channel towards sunset
Oil wells
Ferry Crossing

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Argentina Patagonia - March 18 to March 21

Argentinian Patagonia is the large expanse of land that lies between Bahia Blanca in Argentina and Tierra del Fuego, and is bordered on the west by the awe inspiring Andes and on the east by the Atlantic Ocean. It is wild, remote, and challenging. Travellers say you either love it or hate it but are never neutral towards it. I loved it, but 7 of our group chose to miss the 5 day 3000 km plus drive from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia and instead to take the 4 hour flight.As you drive south in Patagonia, the landscape changes from flat savannah-like, wheaten-coloured grass and low scrub trees in the northern part to steppe-like, wheaten-colourd grass dotted with dirty olive and yellow coloured gorse bushes in the south - and it stretches for miles and miles, as far as the eye can see in all directions. At first cattle graze on huge estancias, then you drive into country with a mixture of sheep and cattle, then just sheep and indigenous guanacos. The road is long and straight and lined with wire fences on both sides, and telegraph poles on one side. In the very southern part we saw the same telegraph poles but without any wires strung from them. Maybe one day they will string them. The immensity of the wilderness pulls you, slowly, and mesmerizingly into its depths, so that you sit in the Truck gazing out the window on idle, or darting in and out of the stalks of grass imagining yourself to be one of the indegenous small animals that make this vast steppeland their habitat. Argentina has a habit of outdoing Canada in its vastness - for example, the Pampa versus the Prairies, the Iguazu Falls versus Niagara Falls, and the Andes versus the Rockies.

There is a short relief from the steppeland when the land becomes more undulating and hillocks formed from the sediment left by the glacial waters many thousands of years ago make strange shapes on the horizon. This is oil country in Chubut and Neuquen provinces. Along with tourism, oil is one of the growing industries in Patagonia.

Towns in this part of the country are few, with long distances between them. We had many Truck discussions on how children are educated, how people socialize, and what happens in a medical emergency - but did not come up with any satisfactory answers.

The land in Patagonia is bleak and barren, ferociously windy and inhospitable, but it grips your soul.

In order to break the journey we spent a day in Puerto Madryn. This town of approximately 74,000 people, was founded by a group of Welsh settlors in 1886. The town itself has a fairly lively tourist scene with a boardwalk, beach, souvenir shops, and restaurants, but its importance is that it is the hub from which to visit the Peninsula Valdes.

A visit to the Peninsula Valdes is like watching a National Geographic documentary. We took a full day trip from Puerto Madryn in a small tour bus. Our first stop on this barren, wind-swept chunk of land was Punta Norte where we walked along a fenced beach to see sea lions on the shore teaching their pups to swim. We were also incredibly lucky to see the Orcas patrolling the beach just waiting for a naive pup to stray too far into the Ocean. That day, the pups were also incredibly lucky because the Orcas had taken their fill the previous day. It was an amazing sight to see. Our next stop was Caleta Valdes where we saw Elephant Seals basking in the sun on the rocks or facing off by slapping their bodies against each other in an effort to impress the disinterested females. We also saw Magallanes Penguins standing forlornly on the cliffs waiting to shed their down before waddling slowly down the rock face into the ocean. The next stop was the hauntingly beautiful Punta Delgada at the tip of the peninsula - and lunch in a modern eco-restaurant nestled in the sand dunes. Walks along the remote boardwalks showed us more sea lions and a colony of elephant seals. Our final stop was a small sleepy beach resort called Puerto Piramides which has a huge beach over which tractors push boat trailers loaded with boats filled with tourists into the Oceanto go whale spotting. I guess this is so as not to waste time waiting for the tide to come in - or maybe because there is no boat launch, or port. The Peninsula Valdes is one of these very special places in the world that recharge you. We enjoyed being there in the off season, but there were perhaps not as many animals and birds as in mating season or birthing season - the best time to visit really depends on your specific purpose of going there. I could easily see spending 5 - 10 days on the Peninsula watching for the Orca whales.
Pictures added Apr 9
Malgannes Penguin
Shore inValdes with Orca and sea lions

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Life on the Road

Its 5 a.m. and middle-of-the-night black outside. Somehow, I wake up. I am tucked inside my white, silk, sleep-sheet cuddled inside my emerald green and black, good to minus 7 centigrade, down, sleeping bag. Incredulously, I am very comfortable, and its hard to think about getting up. But, the day has begun. I lie for an extra 5 minutes, and then, slowly slide myself out of my warm cocoon. I fold my sleeping bag in half, and roll it up tightly so that it squeezes into its travel sac; I open the valve of my self-inflating sleep mattress, fold it in half and roll it up too so that it also fits back into its travel sac. Then I collect my wash bag and towel from the floor of the tent, struggle into my Reebok sandals, unzip the tent, grab the torch and stumble through the sandy paths of the Puerto Madryn campsite to the loos. On the way, I meet another torch coming towards me, and murmur sleepily at the unidentified person behind it as we pass. In the washrooms, I wash my face in icy cold water, brush my teeth with bottled mineral water, and dress. By the time I get back to the tent, Ray is up and has rolled his sleep gear up too. I put it in the white sack meant for an unfolded sleeping bag, and haul my daypack and pillow over to our locker in the Truck. Back to the tent, and working in comfortable silence Ray and I take down our tent "Mojo"; roll it back into its travel cover, and load it into one of the outside lockers in the Truck. This morning, neither of us are in Cook Group or Truck Gropu, so have no assigned tasks and are free to swill back a cup of cofee and munch on cereal, toast, or on other occasions, french bread, pancakes, or some egg dish. If we were in Cook or Truck Group we would have had to be up half an hour earlier and help to prepare breakfast and then clean up afterwards. Breakfast lasts between 6 and 6:30 a.m., then all cooking gear, and cook tent, if its been raining, is packed back into the various lockers and containers in and around the Truck ready for departure at 7:00 a.m.

We have some 2000 km to cover to reach Ushuaia, so today is a minimum of 12 hours of driving time. We try not to drink too much water so we don't need to make too many loo stops, but generally Tony stops every 2 to 2.5 hours, and for an hour while we make and eat lunch. This could be anything from tuna sandwiches, to pasta salad and fruit and could be eaten anywhere along the side of the road, at a gas station, or some other off road site.

Driving through this northern part of Patagonia, gas stations and loos are hard to find, and the land is flat for miles and miles - so Tony has a hard job finding a suitable spot when we ring our Truck buzzer to indicate to him in the cab that we need a loo-stop. At one stop, he finds a "mound" of road dirt left behind by the road workers so that the ladies on the Truck can feel some privacy as they squat on the side of the mound facing away from the Truck - remember the start of the Niagara half marathon if you have run it and you will probably have a good picture of what most of our loo stops are like! Fortunately the road is long and flat and you can see oncoming vehicles - of which there are surprisingly many for the remoteness of the area - a long way back.

When we first set of, Charli tries hard to keep us awake - this lasts maybe 15 minutes - then each of us disappears into our own space - some read - some listen to their I-pod, some write - most sleep. Later in the day, some may play Uno, or Gin Rummy. Now that we are further south and it is cooler, sleeping bags and blankets are pulled out to wrap up in. Seven of our group opted to miss this part of the journey and fly to Ushuaia, so there is more room in the Truck to stretch out in - which is nice. On these long journeys it seems that we are drugged, and we all wonder how we can sleep so much and so long - then still sleep at night. I think it is nature's way of allowing us to cope with the inactivity and monotonousness of the journey. It is a time for self reflection and for breaking down and rebuilding the pieces of our lives - or maybe we are all just imitating the flatness of the scenery around us.

Around 8:00 p.m. Tony starts to look for a place to camp. After one failed attempt to camp by the side of the road, Tony finds a road leading to a deserted beach just before Saint Julien where I believe Magellan wintered on his discovery voyage through the Magellan Straits. We arrive at sunset, and all whoop with joy when Tony pulls off onto a stretch of the beach sheltered from the gale force wind by a huge rocky cliff.

The group comes to life. We watch a beautiful Patagonian sunset, then tents are collected from the Truck, camp sites chosen, and tents expertly pitched in a minimum of time. Sleep gear is pulled out and beds are made up in minutes. Cook Group and Truck Group wash all the dishes, pots and pans, cutlery, etc. in disinfectant, detergent, and rinse water, and get dinner on the go. We eat well on this fantasy journey, thoughts of calories and cholesterol left behind in our various homelands and our real lives. Tony hooks up lights, running off batteries in the Truck, music is turned up high - afterall, noone is around for miles and miles to hear. Tongues are set loose. Beer and wine flow and conversations are intense. Its like an outdoor, serve-yourself, dinner party with all of your best friends sitting around a warm fire, on stools, in a circle. Everyone gets along, no-one is left out. Confidences are exchanged, travel stories compared, and philosophies on life explored, discussed and adjusted.
As it is young Sam's 19th birthday, some of the group have organized punch - and a bottle of cheap whiskey for Sam - I am sure Sam will never forget waking up the next morning lying on the beach tucked up inside his sleeping bag under the southern-hemisphere stars and sinking moon!

We long to sit late3 into the night - and on other nights some do - but tomorrow there is another early start and a long day travelling. So when all the dishes are cleaned up, and the ambers on the fire cool down, one by one we follow the torchlight to our tents where we brush our teeth once again with our bottled water, find a black spot in the night for a loo, put our jammies on, and slide once more down into the snuggly depths of our sleeping bags, with only our noses left exposed to gauge the coldness of the star filled night.
Images added onApril 9:
Ferry crossing
Truck on the beach for camping
Sunset on the beach camp

Friday, March 16, 2007

Buenos Aires - March 14, 15, 16

We have now spent 3 full days in Buenos Aires, said to be the Paris of South America. It is an elegant, sophisticated city brimming over with energy, culture, and passion. The Argentinian people are more elegant and stylish than the Brazilians, and also more cultured. BA is alive - people are always out and about in the streets, either walking purposely to their next engagement, lazing at street cafes either deep in conversation or just watching the world go by, running in the parks, or strolling along enjoying the beauty of their surroundings and the company they are with. The streets abound with sidewalk cafes, flower kiosks, and newspaper stands. It is a book lovers haven as there are so many eclecticly stocked book stores. In fact it is a cultural haven. There are many theatres, an opera house (probably more than one), tango and folk music shows. The inhabitants are slim, good looking, and fashionably dressed. The city had its heyday in the 1880s onwards into the 1900s when all of the hispanic buildings were pulled down and a beautifully architectured city, influenced by Paris, was built in its place. Today, many of these buildings look quite dilapidated due mainly to economic hard times Argentina has experienced, but now that the economy is starting to pick up, there is much renovation and new construction taking place.

Another character of the city is the dog walkers and the dog sitting parks. You will see young men and women walking around the city with 8 to 16 dogs on leads trotting along behind them in a most orderly fashion. These are the city´s dog walkers who exercise the dogs of the rich. In many of the parks and green areas, dog sitters watch over noisy barking dogs while their owners work. We must have seen hundreds and hundreds of dogs of all shapes, sizes and breeds, either being walked by the walkers or cared for by the sitters. I have heard this is done in New York but have never seen it done on such a large scale. It is definitely a characteristic of this city.

Argentinians are also passionate about expressing their views and consequently there are many demonstrations. We have seen about 5 in our 3 days here. The demonstrations are about everything from political issues, to labour issues to social issues. Usually they are controlled, but the riot police are always present in force, and the parks, squares, and streets barricaded. The cost of all this policing must be enormous.

Two days ago we experienced a major thunderstorm here and the streets flooded up and over the wheels of the cars in minutes. Vehicles were driving on the pavements and any higher ground to get away from the water. Later we saw news of the flooding on the TV.

Last night I went with some of the group for a Tango lesson. It is so difficult. The beat is really hard to get as it is so subtle. The basic tango movement requires very agile hips and ankles and wearing flat sandals is not really conducive to attaining the swivel that is required. But truth to say, it would take me much longer than an hour to learn the most simple of movements. But it was so much fun. Later we went to see a Tango show and marvelled at the speed that the dancers are able to reach. It is marvelous to watch.

This morning we did a 3 1-2 hour bike ride around Recoleta and Palermo. These are two of the areas in BA where the "rich" live. They are beautiful. Palermo was originally an estancia and is therefore mainly green area with large beautful parks, a race course, and a polo field. Recoleta is where the famous cemetery is and the grave of Evita Perron. The cemetery is stunning. It is like a city of little houses with beautifully sculptured figures and miniturized buildings. Eva´s tomb is quite unassuming, but that is where everyone visiting the cemetery headed.

So, we are sad to leave BA, we have enjoyed our second visit here as much as the first, and still we have only scraped the surface of the wonders the city has to offer.

Tomorrow, we leave at 7 a.m. for our long drive south to Ushuaia, stopping in Puerto Montt with a trip to the Valdes Peninsula to see the penguins. I do not know what communications facilities will be like along the way as we have rough camps on a couple of nights - i.e. that means we stop and camp wherever when Tony is tired of driving! We arrive in Ushuaia on March 22. Until then, keep well and happy.
Pictures of Buenos Aires shown in order are:
  1. Buenos Aires
  2. Caminito
  3. Casa Rosada - and the balcony from where Eva Perron addressed the people of Argentina
  4. Cafe and flower seller

Thursday, March 15, 2007


We are happy to hear that you are enjoying our blog, and apologize for the 9 day silence. We camped for about 5 or 6 nights in a row, then the Internet in Bonito and Montevideo was slow to non-existant, or not working in the hotel we were in. I forget which. Sometimes, we have time to check our emails but not to update the blog. Anyway, here is some catch up. Its not quite up to date yet, and I will try to do this before leaving Buenos Aires. Also, we cannot seem to get the computer to read the camera so will have to sort this out before we can add further pictures. Oh the joys of high tech!

Anyway, happy reading. Some of you have emailed me to tell me that you have left comments, or tried to email us through the blog, but we have not received them. If you don´t see your comment on the blog, let me know. I suggest just emailing me through my hotmail address if you want to make contact, but leaving the comment on the blog if you wish me to add it to the blog.

Keep the emails and comments coming - we love to receive them.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The River of the Painted Birds (Uruguay) - March 11, 12, 13

After a long 12 hour drive and a border crossing into Uruguay, we arrived at our home for the next two nights ' The Continental Hotel in Montevideo. Its amazing how your priorities change! We had hot and cold running water, a shower head, a toilet that worked, and the bed was clean and free of bed bugs - so things were good!

We went down to the Old Quarter for dinner only to find the narrow cobbled street in front of our restaurant was barricaded and hundreds of riot police supporting helmuts and plastic shields swarmed the area. The streets were otherwise deserted and the 25 of us stood out so that the police were easily able to identify us as the English tourists. They told us that George Bush was having dinner in the area of our chosen restaurant and that was why the road was closed. We´ve been taught to expect the unexpected so, we waited an hour in the Irish pub "Shannon" and then we saw Bush´s car and cavalcade pass by. The roads opened up and the hundreds of police marched down the street away from the area. It was quite an awesome sight. Then it was an uneventful dinner, a visit to a night club and back to the hotel. Co-incidentally, there were a group of Air Force One guys hanging around the hotel waiting to spring into action if any problems arose. Apparently there were riots in Sao Paulo when Bush visited there a few days before as well as demonstrations and riots in Montevideo the night before. We have not been able to determine why Bush was in Montevideo - perhaps if you know - you can let us know!

Apart from the excitement of Bush´s visit, Montevideo is a sleepy, tired looking City of about 1.5 million inhabitants mainly descended from Italy and Spain with a small black population originating from the slave population in Argentina. It is often referred to as the "Switzerland" of South America due to its small size, democratic government, and financial activities. It is the "mate" drinking that distinguishes Uruguay, and particularly Montevideo from other places. Mate is brewed from the leaves of an evergreen plant and is an integral part of the Uruguayan culture. Many Uruguayans carry their own mate kit with them. This consists of a drinking gourd called a "culha", somtimes decorated very elaborately, often with silver, containing the dried leaves, a bombilla or drinking tube which has a strainer at one end; and a flask of hot water. When we stopped at the gas station there was a machine available to provide the hot water, and a conveniently placed garbage can for the old mate leaves. Its supposed to have diuretic and anti-rheumatic properties and is said to be better than coffee. We haven´t tried it, but one of the American guys said it tasted somewhat like brewed spinach . . . and he obviously didn´t like spinach.

We drove up the beach littered river coast from Montevideo to Piriapolis and Punta del Este. Pirapolis is a pretty little town in a large bay and is less upscale and more laid-back than Punta del Este. Here we discovered "Casa Pueblo" which was built and designed by the internationally reknowned Uruguayan artist Carlos Paez Vilaro. If you can, look it up on the Internet. It is quite unique. The whitewashed building is constructed into the side of the rocky cliff and contains no vertical lines. Today, part of it is Carlos´house, part an exhibition of his huge collection of mosaics, pottery, and paintings and the remainder a hotel and restaurant. Carlos is well known around the world for his murals and is a contemporary and friend of Picasso. If you are looking for a unique place to spend a few days, this is well worth considering.

Punte del Este on the other hand, is an upscale beach resort at the meeting point of the Atlantic Ocean and the Rio Plate. It has one section full of large beautiful summer homes for the South American rich and famous. For example, we saw Perron´s ex-home, the house where George Bush stayed, the home of the immediate ex-president of Brazil, and where Julio Iglese is building a home. These were in sharp contrast to the dischevelled looking shacks of the fishermen´s cottages lining the banks of one of the rivers leading into the Bay.

The last town of any note that we visited in Uruguay was Colonia del Sacramento. This is a charming city of 10,000 people founded by the Portuguese in 1680. The narrow cobbled streets are lined with colonial styled houses, restaurants and shops. We climbed the lighthouse for a better view then took a bus out to the derelict bull-ring where we pretended to be matadors exhibiting our various moves to a packed stadium. Then it was time to head to the ferry over to Buenos Aires. We were originally booked on a ferry with the Truck, however, this ferry broke down and no one knew when it would be fixed, so, the 23 of us went across on the ferry, while Tony spent the next 14 hours or so driving the Truck up the Uruguayan/Argentine border looking for an open crossing. Apparently Argentina and Uruguay are in dispute over Uruguay´s desire to build 2 new paper mills on the River Plate. Argentina is blocking this because they fear massive polution. So, in order to show their disent they have closed many of the border crossings from Uruguay and only open others for 6 hours every 6 hours. Its hard sometimes to remember the different temperament of the South American people. They are warm, friendly, and well educated, but can turn around and be quite hot tempered and adamant about their principles.

Once in Buenos Aires we took taxis to the hotel. One of the cabs ran out of gas on Avenida 4th of July - a 16 lane highway through the centre of BA!! Garrett, Naomi and Sam had to help push the taxi to the edge of the road. Fortunately another cab picked them up and they got a free taxi ride to the hotel. You can see why we learn to expect the unexpected!
Pictures included (in order) are:
  1. Colonia house
  2. Building in Montevideo
  3. Street scene in Colonia
  4. Liz with sea lions in Punta del Este
  5. Art work at Casa Pueblo
  6. Sunset
  7. Casa Pueblo

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Jesuit Mission - March 8

In In the 1600s, the Portuguese and Spanish Jesuits infiltrated areas in Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay in an attempt to convert the local people to their religion. They built 30 missions in this area which includes the region of Misiones in Argentina. We visited the ruins of the largest of these missions - San Ignacio Mini. This one was founded in 1696 and flourished until the expulsion of the Jesuits around 1767. Once the Jesuits were expelled, the local people were unable to sustain the flourishing economic activity of the missions and they retreated back into the depths of the surrounding forest. The ruins are quite intact, although in a dilapidated condition, but amid the aroma of freshly cut grass, we were able to imagine ourselves in the chapel, the hospital, the library, the residences, and drawing water out of the well. The mission covers quite a large area and I believe that at its height there were about 4000 people lived there. After it was deserted, the forest grew over and hid it, until recently when someone went to build a home and discovered this gem on their ground. Our information on the Jesuits is a little sketchy as there was no English guide available, and our Spanish is a little limited - or non existant!! We think that the Jesuits were so economically successsful that the Porguguese and Spanish were threatened by their abilities and monopoly over certain trade and that they decided to expel them. Once again, in our quest for progress, it seems that we arrogantly forced our way of life on the indigenous peoples stripping them of their ability to survive in their own environment when we eventually abandon them to further our own economic resources.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Iguassu Falls - March 5 and 6

On March 5 and 6 we visited first the Brazilian side of the Iguacu Falls and then the Argentinian side or the Iguazu Falls - I have seen so many spellings of the this name, but haven´t quite sorted them all out! The Falls cover an enormous area consisting of about 275 (plus or minus) waterfalls, sometimes falling in two tiers. They lie between Brazil and Argentina surrunded by large parks and are protected by Unesco. Both sides are equally impressive, but different. The walk along the Falls on the Brazilian side gives a more panoramic view of the Falls, but less contact with the water. The walkways constructed on the Argentinian side take you across ravines, some of the falls, and the river with the result that you are much closer to the pounding of the tons of water cascading over the Falls to the river below. Their power is spelling binding and its hard to take your eyes away. The water is like a Laura Secord pralines and cream ice-cream, or a butterscotch icecream, tumbling over and over with all the power in the universe until you become totally mezmerized and feel yourself being drawn into the middle. People asked us how they compare to Niagara. It would be something like comparing the ski slopes at Collingwood with those at Aspen. There is no comparison. We also took a Zodiac boat ride into the Falls - I mean right into and under some of the Falls. How we didn´t hit the rocks I don´t know, but we didnt - and we were absolutely soaked by the torrent of water flooding into the boat. It made the Maid of the Mist look very tame.

At the end of the day after the Brazilian Falls, we visited the Parque das Aves (Bird Park). There were over 800 species of colourful birds, caiman, snakes, and butterlfies. The Park serves two purposes in addition to providing an opporunity to study the birds. Some of the birds have been injured and were resued and nursed by the Park, and secondly, it serves to promote the breeding of endangered species. As with the fish in Bonito, the parrots, parakeets, toucans, pink flamingo, etc. are brilliantly coloured, have amazing personalities, and again were not in the least bit scared of us.

For us, one of the special parts of our visit to the Iguassu area were the butterflies - hundreds of them - brightly coloured and perfectly formed, they landed all over us, on our heads, our hands, our sunglasses - at one point there were hundreds of yellow and green butterflies heaped on the ground in front of us. As we approached they started fluttering up and around us - an awesome experience. They are so delicate, pretty, and totally trusting of us intruding on them in their natural territory.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

Swimming with the Fishes - March 3

Note: For some pictures on this post, see the post "Ray's Commentss" entered on March 31, 2007.

Our next stop in Brazil after the Pantenal was Bonito where we stayed for 2 days at the Bonito International Hostel. Bonito is an "adventure" eco-tourist resort which offers great eco-activities such as snorkeling, scuba diving in caves, abseling/rapelling, hiking, horseback riding, etc. The town itself is not large, and is a typical Brazilian country town with a paved main street lined with shops and restaurants and red-dirt residential side streets. The people are friendly and although little English is spoken by the inhabitants we seemed to manage very well.

On one of our two day´s in Bonito, we chose to do a day tour which included a walk through the subtropical forest around the Rio de Plata, followd by snorkeling and a buffet lunch at Estancia Mimosa.

The snorkeling was an unforgetable experience. We were given snorkel masks and neoprene shoes and suits to wear so we looked like a renegade group of navy Seals marching through the forest to the river. The river we swam in started as a spring fed pond and winds its way down to the Rio Plata. Because of the underground springs feeding the pond and the river, the water is crystal clear. After a practice tour of the pond, we set off in a line - there were 8 of us plus a guide . For the next hour and a half, we floated in the crystal clear water among the most amazing varieties and colours of freshwater fishes. There were blue fish, yellow and orange fish, dark black looking fish, large fish, small fish, schools of fish and fish swimming on their own. They swam straight towards us looking curiously at our faces, not frightened at all until they suddenly realized we were not other fishes and really were much bigger than them - then they veared off at the last minute so that we never collided. I imagined I was a leaf lying on the top of the water and being carried along in the current downstream. At two spots we had to change direction and the current was so strong that our guide had to "catch" us before we headed in the wrong direction - over the water falls or rapids, for example. At one point we had to pull ourselves ashore along a rope that had been conviently placed for that purpose. Every moment was special - the river wound through forest where there was little light and our bodies rubbed against the velvet, green plants covering the rocks in the river bed, while at other points the sunlight sparkled through the water on to the pebbles in the sandy bottom like strobe lights in a night club. It was a day and an experience we will never forget.

Friday, March 2, 2007

The Pantanal - Feb 27 and 28

After a 2 1/2 day Truck ride in the hottest most humid weather imaginable, we arrived in the Pantanal. If you have read John Grisham's book "The Testament" - you will have heard of this part of Brazil and the towns of Campo Grande and Corumba. It is a huge "wetland" half the size of France or the size of Iowa and it is beautiful. 70% of the Pantanal is in Brazil and the remainder is in Bolivia and Paraguay. The predominant vegetation is described as "savanna" with low small trees, and acres of shallow lakes, rivers and islands out of which lush green grasses grow.There are about 206,000 people living there and the main activities seem to be eco-tourism in its infancy, and cattle farming. The area is also brimming with wildlife including caimen, marsh deer, capybaras, and otter (all of which we have seen) and ant eaters, anacondas, tapirs, jaguars, and wolves, which we have not seen. There are over 652 species of birds including macaws, parrots, parakeets, herons, and kingfishers. Apart from the malarial mosquitoes - it is paradise!!

We are visiting in the wet season and because the grazing lands are reduced, we passed many trucks on the way which were taking the cattle from the richer famrs to better grazing lands further south. Tony, our driver also told me that it is not unknown for less well off farmers to walk for a month with their cattle to find better grazing ground. Along with rain forests, wetlands are essential to our eco system. They provide water supply, flood control and water purification among many other things - such as the kidneys of South Americas. We have lost about 50% of the world's original wetlands and today the Pantanal faces the same threats due to major developmental changes including an expanding infrastructure, population growth, and industrial and farming expansion. Also, many of the wildlife species are endangered, for example, the river otter, and marsh deer. This is due in part to habitat destruction but also to poaching, over fishing, and the capture of wild animals and birds for the illegal export to other countries such as the US and Canada.

We stayed at the "Fazenda Santa Clara" which is also establishing its reputation as an eco lodge. We have been very pleasantly surprised at the good quality of the places we have stayed at so far. All have been exceptionally clean, free from too many ugly smells and quite attractively furnished.

The road we drove in on was quite an experience. Shortly after leaving a town called Miranda, it turned to dirt. Although it was wide enough and long and straight - imagine lataritic mud travelled by over 40 25/26 ton cattle trucks a day and baked in the blazing sun - you've got it - one hell of a bumpy ride! Anway, it was so much fun and we wouldn't have missed it for the world.

One of the other overlanding companies had a bit of a mishap. The road through the Pantanal has hundreds of rickety wooden bridges which were adequate enough before the traffic into the area increased so dramatically. However, many of them are now full of holes which are patched with strong railway type planks to take the weight of the trucks across them. On one of the longer bridges, there was an enormous hole on the one side and one of the Budget trucks was crossing a few hours ahead of us, keeping well to the opposite side to avoid the hole, and the inevitable happened - the ground underneath the front, right tyre gave way, burying the wheel. The Truck came to rest about 1/2 inch from the wooden support at the side of the bridge. They were so lucky it was not more disastrous. Anyway, we are well prepared by our tour leader to expect the unexpected! We all walked over the bridge to commiserate with the poor driver, who very expertly jacked up the axle with a couple of hydraulic jacks, freed the wheel, placed some strong timbers underneath, reversed to straighten out the truck, and was able to drive off the bridge amid a chorus of loud "hoorays".

While in the Pantanal, we took a day safari ride and went for a fun horseback ride, lay around the pool, and generally relaxed.

PS - Thank you all for the comments - its exciting to get to the Internet cafes and hear from you.

We are now in an International hostel in Bonito - a bit of a tourist town on the edge of the Pantanal. Tomorrow we are doing a snorkeling trip in some remote area. Hope you are all well - and that the snow storm is not too bad! We'll look out for the full moon on Saturday.