03-06-2016 – South American Excursion

We’ve embarked on a new excursion, the longest we’ve ever done: we expect to be away from Lungta about three months. We’ll be visiting South America, traveling by air, sea and land, starting with a two-week cruise around Cape Horn and then backpacking north back home.

We arrived at the San Salvador airport at 4:30am for our flight to Buenos Aires, including a 12 hour layover in Panama City. We thought it might be interesting to see a ship or two go through the Panama Canal. We easily caught a bus from the airport into Panama City, and then found another that went by the Miraflores Locks, where there is a viewing platform. Unfortunately, we were disappointed to learn that the entrance fees had more than doubled since our Lonely Planet was published and they also no longer offer a viewing platform-only option, just the bundled ticket that includes a museum, restaurant, 3D movie, gift shop, etc. The cost does not fit our budget 🙁 so after a little bit of dithering we headed back to the road and caught a bus back to town. We went back to the main bus terminal, grabbed a bite to eat and then spent the rest of the afternoon wandering a neighborhood that was full of magnificent old buildings that were crumbling, and many of which were either being renovated or gutted (presumably for future renovation). It was a fairly lazy day, largely spent figuring out how to get around an unfamiliar city.

When we arrived in Buenos Aires the next morning, we were a little surprised to find that we had crossed three time zones east from the Central American time zone (that lines up with the American Central Standard Time). We had a surprisingly difficult time getting out of the airport! We tried to take a city bus, but were told that they no longer accept cash and we needed to get a Metro card. We stopped at three places that advertised them, but didn’t actually sell them. Finally we found a kiosk in another terminal that had them, and from there it was a breeze! We talked with a woman on the bus who turned out to be a tourist police officer in the airport. She told us that she was heading close to where we wanted to go, so she showed us how to get on a commuter train with her, and then change to a subway to get to the neighborhood called San Telmo where we planned to get a hostel. She emphasized to us that the city was full of pickpockets and that we should be careful, a message that we heard numerous times from locals. We found an inexpensive hostel pretty quickly, and then spent the next couple of days absorbing the ambiance. We were surprised at how many pizza restaurants we encountered; it turns out that lots of Italians settled in the area after World War I. The local speech sounds a lot like Italian, and also has the Castillian features that were new to us – the “ll” that we are used to hearing as “y” is more of a soft “jh”, and sometimes “s” sounds are barely voiced, occasionally lisped. We tracked down an adapter plug so we could charge our devices (phones, tablets, cameras) – but only those which could accept 220V. We found the cruiseboat terminal, spent some time in a somewhat trendy neighborhood called Palermo, and tracked down a tango dance, just to make sure that our experience was truly authentic. 🙂 Although there are lots of tango events held regularly throughout the city every day, it was a little difficult to choose one. We didn’t want an expensive dinner-show put on for tourists. There are participatory dances held at various venues around town, and we chose one that was held in an outdoor gazebo. It was definitely not flashy, and there were no especially good dancers, but it was cool that what we saw was “real” people dancing because they wanted to, after a normal weekday of work. We watched for perhaps 20 minutes before heading out in search of dinner, and then were surprised to find that we were near Chinatown – truthfully, we didn’t even know that there was a Chinatown in Buenos Aires! We enjoyed a very nice Chinese dinner, watched a few more minutes of tango, and then headed back to the subway to go home. Although it was only 10pm on a Friday night, the subway had stopped running, and we were quite a ways from our hostel. We were pleased to find that we knew our way around the city well enough to know which way was “home”, and found that we were walking along a street with lots of buses. Although we didn’t really know the bus system at all, we hopped on one going our way. When it turned off, we jumped off and resumed walking a few blocks further along. We did this two or three times, and eventually ended up close to our neighborhood. What an adventure! 🙂 It was exciting to visit one of the world’s romantic cities, and equally exciting to be embarking on our latest excursion.

The third morning, we retraced our steps to the cruiseboat terminal, and this time boarded the Norwegian Sun, our home for the next 15 days. That first night we motored across the huge bay formed at the mouth of the Rio de la Plata, and the next day we wandered the streets of Montevideo, Uruguay. We were shocked to see that the streets were completely empty, except for a few shops right near the dock where the cruiseboat was tied off. It felt like we had stumbled into an episode of The Twilight Zone, a ghost town. The city was extremely clean and felt like a U.S. city but for the emptiness. It was a Sunday and we surmised that all the residential areas are outside the downtown. We did spend a bit of time in an beautiful and fascinating national history museum, where we saw a lot of paintings and artifacts related to the separation of Uruguay from Argentina There was no mention of the indigenous people who lived in that area before the Europeans arrived. We can say we’ve been to Uruguay, but it doesn’t really feel like we’ve experienced anything uniquely Uruguayan.

The cruise boat’s rhythm seems to be to spend a day at sea alternated with a day in port. On our days at sea, we’re enjoying spending an hour or so in the gym, something we don’t do in our “daily” lives. There’s usually a talk by a naturalist describing the sights that will be available in the upcoming port. And we’ve been playing chess with some regularity for the last couple of weeks. Kathy is new to the game which Dan has played for years, but we’re both learning and improving. We’ve even checked a book out of the ship’s library which gives a basic overview of chess strategy. The ship’s internet is satellite-based, and fairly expensive, so we’re not spending much time browsing. That’s our excuse for the limited number of photos in this posting. 🙂

The next port we visited was Puerto Madryn, an Argentine town 400 miles south of Buenos Aires. It’s not huge, but it is in an area where several species of penguin gather in rookeries to mate and have their young. We were shocked at the expense of the excursions offered by the cruise boat, so we decided to strike out on our own. We disembarked as early as we could and went directly to a car rental agency to find that another couple got there before us and was in the process of renting the only car available – but they invited us to join them, and we happily split the costs. Together we drove 2.5 hours to Punta Tombo, a national park which is home to somewhere around 100,000 breeding pairs of Magellanic penguins. They have a nice visitors center with lots of information about the local natural life – almost all of it was written in Spanish. 🙁 They had rangers posted every dozen yards along the very well-delineated trails to make sure that tourists don’t disturb the penguins resting in their burrows or waddling across the path. We were pleased to have arrived before the hoards of tour buses that arrived about 15 minutes later. There were indeed lots of penguins dotting the landscape, some of them molting fuzzy brown feathers in favor of the black-and-white ones sported by adults, some of them making odd barking/crooning sounds to call a mate (?), some mating and a few swimming near the shore. We also spotted a few guanacos, a local variant of the camel, along the road. These guys, unlike the unperturbable penguins, were a bit skittish. We spent about an hour walking around the park, and at the end of our day we stopped at a paleontological museum in a town along the way called Trelew. This was an amazing museum, with bones of many types of dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals, mostly found in the area. As we exited, we passed a window onto a large laboratory where they were working on current digs – very cool!

Magellanic Penguin

We also visited the Falkland Islands, a remote windswept chain of low islands where we were lucky to have nice weather. We hiked up to a low rocky hilltop with a great view of the capital town of Stanley and the nearby countryside. At the summit we happened upon a memorial to a small squadron of soldiers. As we were walking back to town, we got a lift from a man who is part of the team that is removing land-mines from the island (there are still about 80 areas that need to be cleared from the 1982 Argentinean invasion, and the government has committed to completing the task by 2019). We learned a lot about the 1982 conflict be.tween Great Britain and Argentina and the long-standing mutual feelings of distrust and dislike between Argentina and the British citizens of the Falklands. Although the politicians in London aren’t enthusiastic about supporting a remote outpost on the other side of the world, the local citizens are clearly British and do not want to be part of Argentina. When we asked if we could pay for a cup of cocoa at a coffee shop in Argentine pesos, the woman at the counter offered to burn the bills for us! There were quite a few British tourists sending postcards home; presumably a stamp cost them virtually nothing.

Falklands Vista

The highlight of the cruise is Patagonia, the area around the Southern Cone, frequently called The End of the World (Fin del Mundo). History is full of bold tales of brave men on ships who traveled to unknown places (including lots of stories of loss). There’s big weather in these parts, but we were blessed with amazingly calm conditions as we passed rounded the cape. The ship’s itinerary was indirect, since the goal wasn’t merely to get from point A to point B. They made an effort to travel in the three most well-known routes around the point: the Drake Passage, the Beagle Channel, and the Strait of Magellan. First we went directly to Cape Horn, the southernmost point of South America, where the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans come together with the Southern Ocean. This is the Drake Passage, wide open to all of the winds and waves that the weather has to offer. The weather was so calm that the captain spun the boat an additional 360 degrees so that everyone could see the peak of Cape Horn from their balconies or the viewing decks. The birders in the group were somewhat disappointed, though, because the sea birds prefer to soar when there is lots of wind, and will just find a place to sit on the water or cliffs when it’s calm.

The Argentine city of Ushuaia is ready for tourists, with lots of taxis waiting to take you on a tour of the nearby Tierra del Fuego National Park. Although we didn’t have a lot of time, our taxi driver took us on a whirlwind trip to half a dozen places where we were able to walk around for 15-20 minutes each. There are lots of dramatic peaks here, separated by glacier carved valleys, small streams, peat bogs and green forests with brushy undergrowth. Apparently beavers were introduced into the area in the 1946 and have become quite a nuisance. We saw a beaver dam and learned that the rangers are killing them – and we read that some people even eat them! We also saw a red Patagonian fox, apparently not uncommon; a tour van was stopped at the side of the road while a woman was framing the perfect photo! Although the place was really beautiful, we were uncomfortable at how many people were dumped in at one moment. And I imagine our presence also changed the experience for the folks who were camping in the park, too! The ship also left here a little early so that we would still have daylight as we passed through the Beagle Channel, where there is a spectacular series of glaciers visible along the way. There were also lots of waterfalls from water melting off the glaciers, and a striking line separating the cold fresh glacier meltwater from the slightly warmer saltwater of the channel. The meltwater is a dramatically paler green color from fine suspended particles of rock that the glacier scoured off of the surrounding countryside. And then the weather changed! The wind picked up to 60 knots as we traveled through this channel,the skies turned dark gray and it started to rain. We spent most of this time in the observation lounge on the 12th floor, alternating between sitting inside next to the tall windows and standing outside in the exhilarating winds until the captain closed the outside decks to passengers.

Beagle Channel

We’ll spend the next couple of days cruising through the fjords and islands of southern Chile. The weather remains stormy so we can only hope that we’ll see some of the amazing scenery here. We’re enjoying our cruise immensely, including the gym and the frequent fancy meals! 🙂 This is the first time either of us has been to South America, and we’re visiting new countries and learning about new cultures and ecosystems daily. We’re also meeting new people, most of whom we won’t run across again, but a few who might turn out to be longer-term friends. We’re both a bit surprised to discover that we are enjoying this so much. Although our budget doesn’t cover much exotic travel, we found that we were able to get a last-minute deal at a very affordable price, which would have been significantly better if we had been willing to wait a couple weeks longer! Perhaps we’ll be doing this again…

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.