Valdivia, Chile

Travelling is evolution of familiarity. First step is the initial ´new´ shock. Everything seems new and strange from the food to the sights. Then two things happen as the adventure goes on. You get used to everything around you, it´s no longer shocking and different. You also become comfortable, and allow yourself to find things that are familiar. Like Gonzalo, a world travelling veteran said, ¨You travel really far only to find a place that looks a lot like somewhere you´ve been before.¨

A week ago (two weeks ago?) I blogged about how Bariloche reminded me a lot of Coeur d´Alene, Idaho. Ben and I then took the bus over the Andes due West and ended up in Valdivia. Like the Northwest, If you drive West you´ll cross the Cascades and land in Seattle. Sure enough, Ben and I had found the Seattle of Chile in Valdivia. 

The weather was incredibly similar as well. The Climate experienced by this area is a Pacific Marine climate, nearly identical with Seattle and unique to only these areas (I think). We were blessed with sunny days for our trip though, and were able to see the city in its full, colorful glory.

Our first day in Valdivia was a great introduction to Chilean food. Valdivia has a wonderful central market (like Pikes´ Place, right!), next to the water. On one side was fish, fresh fresh fresh fish. Behind the fish row lived hungry sea lions and seagulls, ecstatic to catch a discarded intestine or two. Opposite of the fish row was a beautiful display of fresh fruits and vegetables. I walked away from that market with about 5 pounds of fresh raspberries, blueberries, strawberries and a native berry called Murta. This little berry was the size of a blueberry, red and white in color with a  unique flavor. Kind of like a red sweet fruit but leaves a surprisingly herb like after taste.

Our couch host, Felipe was a great guy who loved Seattle music. Grunge to be exact. He was ecstatic to find out that Ben was from Seattle, knew all of his favorite bands, and had seen most of them live. Jealous might be a better word to describe that.

Soon after we arrived at his home we felt the earthquake. It was my first earthquake, and felt kind of like being gently rocked back and forth on a small boat. The earthquake wasn´t my only first that week. Felipe and Ben made sure that I tried my first Pisco Sourterremoto (Spanish for earthquake, also a drink made of white wine and pineapple ice cream), and completo. The completo is the ultimate drunk-munchies food. It´s a giant hot dog, covered in tomatoes, avocado spread and mayo. As a plus, it´s never over two US dollars.

Felipe also took Ben and I to the coast, where we toured more sea food and an old Spanish fort. The place was steeped in history. Not only was this for the last standing of the Spanish (survived 10 years more than the rest of Chile under Spanish control) Darwin also visited it. That´s right, Darwin on his voyage of the Beagle.

Ok, so Darwin didn´t visit Seattle, but Valdivia had a lot more in common with Seattle than we expected. In addition to the weather, market place, great seafood and hilly landscape, Valdivia was known for its local beer in Chile. Valdivia also had a progressive music scene and a cool young population mixed in with the old timers.

Well that´s it for now. Sorry for the lack of pictures, I´ll post more later when I find an internet cafe with the connections!

Non-Refundable Hike

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Parque Nahuel Huapi, right out of Bariloche is one of the most popular national park destinations of Argentina. It´s the oldest park, founded back in 1934.

Ben and I decided to try out a popular route, from the ski town of Catedral to the Refugio Frey to Refugio Jakob. From Jakob we had the option of making a trek over unmarked terrain to another refugio, or to hike out.

The guidebook, Lonely Planet´s trekking guide to the Patagonian Andes, called this hike a medium to difficult trek with some of the best vistas in the region.

Departure day was delayed for two days due to Ben getting some form of food poisoning. He rested up for 48 hours before we headed out on the trek to make sure he was up to it.

The first day, Catedral to Frey, was very pleasant. The well maintained path winded up around the edge of the lake, then shot up a narrow valley. The last mile of the trek was on the difficult side: climbing over boulders in a continual upward accent. But it was short lived, especially after we stopped for some rejuvinating Maté.

That night we stayed at Refugio Frey. Argentine national parks have designated camping spots along their national parks at what are called Refugios. They are shelters up in the mountains, built by the park service. You can get a surprising wide variety of supplies there, from fuel to food. If you want, you can pay to sleep in their dormitories and eat dinner and breakfast. This was far too expensive for Ben and I, so we hiked in all our food and camping gear.

I don´t know which was worse, hauling all that gear, or paying for the luxury of only carrying  a day pack. I think I prefer to be totally self-sufficient.

Day two was on the difficult side of Lonely Planet´s rating. Difficult is an understatement actually: It was the hardest day of trekking I´ve ever done. I´m no mountaineer, but I like to think of myself in decent physical shape with enough backpacking savvy to manage most of the public trails out there. This park had other plans.

In short, we ascended and depended on day two about 1,200 feet in less than half a mile. Sure, the topographical map showed this, but we silly Americans were expecting a real trail. Nope. The park´s version of a trail involved spray-painted red dots on rocks along the route: The trail was simply there because of continual foot traffic over time. There were no switchback trails up and down this mountain to help you out. Straight up, straight down was the route.

The climb up was fun. The vistas were excellent, and the climb was challenging but not unreasonable.  The constant stream of day hikers coming from the Gondolas was disheartening though. All our work that day, and they  just rode a chair lift up and were enjoying the hike down.

At the top, Ben and I got turned around and wasted about 20 minutes looking for the route down. We found the decent finally, and this is where the difficulty really started. There still were no switchbacks, and our thighs were already sore from doing an hour and a half of stair steppers with a 20 lb pack on. We made our way down painstakingly slow over loose rock, gravel and slick boulders. I generally don´t have a fear of heights, and looking down made my stomach turn. I couldn´t believe that this was a popular hike, ranked medium difficult by the guide-book and by the park employees we talked to.

Ben and I made it to the bottom of the valley with about three and a half hours of daylight left. The trek had us climbing up and down yet another ridge on the other side of the valley, but we opted to camp in the valley that night. ¨We probably could make it to Jakob tonight,¨ I said, ¨But it wouldn´t be worth it.¨ Ben agreed. I was so exhausted from that tense decent, I wasn´t enjoying the spectacular scenery around me. The fact that I was trekking in Patagonia was drowned beneath my sore legs and shoulders.

Camping that night in the valley turned out to be a good idea. At that point, the possibility of doing the unmarked traverse from Jakob to the third Refugio was slim to none. After such an intense day on a MARKED trail, we decided that three nights on the two-day circuit was worth it.

The next day we easily conquered the next ridge. This ridge wasn´t as high in elevation, and had more of a real trail on the decent. In addition, we were more prepared mentally for the traverse. We had a pleasant night at Jakob, and even got to BS with a couple of other backpackers from the US, who had the same feelings about the poor quality of the ´trail.´

The last day we hiked out, caught the bus at the next little town and spent that night drinking  a well deserved beer in Bariloche. The trek was worth it, we were alive, but beer and a real bed have never tasted so sweet. 

The Coeur d´Alene of Argentina: Bariloche

For those of you who are not familiar with Coeur d´Alene, Idaho it´s simple. This town once resided quietly with its seven logging mills on the bank of one of Idaho´s most beautiful natural mountain lakes. This all changed in the 80´s, when a wealthy visionary built the Coeur d´Alene Resort, right on the lake and transformed the downtown into vacation-shopping and eating central.

Like CdA, Bariloche was once a natural extraction town set alongside a beautiful lake. In the past couple decades, it has transformed into a tourist center.

The streets are lined with tour excursion offices, hostels, hotels, restaurants and bars. The food is expensive, but the happy hour is surprisingly affordable.

What got me the most was the Swiss Alps theme that seemed to stick to every building and restaurant in Bariloche. It made me a bit sad that this town couldn´t form it´s own identity. Bariloche does have some German immigrant history, but the Swiss reputation is definitely a recent one.

When people vacation in the mountains, on any continent, do they expect beer, chocolate and St. Bernards?

It made me thankful for CdA´s distinctive ´Idaho´ feel mixed in with the expensive boutiques.

Bariloche is the hopping off point for Argentina´s most famous national park: Nahuel Huapi (yeah, I can´t pronnounce it either). Most of the tours available have to do with visiting the park in some form or another. There´s also a big ski resort here for the winter.

Ben and I opted to go on a trek in the park that our Lonely Planet trekking guide recommended. The scenery on the trek was spectacular, but the trail was the most demanding I´ve ever hiked.

More on this trek later when I can upload pictures.

Well, pictures are the best way to describe my trip with Ben into Parque Lanín. Open the photo in a new window to read a description.

Ben and I enjoyed the park very much. It provided great scenery and the amazing oppertunity to walk through a forest of Patagonian Souther Beech trees, bamboo and Araucaria. We were in the park for four nights and three days, and we can´t wait to get trekking again. 

Please remember that these photos are my own, and downloading them, photoshopping them or using them for your own purpose is stealing. Please ask me if you would like to use any of these photos and I will be happy to talk to you!

The road to Patagonia

Since Mendoza, going south has been the goal. As the nights are getting cooler and the days shorter the throngs of tourists get thinner. So south we go to Patagonia!

The first stop after Mendoza was San Rafael, a city of about 250,000 people. There, we were hosted by two lovely folks from Buenos Aires who had a rented home in the countryside. Gonzalo and Manna together and their cozy house made for one of the most pleasant homes I have ever visited.

Let me pause here to explain. Some of you may be wondering why two American travellers are staying in the home of a local. Well, I have a confession to make. Kayaking in Tigre, Tiki beach in Rosario, Special visits to vineyards in Mendoza, how did we do it all? Couchsurfing.org.

You can research this fantastic online tool yourself, but in short, Ben and I have been “Surfing” Argentina. We have had nothing but spectacular experiences and have met many wonderful people along the way. Without Couchsurfing, The farm may have been the only opportunity we would have had to meet and live with locals. Because of Couchsurfing, we have had a very unique experience that explores Argentina beyond the hostels, hotels and tourist offices via the people of Argentina.

We had a very relaxing time in San Rafael with Gonzalo and Manna. Gonzalo took us out to see the “Big Valley” up river, a beautiful canyon where the red rocks contrast with an ice-blue river. Back at home we shared good food, good wine and great conversations. Gonzalo is studying to be a psychologist, and Manna is a group therapist for schools in the area. Argentina, as it turns out, has a high number of psychologists. Seeing a psychologist is very popular amongst Argentines and is not looked down upon at all.

Next was Neuquén (pronounced Neh-oo-ken), the transportation hub for south-central Argentina. The surrounding area is full of rocks, scrubs, desert, oil deposits and Dinosaur fossils. Yes, Dinosaurs!

Ben and I had to take a break from travelling to see the Dinosaur museum in Chocón, an hour bus ride outside of Neuquén. We spent the day seeking out dinosaurs, and we were not disappointed.This museum was full of fossils and four re-created skeletons, one of GIGANOTOSAURUS (I kid you not). This predator is apparently the largest known predatorial dinosaur out there, bigger than T rex. Super cool and well worth it.

After we got our fill of Dinosaurs we got out of Neuquén to continue our quest south. We took the bus to Juanin de los Andes, a small fly fishing town in Patagonia, where our trekking adventures would begin.

…to be continued!