March 25, 2009

Settling Down in Buenos Aires

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Fermin with His Friends
Fermin and Friends
Mimi and Grandson Manuel
Mimi and Grandson Manuel

While we were traveling in Chile and Patagonia, Guille and Javier had their second child, Juaquina. She is a lovely little girl with a sweet disposition. We spent one night at their home, but it was clear that we needed to find an apartment quickly. Luckily, our friends Marta and Estiban were just about to rent a flat in Nunez. Despite being from the center of all the action in downtown or Palermo, we jumped on the opportunity. They were not 100% ready for us to move in but we were able to move in that day, Sunday the 15th of March. The biggest drawback of moving into an apartment not quite ready has been the lack of cable TV and the internet. But we are assured that it will come this week. We can only hope that it will come, because - after all - this is Argentina.

We started to reacquaint ourselves with the city and our old friends. We joined some friends at Club Europa a week ago Monday. It was great to see Pablo, Gabriela, Daniel and Guillermo. On Friday we met with the English Group at Fame. We especially liked seeing Mari Luz and Marita Silviere. On Saturday we went out to Laura's house in Victoria. These past four years, she has not been in Argentina much. Like us, she has just returned for a long visit before she heads back to her new home in Ireland. We got to see more old friends: Monica, Pato and Gonzalo. We hope to see many more of our friends in Buenos Aires before returning to the states.

Betty and Joaquina
Betty and Joaquina

We have also been getting to know our neighborhood. We are on the border between Nunez and Belgrano. We have been wondering around a lot, looking for all the things we will need to live here for the next two months. Changing money has become a bit more difficult since our last visit. So, we must find the closest money exchange, which turned out to be not so close. We have found some nice restaurants and bakeries nearby. There is a wonderful park just a few blocks away. Overall it looks to be a good area to be in.

Finally, I want to wish Fermin Burgos a very happy third birthday. We went to a party for him last week. I have never seen so many toddlers at a birthday party before. We think there we more than 20 little ones, not to mention their parents. We got to see Javier's mom, brother and sister and their children. All these children came after our departure in 2005. The kids had a great time in Mimi's backyard: playing in an air house made for jumping, a little play car, and many other toys. There was goodies to eat, including a delicious chocolate cake. The kids broke a balloon piñata full of candies, which they all scrambled after.

Everything has not been perfect. Not having the internet has been particularly annoying. But, overall it has been a satisfying beginning to our stay here.

View from Our Bedroom Window
View of Skyline in Nunez

Posted by bill at 10:03 AM | Comments (0)

March 14, 2009

The Perito Moreno Glacier

Litrenta Family
in Front of Their Bookstore
Litrenta Family

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Bill by the Glacier
img_5065 Bill before Glacier
Betty was There Too
img_5108 Betty before Glacier

We arrived in El Calafate on Wednesday morning after four arduous days of travel. We travelled all night long on roads that were paved less than half the time. Sleep was difficult and we arrived tired. We were couchsurfing in El Calafate and our host family was wonderful. Carlos and Yolanda greeted us enthusiastically. They have two lovely children, Alma and Lucas, who are nine and two years respectively. They helped us find the least expensive way to see the glacier that we had come so far to see. Believe it or not, El Calafate is overrun with foreign tourist - all coming to see the glacier. A simple bus ride to the park costs $22 and the park entrance fee is $17 per day. At one time Argentineans could enter at no cost, but even they must pay almost $6. There are adventure tours that have some hiking on the glacier. The longer one costs $155 dollars. Most tourists pay something in between the $39 that we paid and the top end $155 tour. Besides the bus tickets, we bought airplane tickets to BA. Given the high cost of bus travel in Patagonia and multiple days to return to BA, we considered it the only sane option.

We made our way to the bus station early in the morning. The bus left at 8:30 and at the end of long and winding road we arrived at 10:00. The found the glacier to be majestic, even though it is not the most grand in the area. The glacier's face is about 150 feet high. This wall was maybe three miles wide and stretch back more than ten miles. We spent much of the day viewing the glacier from various angles. During the day we could hear the glacier rumble and crack. We saw large pieces of ice fall into the lake. I was even able to capture this event on video and you can see it by clicking here. The ice is so darn blue, especially when the sun was shining brightly in the afternoon. We were joined by hundreds tourists from all over the world. Their numbers took us by surprise. They were mostly either old or young, with only a few middle-aged couples with children.

Video of Glacier Calving

There is not a lot to do in El Calafate, if you are not a hiker. One could fly in, spend one night in the town, view the glacier and fly out that evening. For us, we had bought our plane tickets for Saturday evening. That left a day of searching for things to do or see. The wind was blowing very hard and cold on Friday. We stopped at a nice coffee shop with Wi-Fi to finish my last BLOG entry and re-start our apartment search in BA. After several hours, we decided to try to walk to the bird sanctuary near the lake. With the cold wind, we felt like we were freezing. It was hard to believe, but there they were: a large flock of flamingos. There were some black-throated swans and ducks, too. We could not stay long. Trying to stay out of the cold we made a long lunch of small pizza. Then we went for more coffee. At five we returned to the Litrenta family home, some seven kilometers from the town center.

Today we rode into town and will try to keep warm and enjoy ourselves. In recent years they built a new airport some 30 kilometers from the town center. Like BA’s Ezia airport, there is no public transport to the Calafate airport, which means a $14 cab fare. Late tonight we will be back in BA. We are looking forward to the warmth of the city and our old friends.

The Perito Moreno Glacier
Perito Moreno Glacier

Posted by bill at 02:41 PM | Comments (2)

March 11, 2009

Leaving Chile

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On the Alejandina
On the Alejandina
The Road to Puerto Ibanez
Road to Puerto Ibanez

My Eyes On Chile
Pros and Cons for the Visitor

For the traveler, Chile is very expensive in comparison to other countries in the Americas. In accommodations for same quality of services, only Canada is more expensive. Yes, hotels and guesthouse cost more per night than in most places in the USA. For a low-grade double, you will pay at least $35 everywhere in Chile. Only substandard accommodations can cost less. For example, a double with a shared bath was often quoted at $26 per night and a bed for one person in dorm room at $12 per night.
Restaurant food was costly too. Meals in ordinary restaurants started at $5 for a sandwich and a meal would run at least $8 per person. Beer cost $3 per bottle. Only the wine was inexpensive.
Generally, there were only three bargains in Chile: bus transportation, wine and seafood. The cost was about $1 for every 60 miles of travel. Drinkable wine cost as little at $2 per bottle. Seafood cost no more than beef and pork.
Travel by car in extremely expensive. Not just because of gas prices, but more because of the system of toll roads. The Chilean government sold the concession a few years ago and now the people pay large fees to travel on two or four-lane roads, at least $3 every 60 miles. Some of the roads are good, but some need repair. Personally, I consider this method of paying for roads extremely onerous – especially when the wages of the people are so low. Since we did not travel by car, the tolls did not personally effect us.
But the other costs made the travel very uncomfortable for us.

What we enjoyed the most was our friends in Talagante and the kindness of a stranger in Concepcion and our hosts in Quellon. Beyond that we were not enthralled by Chile. We enjoyed Vina del Mar a bit, especially our time with Matt. Only Valdivia was really charming to us.
True, the natural beauty of Chile is spectacular. Nearly everywhere one could see the mountains. In the south lakes, rivers and fjords were wonderful sites.

The graffiti in and around Santiago was disturbing, to say the least. The eyesore is left to fester. Why the people allow it to continue is surprising. Except for Vina del Mar, we found the cities in the north and Concepcion to be dirty, reminding us of Mexico. Every mile south seemed to be cleaner and cleaner. Coyhaique was clean and free of graffiti. Chile Chico was pristine.

Unlike Argentina, the people trust the police. There are no roadblocks and no unnecessary intrusions by the police into the lives of the Chileans. There is almost no corruption in the country and the government is fairly transparent.
For the traveler it is of little importance, but I want to mention something that I found disturbing: The constitution enacted by the Pinochet dictatorship is still in force and the only way to change it is by an act of congress. The system to elect representatives to this congress is almost devoid of real democracy. The ruling parties can get a representative elected with less than 20% of the vote and a candidate with more votes can lose to someone with fewer votes. They have a stable and progressive government for now, but there are no guarantees that it will continue that way unless somehow the constitution is amended to allow true proportional democracy.

We say visit Chile to see your friends. We say see the natural beauty in Chile. We say be sure to bring a wallet full of money to Chile and expect to spend it all.

We left Quellon on the ship Alejandina at 10 o'clock on Saturday night. The boat ferries passsager and vehicles as far south as Chacabuco, which is the port for Aisen, Chile. There are no berths on this boat, only seats that remind you of the coach on an intercontinental flight, only the rows were six-across. for the first six hours the ship seeemed nearly full, so we could not not stretch out across seats. A large number of passengers got out at Melinka and we took of advantage of the situation to get more comfortable. Comfortable is a relative term here, so don't think that is was easy. We woke in the morning and ate some of the food we brought and got cups of coffee. This Sunday was sunny, clear and warm. A perfect day to view the islands and fjords of southern Chile. When the boat put into a harbor, locals came onbord to buy fruit and vegtables, or to pick up expected freight. Occasionally a truck would pull off. The only diversion was movies, mostly dubbed into Spanish. I spent a lot of time on deck watching and enjoying the views and the sun. That night there were only a few passengers of the more than 100 that started with us. So we stretched out again and tried to sleep. The next morning we ate and drank coffee and enjoyed a bit of the view. We finally arrived in Chacobuco about noon on Monday, some 38 hours after embarking from Quellon.

We shifted gears now, boarding a bus to Aisen. In Aisen we got on another bus ($2.50 each) heading for Coyhaique. Two hours later we were in the prettiest town so far in Chile. We waited until 5 o'clock to ride to Puerto Ibanez. The van driver ($5 each) took us around Coyhaique to pick-up other passengers and freight. We headed out of town just before six. The drive was beautiful. The terrain was quite different, drier and looking more like the western US than the fjords we had just passed through. We arrived shortly before sunset. We got tickets ($8 each) for the ferry in the morning that would take us to Chile Chico. Then we hunted for a hostel that would accept the small sum of Chilean money in my pocket about $24. The lady at the Hospedaje Don Francisco was kind enough to accept us. She started the hospedaje six years ago and we were her first Americans. The hot showers we took that night began to restore our souls after two days of non-stop travel.

On Tuesday we walked to the ferryboat terminal after breakfast. We left at 10 and arrived in Chile Chico at 12:30. We quickly found the bus to Perito Moreno, which cost $8 each and seemed a bit high for a two-hour ride compared to Chile. At Perito Moreno we were able to buy tickets for El Calafate. Here I got a shock. The price of our tickets, $50 each, were two to three times the cost for other bus companies in Argentina. Unfortunately there was no other transport. I asked the agent if would there be food served, as is the usual custom in Argentina; the answer was NO! Shocked again! I asked if it was semi-cama; he said YES. The bus came an hour later and we got on. No, it was not semi-cama. This bus left at 5 o'clock and we would ride all night long. Half the roads were gravel and I could not get comfortable. There was no blankets or pillows. The TAQSA gave the worst service of any bus company in all of Argentina or Chile; I was disgusted. Something very strange happened when we boarded this bus. All the passengers were young foreigners. What was going on? We rarely saw a foreigner, yet they appeared from nowhere. While I was pissed about the greedy bastard that ran this bus company, my fellow travelers chalked it up to being in Patagonia. What the hell were they talking about? And did they have no sense of value? We rode through the night and arrived in El Calafate about 9 in the morning.

So went our journey from Quellon to El Calafate.

Snow-Capped Mountain from the Deck of the Alejandrina
Snow-Capped Mountain

Posted by bill at 10:33 AM | Comments (0)

March 07, 2009

La Grande Isla de Chiloé

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Fishing Boat in Castro
Fishing Boat
Another Fishing Boat
Boat 2
Stilt Houses in Castro
Stilt Houses
The Quellon Shore
Quellon Shore
Quellon Skyline
The Villalobos Family
Villalobos Family

Monday, we took a bus ($8.50 each) from Puerto Varas to Castro, which is in the middle of the island of Chiloé. The four-hour bus journey was slow but steady. With no bridge to island, the bus crossed on a small ferry. The small town is the capital of the island. It has beautiful little port. After moving into El Mirador, a hospedaje overlooking the harbor, we walked along the bay. We wandered through an artisanal market with mostly low-cost woolen goods of moderate quality. The designs were rustic and interesting to me but not to Betty. We continued along the bay until we reached a modern, yet abandoned, museum of an extremely odd design. Then we had a dinner of salmon for me, and a fish soup for Betty. We were tired from the travel and went back to our room to call it an early night.

Like Monday, Tuesday was warm, bright and sunny. We explored a bit of the little town. Most of it can be seen in a few hours. We tried to get information on travel south of Chiloé. We got the general idea that we could travel by boat and bus to the places we wanted to go, but the details were sorely lacking. It was clear to me that all of the people we talked to had at most heard a story of someone traveling to Coyhaique and on to Argentina, but no one had done it or had known someone personally who had made the trip. We were surprised to learn that the only bus company that goes there, does not have a combination bus-boat-bus itinerary, rather their buses drove 100 miles north and crossed into Argentina before heading south. This was hard for me to imagine. We ended again along the bay, enjoying the warmth of the sun. I say this because the nights are cool here, in the mid 40's (6c). It is getting cool enough so that Betty bought a new fleece jacket, because we expect it to get even cooler as we head further south. In the late afternoon we stopped for another seafood meal. This time we had seafood empanadas. Betty did not like them; she just does not like shellfish.

The rain started in the night. It was still raining when we got up on Wednesday morning. Nothing seemed to go right this day. Betty has wanted to see the penguins forever. We knew they were near Ancud. So, we took a bus there only to discover that a whole lot more was involved - not to mention that the rain came even harder. So we decided not try the trip to the islets where the penguins were to be found. Turning around and going back was a sad note. Back in Castro, we were hungry and went to Restaurant Sacho. I had eaten there once before in 2002. The place is lovely and not overly touristic. The food was good. I had the stuffed salmon and Betty had fried Merluza. With the rain still coming we went to our rooms to work puzzles and write and view photos and listen to the radio.
We met a really interesting traveler, Andrea, from Switzerland. We talked for hours about our shared travels. For us she was a wealth of knowledge, because she had just taken much of the route we plan to take to Argentina. The journey will involve 36 hours on a boat with awful seats and no bunks. Then several more bus rides and another ferry crossing. We continued well into the evening. Many of the other guests at El Mirador also came to the dining room to eat and talk. The group was substantially older than one would normally find at a hostel. It was a fun and interesting evening.

On Thursday we traveled two hours by bus to Quellon ($3 each). For the first time we would stay with a Chilean couchsurfing hosts, Carlos and Julia Villalobos. They own a popular phone, internet and game-playing shop. Unfortunately they must work from midday until midnight. Carlos speaks no English but he is funny and has a real spark. We spent a lot of time in the evening talking to Julia, who speaks English quite well and has a very big vocabulary. They worked for seven years in the TicToc preserve in extreme isolation. She became an expert in local wild herbs, fruits and vegetables. She is quite a storyteller. She told us several really good stories about the preserve. She had several UFO stories and they were the best. I just wish that they had included some stories about little green men. If she had any of those she did not share them. It was clear that she has a wonderful imagination. They have two children, Juan Jose and Jose Miguel. They are 13 and eleven years old. The thirteen year-old is on his way to becoming an excellent English speaker. We taught them how to play Rummy, while their parents were at work. Between meeting our hosts and their children, we ate a good lunch of fish and we bought our tickets ($47 each) for the boat that leaves Saturday evening about 10 o'clock.

We got out midday on Friday. We hiked for about an hour-and-a-half. Then we stopped at our hosts' shop. We invited Carlos out for lunch. He decided to drive to the village on Chonchi, about 35 miles away. The drive was beautiful with the lakes and hills of southern Chiloe. The village was an idyllic looking place of older and better quality buildings than Quellon. We had a good meal of seafood. Betty continues to like fish soup. Carlos had grilled congria. I had a crab cake, but it was unlike American crab cakes. Basically it was a bowl of baked crabmeat with a layer of cheese on the top. After lunch we headed back. Along the way, we stopped to visit some land that Carlos is trying to develop. It is beautiful site along a bay with a good length of shoreline. We could see the mountains of the mainland and a volcano. We also saw a large number of birds including the South American black-throated swan. On the land he has built to cabins with water and electricity. It was late when we returned to Quellon. I played cards with Juan Jose. When Julia returned and Betty was already asleep, I talk and talked with Julia until midnight.

Saturday we got ready to leave on the boat to Chacobuco. We bought coffee and bread, Then we made sandwiches. In the afternoon, I uploaded photos to my Flickr photostream. And I prepared this BLOG entry for publication. We will be off to Chacobuco later today.

Fishermen in Castro
Fishermen in Castro

Posted by bill at 02:59 PM | Comments (0)

March 01, 2009

Puerto Varas

Kuschel House
Kuschel House
Church of the Sacred Heart
Church of the Sacred Heart

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Thursday, we left Valdivia mid morning on the Cruz del Sur bus line. The fare to Puerto Varas was $6.50. We arrived about three hours later. It was overcast but still fairly warm. We took a long time to find accommodations. The price of a room is very high here. The only rooms less that $35 per day were with a shared bath. The lowest of those was about $25 without breakfast. The best price for a share-bath with breakfast was $34. Private rooms with breakfast started at $48. Given these very high prices we opted for a small double bungalow for $50 per night. The owner calls his rentals Altos del Pilar. Our unit has two floors, with three-bedrooms, a kitchen, cable TV and Wi-Fi. We were able to negotiate this lower price because we would stay four nights and, of course, there are only two of us. By the time we found this place, the sun had burned off the clouds. It got a bit warmer. When we walked to the Lake Llanquihue, we could see the Volcano Osorno across the lake - about 30 miles away. We walked a bit in the town center and finally split a fish dinner. We have been eating a lot of fish in Chile. It is always very good to eat and it is reasonable in cost, even cheap at times. We picked up some groceries before calling it a day.

I slept late on Friday. I was exhausted from climbing up and down the hills around Puerto Varas. Yes, I forgot to mention that the search for accommodations was strenuous, as I had to hike and climb a lot. Once up I took it easy, fried some eggs and worked a puzzle. About noon the sun burned the mist and clouds off. We made a walking tour of the town concentrating on the century old houses that the German immigrants built. These houses are larger than the common small houses seen throughout Chile, but not much different than the common farmhouse in rural Wisconsin. The mora (blackberries) could be picked many spots in town and on our tour. We tried to get into the beautiful old German Catholic Church of the Sacred Heart, but it was locked up. Then it was more time down on the lake. We ate an early dinner at Dane's restaurant. We had pastel de choclo, a Chilean speciality made with cream-corn and chicken bits.

Saturday started overcast again. We headed out at noon hoping for the sun to come out. It almost did. It warmed up, but I still needed a jacket about half the time. We ate pizza at a late lunch. It started to sprinkle in the late afternoon. We stopped and picked up some bread for sandwiches in the evening. Shortly after returning to our bungalow, the rain started. It rained hard and continued raining all night. We had ham sandwiches and drank a bottle of wine in the evening. We watched TV and went to bed.

While I write this entry on Sunday morning, the rain continues. It has lightened up some. We will get out for a while when it stops. Later we will entertain ourselves on the internet and by watching TV.

For the cost, Puerto Varas hardly seemed worth more than an afternoon stop. Still we stay four days, which was at least one day too much. It is a pretty little town on a large beautiful lake with the mountains and volcanoes off on the horizon.

Tomorrow we will set of for Castro on the island of Chiloe.

Bill on the Shore of Lake Llanquehue with the Volcano Osorno
 Rio Valdivia

Posted by bill at 02:47 PM | Comments (3)