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Patagonia

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 patagonia

14 enero
There was no map displayed to identify the route, but I am sure my flight was following the Amazon River and its tributaries through much of the great South American continent. The thick ribbon of brown below cutting through dense green, visible through the intermittent clouds, rippled like a flag fluttering in the breeze. Hours later the Rio de la Plata, or Silver River, opened to the Atlantic and the lights of Buenos Aires sparkled its welcome.

BA taxi drivers were talkative, gesturing emphatically, while driving down the shoulder on the highway, or zipping off an exit and onto the entrance ramp to leapfrog a few cars. In a city where some major streets span 16 lanes (flanked by large beautiful parks), I'm sure there's an art to driving. I was ripped off on my first taxi ride in Argentina. I didn't negotiate a fare in advance because there was a meter in the taxi. After we were solidly on the highway, the driver explained he didn't go to the neighborhood where my bed and breakfast hotel was, so we would drive to the terminal downtown and he would hand me off to another driver. I didn't have much choice at that point. I ended up being charged almost three times the fare for a direct route, and made a few mental notes on my taxi list for future reference.

If you are looking for descriptions of museums and churches, stop here - some travelers seek history or religious roots, some adventure, some beauty. Some, like myself, seek to learn about the culture and look for the humanity of its people, in a place where lives may be so different from ours. When investigating a city, I like to walk the streets to capture the ambience of a neighborhood, the feel of a way of life. The Palermo area was characterized by attractive residential streets with trendy shops and galleries, sidewalk cafes and restaurants, wall murals (pervasive throughout Argentina), a constant art and crafts show in the little plaza in Palermo Soho, professional dog walkers with up to ten dogs at a time, and busy people who nevertheless seemed to remember to take their time and enjoy life. The diverse and fascinating barrios give Buenos Aires a charming and inviting atmosphere, in a country with a strong European (not just Spanish) influence.

After checking out the obligatory central plaza, Plaza de Mayo with the pink palace, and walking to Plaza del Congreso to see the stuffy old government buildings, Adam and I headed to the funky quarter. Caminito, a spirited few blocks in the la Boca barrio, is a tourist haven, but also seems to be a lively spot that residents still frequent. Vividly colored houses, some old ones with tin siding, have each window frame painted a different color. Bawdy and comical figures beckon you into stores and lean from balconies, grin from painted wall murals. Tango dancers and art exhibits inhabit the streets. A perfect place to sit in an outdoor café watching the world go by.

Monday morning we flew to Bariloche, a mountain resort close to the Chilean border. Bariloche sits on the shores of the intensely blue Lake Nahuel Huapi, with the jagged, snowy peaks of the national park with the same name and of Chile huddled around. Carol picked us up early Tuesday to begin a three day exploration on horseback into the Patagonian hills. We threw the bags we brought for our two weeks of travel into the back of her Land Rover and drove to the ranch. Carol tossed us each a pair of saddlebags with the words, "just put in it what you need to take and we'll leave the rest. Try to balance the weight." We looked at her and then at our stuffed duffel bags and backpacks. "What do you really need? A change of socks and something warmer to wear at night..." she added. So we packed light and left our proverbial, and actual, baggage behind.

We hit the trail: seven horses, five people and two dogs. Two gauchos, Argentina's term for cowboys, led the packhorses laden with tent, food and gear. Across swampy fields, the dogs scared up white and black birds that raucously circled over our group calling 'vivir, vivir' (or so I imagined - 'to live'). We made our way through three gates delineating private lands, passing in and out of Nauel Huapi National Park. Nauel Huapi, which means tiger island in an indigenous language (Mapuche, I believe), describes a peninsula that juts out into the lake. Carol commented it should more appropriately be called puma island. She pointed out puma tracks along the way. The gauchos rode ahead in a cloud of dust.

Sitting around the fire at night, we heard the high pitched laugh of a wild creature. We all looked at each other and I wondered, was it fear or excitement? Is this something that could attack us? Or an animal we might have for dinner? The guides exchanged a few words in Spanish. "Wild boar!" Carol shouted as the gauchos jumped up to track the source of the call, Adam and I followed. As we approached a clearing, Shisha, the black dog, came bolting out. We saw only a spotted fawn, the gauchos described him as Bambi, but they confirmed there was a wild boar in the forest stalking the fawn.

For every meal, a grate was pushed into the ground over the fire, and we had an authentic Argentine grill - lamb, beef, sausage, thick bacon. At camp, all the meat was unpacked and hung from trees, out of reach of animals. Once dinner was cooking, the gauchos started mate, a communal tea drink with a flavor similar to green tea. The gourd is filled with uncrushed yerba leaves packed in tightly and hot water is poured in. The tea is sipped through a silver straw with a strainer at bottom until dry. Then it is passed back to the maker, who fills it and passes it to the next person. When you wish to stop drinking mate, you say gracias.

The second morning, we headed up to a high ridge overlooking the lake above treeline. We made numerous attempts to head down in different directions, but there had been late snows in November and now there were still snowfields and very muddy areas. We kept climbing higher and higher skirting the snow patches for hours in the bitter frigid wind, looking for a passage or camping spot. Scrambling down a steep slope with slippery rocks, walking the horses, we finally descended into a stand of lenga trees at dusk (around 9pm), with a soft forest floor for the tent. Our crew slept out in the open on sheepskin saddle blankets. Between the trees we could see the lights of Bariloche winking across the lake. In the clearing where the horses were tied for the night, we marveled at the stars in clear night sky - the Tres Marias (Orion's Belt) and the Southern Cross.

Packing up the gear, the guides pointed out their facha, woven waistbands the gauchos tucked their knife into at back. Carol proclaimed, "We will go up again" and travel across to where we can come down easier. Adam smiled. "Up is down," he remarked. Carol's horse dropped into a mudhole at one point, his rear end almost disappeared beneath the mucky surface. At her insistence it kicked itself free and struggled out. In another spot, the back legs of Adam's horse submerged. Carol called to him to stay on the horse and hold on while Esteban pulled him out. We headed up over the ridge again and this time found the trail that headed back to the barn, for one more asado (Argentine grill).

On our last night in Bariloche we happened on a Christmas concert in the town square. Children sang, carrying torches that were made from tin cans mounted on sticks, a live lamb was part of their nativity scene. Back in Buenos Aires, we returned to the same b&b. Notes were lying under the Christmas tree with requests for Santa written by the children. At 10pm on Christmas eve, we heard a knock on our door. It was our host, Gus: "You are our guests, won't you join us for Christmas dinner?" Red tablecloths covered long tables in the courtyard. We were welcomed to a delightful evening of conversation by candlelight with their large extended family. At midnight Santa arrived with presents and the children opened them then, fireworks were set off on rooftops.

This holiday weekend, we shopped along Florida street; strolled the citylike pathways of Recoleta cemetery admiring stately and ornate mausoleums, poignant statues; and visited the Sunday antiques fair in the charming, old San Telmo barrio with its unique street performers. Unable to find an open restaurant in Palermo on Christmas day, we taxied to the Jewish quarter to find several restaurants serving dinner as usual.

One more local flight brought us as far south as we could go - to the city of Ushuaia, in the maze of waterways and mountainous islands that compose Tierra del Fuego. We booked a six hour boat trip down the Beagle Channel for the next day. The tour operator told us to come at 3pm. It seemed awfully late in the day to be starting out. Then we realized the sun wouldn't set until after 10pm! The usually turbulent waters were pretty calm that day, but the wind was brisk, as we stopped to view islands of sea lions, cormorants, and to laugh at the humorous antics of inquisitive penguins on Isla Martillo. The king crab was so plump and flavorful in a local restaurant that we ordered it both nights.

We went to a tango show our last night in Buenos Aires and were seated at a front table. The tango dance tells a passionate story of lovers - embracing, jealous, spurned, love flung away and reclaimed, in dramatic and graceful movements - eyes burning, noses almost touching, backs straight and proud, legs flying, dresses flaring. A vibrant end to a glimpse of a beautiful and passionate country.

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