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Wrapping Up Argentina

November 14, 2008

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We’re back in Buenos Aires after more driving than we can believe. The car was the right choice for our visit, but we surely will choose a different means of transportation if we are fortunate enough to come back again in the future. After all, how much of this can we take?…..

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Today and tomorrow will involve wrapping things up; packing, returning the rental car, and doing whatever else we feel compelled to do before leaving Argentina. We are staying again with Birgit, Claus and Moritz which is such a great way to finish our stay. The kids are sleeping in, after swimming in the pool yesterday and playing with Moritz. I’m at a local wifi enabled cafe making last minute reservations for LA and Japan. Kelli is probably folding the our clean laundry that we desperately need.  I will return our damaged rental car this afternoon. Such are the glamorous parts of our travels.

Jack and Ainsley will post articles soon about our magical 2 night stay at an estancia named Peuma Hue near Bariloche. It was the singularly most beautiful spot during our travels so far and you can look forward to hearing about it soon in their unique voices. In the meantime, here is sample picture.

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Till later…..

More Argentina

November 8, 2008

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We are now in Bariloche, still in the mountains of Argentina, but now further north in the part of Patagonia known as the lakes region. Yesterday (Friday 11/7) was quite a rainy day and Jack had his first bout of sickness since we started our trip almost three months ago. Don’t know what he ate or drank that caused the vomiting for most of the day, but he was feeling much better as he went to bed. This morning’s weather looks to be much clearer as the rising sun can be seen coloring the few clouds in the sky. It will be a good day for hiking in the mountains.

Our postings have been a bit less frequent as our car travels through Argentina continue. Making the most of our stops, packing up every 2 or 3 days and then driving for endless hours on dirt roads can be all consuming. Thankfully, we are past the main dirt section of Route 40 and will have paved roads for most of the remaining time. That is much appreciated because we had a few really tough days on the road recently. In particular, our trip from El Chalten to Perito Moreno (the unremarkable town, not the glacier or national park of the same name) was quite a difficult one. The total travel time was about 10 hours or so, with the first 7 hours completely on dirt roads. During those first 7 hours we saw a total of 3 other cars on the road and no people, gas station or other civilization along the way. There were signs for a few estancias, or working farms, but their houses were many kilometers from the road. All I can say is thank goodness that our vehicle did not break down. We would have been in for quite a long wait for another passing driver.

Driving the dirt roads themselves was a bit of an adventure (looking at it with the glass half full), but something I never want to do again. We rarely exceeded 80 km/h (about 45 mph) and often traveled as slowly as 40 km/h (about 25 mph). Rocks frequently hit the underside of the car, making a disconcerting heavy knock at our feet and a loud noise. Kelli and I had to be especially careful not to hit any large rocks head for fear of blowing a tire or hurting the suspension. This was especially important, as we are not driving a 4×4. Instead we were driving a Chevrolet Corsa, or what I refer to as a 21st century Chevrolet Chevette. Let’s just say that it is pretty small and lightweight. Slander aside, it has been reliable and taken quite a lot of abuse from the road. It also has kept us safe in an accident…..

The accident happened as we were driving through El Bolson on our way to Bariloche. We had about 2 hours to go when I stopped to turn left as a car was coming down the same road in the opposite direction. The problem however was that a driver behind me did not take note that I was stopping and thought that he too would cross in front of the oncoming car. He accelerated to make it through and slammed at some speed into the back of our car. He did a fair amount of damage to the bumper and trunk of our lovely rental car, but thankfully everyone was unhurt. Over the last few days I spent a fair amount of time in the El Bolson police station, sending e-mails to the rental car agency and working through resolving the whole situation. Because the trunk no longer opens, we must put all of our backpacks into the trunk through the backseat! The positive out of all of this was that we ended up spending the night in El Bolson, which was really a charming, bohemian sort of town. They have a very active craft making community and it is also the central hops growing area in Argentina. (That meant good beer!) I even found a great international location for our “Boys Mountain Bike Trip”, a combination campground and brewery. (Ken Pugh won’t have to drive long distances to get the kegs.)

So, after the rainy day yesterday we’ll spend one more day in Bariloche, searching out some good, long hikes in the mountains overlooking the many lakes. Tomorrow we head to a nearby Estancia where we will treat ourselves to 3 days of activities (horseback riding, trekking, kayaking, etc.) and a place where all the meals are prepared for us. That will be a welcome break from the constant traveling and guidebook life.

Now, catching up on some photos from recent stops.

Puerto San Julian

This was our most Southern overnight stop on the coast, before we headed West into the mountains. (We ended up skipping Tierra del Fuego, in short because of the tremendous distance that would add to our travels.) Puerto San Julian was a very nice little town that we liked quite a bit. We spent our one-day there traveling the Circuito Touristo, which was a 24 km dirt road along the coast with amazing stops along the way. The kids also found the obligatory playground in town so that they could work off some of their energy after being cooped up in the car.

Parque Monte Leon

Just before heading West to the mountains, we made one last stop on the coast to Parque Monte Leon. It is the only National Park on the coast of Argentina and a very new one. (Kelli needed one last dose of beautiful beaches, sea lions and the coast.) It was quite remote and required us to find a key under a rock and unlock the gate ourselves. The access road then extended for a good 30 km or more before reaching the coast itself. While much of it looked similar to earlier stretches of the coast (at least to me), it had a unique island with thousands of birds and some truly spectacular vistas. We also had some “fun” helping a French couple extract their car from some deep mud on the access road. The kids put rocks under the tires to provide some traction and I (and the wife) rocked the front end back and forth while the husband drove the car. We were the only other people in the whole park and they were quite appreciative of our being there and helping.

Perito Moreno Glacier

Ainsley posted a great article about trekking on the Perito Moreno Glacier and I’m posting some more photos below from our walk around the paths in the park right in front of the face of the glacier. The size and scope of it was really impressive and the sounds of huge pieces “calving” off into the water were really amazing. Observing a glacier firsthand and so closely was really spectacular and unlike anything I had ever seen before.

The Coast of Argentina

October 31, 2008

Actually, we are now inland in Patagonia at the eastern side of the Andes Parque Nacional Los Galciares. We first visited the Perito Moreno Glacier in the southern section of the park, near El Calafate. (Look for Ainsley’s upcoming posting about trekking on the glacier.) Today we are in El Chalten, in the northen section of the park, listening to the wind blow and blow while the rain whips. In fact, we have been here for two days and have yet to see the famous Fitz Roy peak because of all of the clouds and rain. Hopefully the weather will clear and we will see it before we leave tomorrow. We head further north then, planning to have TV coverage wherever we are on election night. We’ll post some pictures soon about our hikes around El Chalten, but here we will catch you up on all of the wildlife from the coast in this posting.

Reserva Faunistica Peninsula Valdes

The Lonely Planet Guidebook says that this is one of South America’s finest wildlife reserves and we definitely concur. What I didn’t appreciate from reading the book and looking at the maps was the massive size of the peninsula. It has a total area of more than 3,600 sq km and more than 400 km of coastline. We drove over 250 km the day we visited the three main wildlife-viewing sites on the Peninsula. Of course, we saw the Southern Right Whale that Jack wrote about, but we also saw sea lions, elephant seals, Magellanic penguins, guanacos, sheep, rheas and plenty of seabirds. We hoped to be lucky enough to see some Orcas off Punta Norte, but there were no sightings the day we visited. Six were seen the day before, but it wasn’t to be for us. If you have ever seen film footage of orcas lunging onto shore to snatch a baby sea lion or sea elephant for lunch, it was filmed at Punta Norte on Peninsula Valdes, the only place where orcas have been seen to exhibit this behavior.

Overall, we were all awe struck by the wildlife we were able to see on the Peninsula. Seeing it on TV and in books is one thing, but actually seeing these animals up close was stunning. Kelli and the kids even watched a whale directly below them from the Puerto Madryn town pier for about 15 minutes. Just like the whale on our whale watch, it was right there for them to observe only two feet from the pier. What a great thing!

Gaiman and Parque El Desafio

We stayed one night in the small town of Gaiman after departing the Peninsula. The main attraction here was the teahouses resulting from the town’s Welsh heritage. No surprise that Kelli would search out a teahouse during our travels. We had a very relaxing down day here, enjoying the treat of afternoon tea, playing at the playground and exploring the most bizarre park we have seen, Parque El Desafio. Eccentric octogenarian Joaquin Alonso, the “Dali of Recycling,” created this park constructed exclusively of recycled beer cans, soda bottles and other materials, which gained it Guinness World Record status in 1998 as the Earth’s largest ‘recycled’ park. Amidst the truly zany designs he has painted small plaques with humorous sayings such as ‘Si quieres vivir major, mezcla a tu sensatez unos gramos de locura’ (‘If you want to live better mix up your sensibility with a few grams of craziness’). That he certainly did in building this park.

Reserva Provincial Punta Tomba

Yes, we saw Magellanic penguins on Peninsula Valdes, but we didn’t truly see them until our visit to Punta Tomba, Continental South America’s largest penguin nesting colony. There are more than 500,000 penguins in this colony and the number can grow close to 1 million after the two eggs from each of the 175,000 or so nesting pairs hatch in November and the juveniles from the season before return to molt in February. What a site that must be! We were fortunate anyway to walk through the park and observe the penguins keeping their eggs warm in their nests dugout from the desert-like ground, see them walking the “penguin highways” to the ocean and watch them zoom at fast speeds under the water. We also found a pair of English speaking park rangers who were able to answer the kids many, many questions about the their migration patterns, breeding and other aspects of penguin life in general.

Monumento Natural Bosque Petrificados

After our “lovely” (said with much sarcasm) stay in Comodoro Rivadavia, a powerhouse in the now privatized Argentinean oil industry, we headed further south, stopping at a petrified forest park. I had seen a petrified forest during my family’s cross country trip in 1976, but Kelli had yet to see one. So, this was a priority for her and a good side trip for the kids. We had some explaining to do for Eliot, that while this is called a forest, the petrified trees won’t be standing up in an actual ‘forest’. After a 40+ km drive down yet another dirt road, we had a great time looking at the massive petrified logs (some more than 7 feet in diameter) and learning about how they were first covered by ash from a nearby volcano some 150 million years ago and then began the petrification process when water carried various minerals into the wood. One of the most interesting things was the variety of colors in the petrified wood, resulting from the different minerals. This was also the location of our fox pictures for Pop, Pop. After a brief stop of 2 hours or so, we continued further south to Puerto San Julian.

I’m sitting here in the internet kiosk with really slow internet access and am running out of time for this posting. So, I’ll do another one soon with our time in Puerto San Julian, Parque Nacional Monte Leon, Perito Moreno Glacier and El Chalten.

Fox Pictures for Pop Pop

October 27, 2008

Just a quick post to put up a few pictures that we all think Pop Pop will really like. The fox is his absolute favorite animal and we were excited to see a pair at the Parque Bosque Petrificado, or Petrified Forest Park. The 150 million year old logs were neat, but so were the two foxes that were nearby.

We are now in El Calafate, after a long drive on more than 240km of dirt road. Cheers to the Eisenhower highway system in the US. Today we head to the Perito Merino Glacier.

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Sea Lion Pup Jumping in the Ocean

October 25, 2008

We’ve got many, many pictures and videos from our last few days driving down the coast of Argentina. What an education about sea life for all of us, especially the kids. We learned about the threats posed by overfishing in the world’s oceans, the migratory cycle of elephant seals, the mating process for Southern Right Whales and the nesting behavior of Magellanic Penguins to name a few.

Look for more details and pictures soon, but in the meantime we want to share a video that we really loved. Timing luck was on our side and we caught a little sea lion pup jumping into the ocean. The setting for his jump was pretty remarkable with wind whipping around at more than 50 mph, very choppy seas and much sand blowing us back to our car. The little guy remained undaunted by his natural environment and patiently “walked” down to the edge and perfectly timed his jump to the arriving waves. If you look closely, you will see that he pops right back up out of the water almost immediately after hitting it. Here are some pictures leading up to the video.

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Driving in Argentina

October 20, 2008

Well, after two months of riding in buses, airplanes and taxis I discovered that I am still able to drive a car. We rented a car in Buenos Aires a few days ago and are now heading south to Patagonia. The rental car experience started off a bit auspiciously when our rental car company and car were nowhere to be found at the airport in Buenos Aires. We had visited their downtown Buenos Aires office (we have since learned it is their only one) a few days before leaving for Iguazu and thought we had arranged to pick up the car at the airport. I called them from the airport to find out where it was and figured out what was going on amidst a flurry of spanish. Well, as you know we are still working on our spanish and apparently need to work on it some more as they thought we wanted to pick it up in Buenos Aires. After 2 hours of riding in taxis, filling out more forms and inspecting the car we were finally driving it and heading back past the airport to our destination for the night. Ugh.

The real story here though is driving through Argentina, and about the only word that truly fits is “vast”. I don’t know how else to describe what we drove through and saw for the 16 hours or so of driving over the past 2 days. The eastern coast of Argentina, south of Buenos Aires, seems to go on forever. First it was green fields with cows and the occasional group of trees and the long, straight road. Then it changed to a much more arid, almost desert like section, again with long, straight roads. Here is what it looked like.

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Note the GPS unit on the dash. We wisely rented that for the duration, although it is far from foolproof as we got seriously turned around and confused twice in the city of Bahia Blanca. The boys are entertained by all of the different language settings for the voice, including the current British English one. Ainsley has named it “No tan todopoderosa” which she says means “not so all powerful”. This name is derived from our favorite Spanish word so far “todopoderosa/o” which means all powerful. We came to know this word through the lovely world of billboard advertising, courtesy of a cell phone company. They have billboards all over the city off Buenos Aires that proclaim its music service/phones to be “todopoderosa”. It is quite a tongue twister of a word and fun for all to pronounce.

Beyond being fallible as a navigational device, the GPS has been known to tease us with hopes of a change in direction. For example it will say “go straight for 243kms” and then for the next two hours it counts down the kilometers to the “big turn”. Then, when it arrives at that moment we have all been waiting for and the women’s voice with the british accent warns “turn in 1.5 kms”, the actual result is “bear right and go straight for 190kms”. Whoo Hoo!! Then we get more road that looks like this…..

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……which looks a lot like the last photo.

So, we find what enjoyment we can out of driving straight and fast for 2 - 3 hours at a time. That often entails Jack and Eliot tickling each other and bothering Ainsley. It often also involves countless passing maneuvers around slow trucks on the two lane roads. Thankfully, we were able to burn a few audio books from our computer onto CDs and we passed 3 hours in the car yesterday listening to a good story called “The Cay”. We also had occasional sights to see like the sandstorm in tornado form below.

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But, amidst the long straight stretches and hours and hours of driving the countryside in this part of Argentina is beautiful in its own way.

Now, we are in Puerto Madryn, next to Penninsula Valdes where we can see whales from the beach and plan to spend a few days marveling at the whales, sea lions, seals and penguins all around us.

Servas Stay – La Lucila, Buenos Aires, Argentina

October 17, 2008

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We are now more than 2 months into our trip and things finally came into place for our first Servas stay. In short Servas is a worldwide person-to-person peace building organization that accomplishes its goal through homestays. We went through a fairly extensive interview process back in Durham to get “certified” as travelers and obtained a host list for each country we plan to visit. One of our goals for the trip is to experience the culture of each country in a deeper manner than one would as a tourist and Servas is an excellent way to do that. You can read more about this great organization here: http://joomla.servas.org/

Ecuador and Peru were rather limited in terms of the number and availability of Servas hosts. We did have a lovely dinner in Arequipa, Peru with a German family who is living there while their father teaches German. Argentina has far more hosts and we plan to interact much more with Servas here. Our first stay took place in La Lucila, a suburb if you will of Buenos Aires. It is really quite close to the city, only a quick 10 – 15 minute train ride (and that cost about 26 cents!) Our extremely gracious and friendly hosts were Claus, Birgit and their three-year-old son Moritz. They too are from Germany and are in Argentina to teach German at a local German school (they also know the family in Arequipa). It seems that one of Germany’s programs for international relations includes staffing (and paying for) teachers at German schools across much of South America. Wow, what an improvement from our country’s current approach of sending soldiers everywhere!

The hospitality that Claus and Birgit provided was really amazing. They opened their home to complete strangers and made us feel very welcome. Our stay was really great on a number of levels. We got to know them a little bit and learn about their experiences so far in Argentina and how things differ from their lives back in Germany. The kids got a chance to play with Moritz and with some legos and trains. We shared a traditional Argentinean asado one night along with many glasses of great red wine, many cups of coffee/tea together in the mornings and lots of conversation.

The first night we were there they hosted a Servas meeting and we were able to meet members from all around Buenos Aires. We had the opportunity to introduce ourselves to the group in Spanish, a little chance to display our new language skills. Ainsley did a wonderful job introducing the family and Kelli did well too. It was really nice to meet a group of local Argentinians, to hear about their experiences with Servas and learn more about Argentina.

Ainsley, Jack and Eliot really loved spending time there too. They had a new friend to play with, although poor Moritz was on the tail end of being sick. Ainsley tried her hand at reading some books to him in German. I was able to do some puzzles with him one morning and J and E were simply able to play. Without any real toys in our backpacks, all of the kids took to Moritz’ toys with glee. He was extremely generous with them, surprisingly so given his age and only child status. You will see in the pictures at the end that everyone loved playing!

Unexpectedly, Claus and Birgit invited us to stay with them again when we returned to Buenos Aires for one night on our way back from Iguazu. This made for a really pleasant start to the next phase of our visit to Argentina (the driving one!) and they also invited us to stay again when we return from our Patagonian wanderings. We look forward to sharing our trip with them and finishing up our stay in Argentina with new friends.

Thanks Claus and Birgit!

Cataratas Iguazu

October 16, 2008

img_4636.jpgYes, that is a Spanish word in the title, meaning falls (although in Ecuador cascadas was more commonly used). Putting a word here and there makes me feel a bit better about my Spanish skills which are developing, but still a bit limited. In fact, it is a daily event for Eliot to correct my pronunciation and for Ainsley to laugh at something I said. But, I am trying as much as my 41 year old brain will allow. As some proof, I was actually able to help someone with lesser language skills at the lavanderia (laundromat) the other day in Buenos Aires.

Enough about that and now some details about our visit to Iguazu Falls. We arrived around 11 AM yesterday (Wednesday) as our body clocks are still a bit on Peru time (2 hours difference). The day was sunny and very hot and humid as this northeastern part of Argentina (bordering Brazil and Paraguay) is really a jungle climate. The park was a bit crowded with buses of tourists from 10 AM to 2 PM or so, but that didn’t impede our seeing the falls as we braved the crowds for a bit. The latter part of the afternoon was really great though, with the park mostly to ourselves. All of us were taken aback by the size, power and beauty of the falls. They really are more amazing than we expected and far grander than my childhood memories of Niagra Falls.

lizard-small.jpgOne of the surprising things from the day was the amount of wildlife that we saw. This included caimans (related to alligators), tiger lizards, Coatis (think racoons), mariposas (butterflies), toucans, and something that looked like the cuy (guinea pig) that we ate in Ecuador. Apparently there are also cats and pumas in the area which led the park to put up a sign in one spot that warns you to keep sight of your children at all times. We made sure that no animal carried Eliot into the jungle!

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Voting Day, Politics and the Economy

October 8, 2008

While Election Day 2008 is November 4, 2008, voting day for us was this past Monday in Lima, Peru. We received our ballots via mail at the South American Explorers Club thanks to Mike Ashe, one of John’s running friends in Durham and Director of the Durham County Board of Elections. Thanks Mike! The ballots arrived just as we hoped they would; it must be that old Army discipline at work!

The pictures below show us depositing the ballots in the Peruvian Mail system. We hope they arrive safely because NC seems to be in play for the Presidential race and there are a number of important and interesting statewide races. Eliot played a key role in the process — check out those Hanes!

Beyond our voting the other day and perhaps contrary to the image presented by our blogging to date, all is not always grand out here in the world of travel. We have daily struggles with food consumption (what will Eliot eat?), brother trouble (why do they always have to touch each other?) and where will we stay (does it meet everyone’s criteria?). Those are just the day to day worries, though. We also are prone to the anxieties of everyday life and the impact of what we see reported daily in the web and occasionally on TV media. What is going on in the presidential race? What is happening to the US and global economy? What is happening to our little investments? What is happening to the South American political landscape?

The constitutional amendment or referendum that we were following in Ecuador recently passed. It’s hard for we with poor Spanish skills to fully understand from the newspapers, but it appears as though Rafael Correa (Ecuador’s President) has been given much broader executive authority. He has recently been sidling up with Hugo Chavez and it is not really clear what this will mean for Ecuador. We saw only demonstrations urging a “Si” vote and it was clear that many of the “common people” (read economically poorer) were supportive of this. I wish we knew more about what this means for the future of Ecuador. We’ll see.

We also have heard of political strife in Bolivia, including the US Ambassador being shown the door and the same happening in Washington DC. Much of South America seems to be heading hard to the left at the moment, partly due to the influence of Hugo Chavez and perhaps aided by some of the recent US international policies. With the poverty and corruption that appears to be fairly common here, it is not hard to understand how this can happen.

The state of the US and world economy also has been something we have watched with some interest and much concern. “Wow!” is almost all that I can summon at this moment. Lehman Bros going bankrupt, Wachovia in a fire sale, Merill Lynch (our personal investment firm) sold, AIG almost going under, etc. Let’s hope that the economic turmoil is not as long and protracted as many fear. Is it better to be off traveling in the world now, a bit removed from the reality, or to be back at home?

…..not quite!

June 23, 2008

We plan to go here, but haven’t yet arrived. Take a look at the map at the top right side of the home page to see where we are and the “Where?” page for where we intend to go.