Monday, April 5, 2010

The LATEst edition

so right now I'm writing this from Winnipeg, after having been home for 2 weeks already. But we all drop the ball every now and then don't we...

So back to Calafate after our most AMAZING hiking in the Fitz Roy range. We grabbed at 7 am bus, arrived in town, grabbed our rental car, stocked up on groceries and away we flew to the eastern coast. We rolled through hour after hour of dry flat grasslands where wooly bundles of sheep wandered around trying to find something to eat. We passed small herds of guanaco (wild llama type animals) and Rhea (large emu type birds). Very fun.
After many hours of driving, we finally admitted to each other, "This park that we are heading to had better be flipping fantastic to warrant the 6 hours of such boring driving." As luck would have it, it was. The Parque National Monte Leon right on the eastern coast was home to sandstone cliffs, an atlantic ocean whose tide retreated over 40 meters, sealions, cormorants, guanacos, the occasional puma AND the biggest Malegenic penguin colony in the world. Very cool.
We arrived and set up camp in the windiest area to date. Seriously, we had to be VERY careful when setting up our tent. If we had let it go, it would have gone flying for miles.
After an evening of fighting with the wind to cook in a sheltered area, we chose to eat inside the lovely lodge set up in the park. The couple who ran the lodge were an interesting pair in their late 50's who were a wealth of information about the area. We learned that this south eastern patagonian area is off of the main grid. Each small town must produce its own power. This of course keeps the area sparsely inhabited and somewhat poor as industry has not entered the area. The south east is known as an oil and port area. They drill for oil, receive shipments in the port, then truck it all up north to Buenos Aires. Lots of semi trucks on the road.

Day 2 at the park. We woke up to see the sunrise over the ocean. Marc took beautiful photos while I tried not to be blown over by the wind. Seriously, it's a bit crazy here. After lunch we drove out to start checking things out. These things included a very windy boardwalk trek to see the sea lion colonies. They must have been mostly out fishing as we only spotted 10 or so of the lions on the rocks. We also saw some mom's encouraging their reluctant babies to slide down into the ocean to go for a swim. Aparantly the kids just wanted to stay home and play playstation as they ran away from their parents. Very funny. Onwards to the cormorant island to check out those birds, most were out fishing too. Then came the best part.
We drove to the start of a 2 km walk which would bring us to the cliffs overlooking where the penguins come in from the ocean. Dozens of penguins were lined up at the beach, taking a rest and gathering their courage to make the big trek up the cliffside to their burrow homes that they dig in the clay. We wandered up a marked path, passing penguins hanging out in the bushes along the way, until we got to a viewing platform/deck. Up we went to check out the deck and realized, penguins like hanging out under decks!!!
We were there during the penguins yearly molt. Every year they lose their feathers and grow in new ones. I know that in NZ when this happens, the penguins feel sick and cranky the whole time, and can lose up to 40% of their body weight in the process. The whole thing seems pretty horrible. We tried our best not to pester the molting penguins, but got lots of photos and spent lots of time checking them out.
Back to the camping area where we shared a glass of wine with an Argentinian/German couple who we met. Then off to bed with big plans for another sunrise wake up the next day.
Day 3 at the park. We looked out the door of the tent at sunrise...I don't think that counts as 'getting up' at sunrise. Oh well. After breakfast, Marc was shaking out things from our dusty tent when he shook a pair of pants just the wrong way and put his back out. Oops.
Off we headed, with poor Marc grimacing in pain. We drove further north to drop off the argentinian/german couple at the bus station. Our little car was much too small to offer them a ride all the way back to el Calafate. We filled up the tank with gas, bought a pack of frozen corn for Marc to lean on as he drove, and headed back to el Calafate. We got back to our favourite hostel in el Calafate and proceeded to get our out of order packs ready for our next day flight. Poor Marc with the sore back could barely stand in line for our buffet bbq dinner that night.
The next morning, another bright and early wake up. I moved our packs to the storage area, and we buzzed off in our rental car to the most famous site of the "perito Moreno" glaciar.
This magnificent glaciar is 60 meters tall, 2 kilometers wide, and many kms long fronting the beautiful mountains of the area. We wandered happily around, the only tourists there. The tourist busses only arrive for 11am, when the first of the boats head out on the lake to get a close up view of the huge ice cube. Though we were too early for the boat, we were happy to wander the well set up walkways. The series of paths lead us to several different views of the glacier. The glacier is one of only 3 advancing glaciers in the world. It advances by 2 meters each day, but at the same time, almost that same amount calves off of the front keeping the glaciar fairly stable, but making for incredible crashing sounds as big blocks of ice the size of houses and cars smash down into the water below. The cold cold breeze off of the glacier kept us bundled up. It would be a nice contrast as in a few hours we were to catch a flight to Montevideo Uruguay...for a change of pace.
Back to el Calafate, drop off our rental car, and catch a flight. 3 hours later we landed in the city of Montevideo Uruguay. We arrived at our hostel, and spent that sweaty evening setting up the next few days of our travel.
We spent only one night in the capital city before catching a 4 hour bus to the beach town of Punta del Diablo. We had found a cabana online, so arrived to our own place with bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, dining, livingroom, and front deck with a hammock and a hammock chair. All of this for 50 dollars a day.
We spent the next 5 days drinking beer and wine, Marc perfected grilling over coal, and we wandered around town, swimming in the warm ocean, petting stray dogs, watching bad movies, napping in the hammocks, and walking up and down the beaches. We found a colony of burrowing owls which Marc got some great photos of. Luckily Marc's bad back was cured with a few doses of robaxacet and he felt well enough to rent a surfboard. As luck wouldn't have it though, the first day of the rental brought an ocean as flat as a bathtub. No waves to surf. Day 2 brought a high hard surf with big waves and lots of whitewash. Marc did give it the old college try, but couldn't get his big rental board past the whitewash to the waves. He did at least provide me with a good 20 minutes of entertainment as he tried. What a great beach break on the trip.
Back on the bus after 5 days, back to Montevideo, then another bus and boat ride to Buenos Aires.
We spent 3 nights in BA, exploring the huge city, we went to a photo exhibit of Steve Mcurry's work. Amazing stuff. And spent hours wandering around checking out the buildings and the recoletta cemetery. All very cool, and all providing a million and one photo ops.
An excellent way to end our trip. We headed back home on March 19th, taking 3 flights to get there. Back to nice weather in Manitoba and a LONG list of things to get done before I open the store again. But after such a great vacation, I can't really complain, now can I.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Out of the hills

Marc and I are now fresh new people after a shower, laundry and a good meal in our bellies. Feeling very different than the sweaty stinky hungry us of just a few hours ago when we got down from our 3 day hike around the Fitz Roy range. Very impressive big solid granite blocks heading up 12 blocks into the sky. That´s a lot of vertical. Marc was very impressed. He must have said ´shark toothed spires´at least a dozen times in the 2 days. It´s his favourite discriptive of the mountains in this area. They are pretty darned impressive.

We flew into the town of El Calafate from Bariloche after our car rental explorations. The town of El Calafate is pretty much the hub of the area. Directing tourists to the various glaciers to visit and ranges to hike. Marc and I arrived, found our hotel, dumped our stuff and set out to make plans for the next few days. In just a few hours we planned our hike out of the town of El Chalten (about 3.5 hours away), booked our busses, bought food, researched and booked a rental car for when we get back into town, and found and bought road maps. Whew! Sometimes independant travel is very labour intensive. But the payoff.....ahhhh, so fabulous.

We spent that evening in our hostel-hotel chatting with a couple of french girls who we shared a table with, and ate the most amazing smorg bbq put on by the hotel. The service industry is very alive and well in this area.
Bright and early the next day off we went by bus to the town of El Chalten. This is the jumping off point for hiking the Fitz Roy mountain range. The bus driver made 2 stops on the way to the town. The first was at a little restaurant-hotel where we could get a cup of coffee and a nice treat to eat. Turns out that this rest stop was one of the first buildings in this wild west type area of Argentina. Pioneers passing through would make a stop over here before crossing the mountains to Chile. In fact Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid passed through this very hotel on their way through. They were running from the law and trying to get to Chile.
All very interesting.

The second stop that the driver made was at a beautiful view point where everyone trundled out with their cameras to snap photos of the impressive Fitz Roy range which was for a rare moment, brightly lit up with blue sky all around it. The range is notoriously hard to see as it is usually covered by low hanging cloud which forms above the glaciers.

Into town, got our packs ready and had an early night for an early start the next day.

Off we headed on day one of our hike. So easy! The town borders the park so all we had to do to reach the trail head was walk up the main street for 10 minutes. We had a gloriously sunny day. Once again, apparantly rare in this area. We walked the 2.5 hours to the first camp site. After setting up camp and having some lunch we made a day trek up a rocky river bed to laguna sucio´ a lake at the base of Fitz Roy. The mountain ranges here are like no other with big huge chuks of granite shoved up above glaciers. We´ll have to do some research to see the geological explaination of how the range was created. We spent a few hours at the lake just looking up at the massive spires, with Marc taking photos, before making our way back. The riverbed that we negotiated to get there is filled with boulders the size of cars and small houses with a rushing glacial water river beside it. Of course, this was there we chose to drop our lonely planet trekking guide book into the water (notice how I said we, rather than Marc or I. No need to assign blame) Marc bravely stuck his head under a boulder to fish our now soggy guide book out of the water. It will look adventure worn once it dries out.

Day 2 in the hills
Up at 5am to get an early start up to a viewpoint (1 hour away) for dawn. Marc is of course a much faster hiker than me (I keep blaming my short lets and knee placement) so blasted up the final portion of the trail. Once at the top, we ended up in the dark, not able to find each other for each other for over half an hour. A little early morning comedy. Back down the hill, pack up the camp and we headed off the 3 hours to the second camp site. As we walked we thought that our good luck might be turning with the sky clouding over and rain seeming emminent. But no, the travel gods were with us as we made it to camp with no rain. Very lucky. this next camp site was supposed to afford us views of the Cerro Torre, the pointiest bit of the range. But alas, low hung clouds blocked our views. We really couldn´t complain though as we had had such luck with the weather until then. We spent the rest of the day having showers in the glacial river that ran by the camp site, eating then hiking up to the nearby lake. A very full day.
Day 3
Marc woke up early again to see if he could catch a photo of the torre without the cloud. But no, the glaciers produce so much moisture that the normal state of the peaks is to be shrouded in cloud. So after breakfast, we packed up and hiked out. What a great adventure.

Tomorrow we take a bus back to El Calafate where we pick up another rental car and head out to the coast. Apparantly penguines, sea lions and whales await us. I hope so!

Take Care

Monday, March 1, 2010

Shaken not Stirred

So Marc and I just got to the first computers we´ve been at for 5 days to a slough of emails from people hoping that we weren´t caught in the earthquake in Chile. Earthquake? That´s what we felt while we were sleeping the other night. So yes, we are all safe and sound.

So Marc and I arrived in Bariloche after hiking our 4 days route through the mountains near Bariloche. We spent that afternoon running like mad fools to find a car rental company, load up on groceries, get laundry done, etc..etc.. we did it all through. And after a good nights rest in a well deserved kinda fancy hotel, we had our car delivered at 10 am and we were off in the wild blue yonder by noon. Our goal was to drive north up to San Martin de los Andes through the spectacular landscape of ´la routa de siete lagos´. Up we headed through mountain passes, on gravel roads past pritine lakes and steep drops down! We decided to spend the evening at a small lake called Laguna espejo chico (meaning little mirror lake). We parked the car, set up our tent, then spent the rest of the plutzing around in the water. Trout fishing in the area is suppose to be spectacular and we got to watch several people fly fish in the lake and its stream. Such a relaxing afternoon and evening after a busy morning and some dusty driving. To top it all off, the camp site had a cat, who we named Franco Fiore, we also fed him lots of scraps. He loved us very much and begged to come into our tent at night. We were tempted.

Day 2 of the car rental!
Off we went from our beautiful little lake onwards to a small village (Villa Traful)We poked around there for a while, soaking up the beautiful scenery before heading back up the dusty road. After an hour or so we finally hit pavement!!! The windy roads were so much more scenic without all of the dust flying around. We picked another lake to camp by (Lago Falkner). The camp sites here are for the most part clean, well serviced with bathrooms, hot showers and bbq area. All of that, a place to pitch your tent and beautiful waterfront views for about 15 canadian per couple. What a deal. That night I woke up for some reason and Marc said, do you feel that? Yea, what the heck. It felt like the whole tent was rocking back and forth. We were feeling the earthquake that left Santiago Chile in shambles. To us, over the mountains in Argentina, it felt like our tent was resting on a giant hammock that was swaying back and forth. Dogs started barking at each tremmor and the lake that had been so still suddenly had waves lapping up at the shore. We of course didn´t realize that Chile had had an earthquake, we assumed that it was just a small localized tremmor.

Day 3 of the car rental.
Up we drove to San Martin de los Andes. A very pretty little town with similar beautiful surroundings as Bariloche but without the huge hordes of people and tourists. We hopped on a boat that took us across the lake to National Park Lanin where we had a very nice lunch on the shore, looking out over the water at the mountains that surround the area. I had a raspberry dacquari. It was very nice.
Back to town via boat a few hours later and we continued up the road, passing views of volcano Lanin in the distance. The big mountains slowly turned into foothills, and ranch land. We spent the night in a beautiful campground in Junin de los Andes. Fabulous little place on an island between 2 rivers, just in the middle of town. There Marc spotted a campervan with BC plates. We chatted with the occupants, a Swiss couple who had purchased the van in Canada, drove it down to Panama, shipped it over the Darien gap to Columbia, and made their way down to Argentina where we ran into them. So far they have been on the road for 2 years and 7 months. Eviable!

Day 4 of the Car rental
Up and off early as we wanted to cover over 300k today. Roads here are in good condition, but very windy and mountainous. To top that off, there are some drivers who fluctuate between 40 km per hour and 85 km per hour, making passing or keeping a constant speed difficult. It´s not a race though. Once again we passed through ranch land that looked like arizona, then the hills got greener, then steeper, back into foothills, then again into huge mountain ranges. Past Bariloche where we had origionally started and on to El Bolson, a small town 100k or so south of Bariloche. We found our campsite, visited the local fair that was going on. Bought raspberries, blackberries and blueberries before setting up camp. We desided to have a real argentinian grill, so we heated up some charcoal and set some lamb to grill. We had just finished our nice relaxing meal when some very loud music started. Our campground was right across the road from a huge temporary stadium. Unbeknownst to us, it was the annual hops festival. Clearly Marc had to try some of the local beers so over we headed to savour the local delicasies and watch traditional dance. All very fun.

This morning we headed out for a short hike into the surrounding mountains to the bosque tallado. (the carved forest). After a small forest fire, local artists carved the fallen trees, so now tourists can hike on up to check it out. All very cool.

so today we head back to Bariloche, where we once again have lots of sorting out of stuff to do. Tomorrow morning we fly out to el Calafate in the south. Once there, we´ll be taking a bus to El Chalten and hiking for 3 days in the Fitz Roy range. This time if we feel the ground shake, we´ll be sure to head to an email cafe as soon as we can.

Big hugs to all

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Broken in Bariloche

Ok, maybe broken is just a little bit melodramatic. My legs do really hurt though, and Marc says that he is sore too, though I suspect that he is just saying that to make me feel better about my sore muscles.

4 days ago we headed out to hike the circuito Chico just a short way away from Bariloche. We started at the base of a mountain where people ski in the winter, and made our way up 12km to our first camp site (named Frey). We made it all the way up that day, but the path was very easy with a gravel or dirt path gently sloping up the whole way. A little huffing and puffing considering the big 35 pound packs we were carrying, but easy non the less. And for this effort we were granted the gift of a camp site on a frigid beautiful lake surrounded by massive granit towers reaching into the sky. Marc and I spent the rest of the afternoon taking a very cold dip in the lake, setting up camp, eating, and watching rock climbers make their way up and down a granite spire that faced the camp. VERY entertaining.

The next morning we lazed around camp a bit, heading out by 11am. The first stage of our journey to the next camp site would be scaling one of the granite mountains that surrounded the lake. Up we clambered huge chunks of rock until we reached a plateau and another beautiful lake. These lakes are fed by the melting snow left over from winter so are chilly to say the least. Then of course, this lake was also backed by a rock wall which we had to clamber over to get to the top. Marc figures that in all we covered a thousand feet of vertical. We (ie, Marc)took some beautiful photos at the top, then, as we all know, what goes up, must come down. So on we went with the knee pounding descent. Trekking poles would have been great at this point. I spent a lot of time sitting on my butt and reaching my legs down rather than take the giant steps necessary that should I lose my footing, send me tumbling down a mountain side that I would rather not leave in that fashion.

Down down down and finally we reached a valley bottom, a kilomet or so on, the track started to rise again . Tuckered out me hoped that this final climb would bring us to the refugio, but no. We had another rock mountain to climb up over, and ANOTHER steep and long descent before we could reach the camp ground that we would call home for 2 nights. I was very proud of me.

We rewarded ourselves by spending 2 nights in this, the jakob campground. Our free day we spent hiking (WITH NO PACKS!!) to a beautiful nearby lake. We made the trip twice in fact. Very nice to have a day to clamber around with no weight on.

This morning we hiked out of the area only to find that the road on which we were supposed to catch a bus had a landslide blocking it. No busses.... So we had to walk 6 km to a main road where we hitched a ride with a lovely lady who dropped us off just at the right place to catch a bus into town. So now we are all washed up, spik and span again and getting ready for the next leg of the adventure. Out we head tonight to book a car rental for the next 5 days. Very exciting.

Take care

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Back on the grid, but leaving tomorrow!

Hello Everyone!!!

Marc and I are safe and sound in Bariloche Argentina. Packing up and getting ready to head out into the mountains.

When I last posted on my blog we were in Valdivia. After our hiking in Talca we spent a couple of days in Valdivia. Just like when Jill and I were in the same town 3 years ago, Marc and I headed off to see a series of islands near the town. This was the location of Spain´s last stronghold in Chile before chilean nationalists took it over. And yes, once again, I got to see students acting out the Chilean victory over the Spanish in full costume. It´s a great summer job for these kids as they act out the invasion...every hour on the hour during their summer holidays. Very fun to watch. We also spent a day heading out to a national park 40 k from town where we got to hike through temperate rain forest. Huge trees made us think of the movie Avatar and the magical land of Pandora. This seaside park had us walking through the forest for a few hours before coming back along an ocean view. Very beautiful.

The next day bright and early we headed on another bus, this time with a ferry crossing involved, to bring us to the southern island of Chiloe. Marc and I picked a small area that we wanted to delve into more deeply so ended up in CHEPU. This tiny farming community of about 250 people have recently been hit by falling milk prices, so they are very happy that tourists are finally finding out about their corner of the world. We stayed with a family on their dairy farm. The mom Sandra now makes cheese from all of the milk that their 12 cows produce. That´s 15 kilos of finished product per day. We got to learn all about it, very fun. Rafael, the dad was a fabulously welcoming fellow who randomly dragged us along for little adventures.
We spent a full day kayaking up one of the three estuary rivers in the area. Years ago an earthquake sank 120 acres of forest below sea level. the trees, now immersed in salt water, are all dead but make for an amazing kayaking experience. We spent 5 hours on the water, saw lots of beautiful water birds, and then 2 river otters rolling around in the water. They were either having an argument, or having an amorous encounter, but in either case they were too preoccupied to notice our presence for some time so we got a great look at them. And best of all, when we got home all tired and hungry, Sandra had a wonderful meal ready for us!!! Room and full board at only 30 dollars per person per day. What a great deal.

We spent our second day on a rainy morning hike out to a spit to see some penguins! Our guide must not have had us leave early enough, as we had to run through the quickly rising tide getting soaked up to our knees both on the way to and the way out of the spit. We had good timing however, as when we arrived, about 30 penguins were on the beach, taking a rest after fishing in the ocean. Lots of photos later, and another run through the rising ocean, we made our way back. Funnily enough, I though that with Marc along on this trip, i wouldn´t run into any of my usualy slough of silly men. How wrong could I be. Alphonso, our 60 year old guide, took quite a fancy to me...especially while Marc dissapeared for 10 or 15 minutes at a time to take photos. He kept flattering me, holding my hand, and trying to hug me and give me a kiss on the cheek. Jeez! When we got back home Marc told Sandra and Rafael about Alphonso´s feelings for me....apparantly I´m in good company, as Sandra told us that Alphonso is a notorious womanaizer, and had made advances towards her as well. HA.

Day 3 in Chepu Rafael brought Marc and I to a friend of his place. This friends farm is on the edge of virgin forest, so has cut a small path through the bush, to the forest (1km or so ) and built wooden rails on which to run his home made train!!! So neat. Off we went for a ride in the train then a walk through some more amazing forest. The people here with their openness and quirky ingenuity really crack me up. Love it. We had such a great time.

Onwards we went, as Marc and I caught the bus to Puerto Varas. One night there before the bus over the border which today ended us up in Bariloche. We have been speeding around town like fools getting everything ready (including the last minute purchase of a multifuel stove as Marc´s white gas camp stove is useless here with no white gas to be found...nuts). Tomorrow we start in on a 4 day hike in the mountains...I can´t wait!

Take care everyone!

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Chillin´ in Chile

What a whirlwind first week in Chile this has been. Marc and I headed off on the 5th of Feb for a 18 hour journey to Santiago Chile. We arrived safe and sound in the city, though a little folded up from our long plane ride. We spent the first few days in Santiago getting money changed, checking out the sites, heading to the local market of course, and planning our next leg of the journey.

2 Nights in the big city was enough for us. We had been planning to head to Santa Cruz, the wine growing region in Chile, but last minute I found what I thought would be a better option. After learning the first lesson of the trip, don´t have too much wine the night before a bus trip day, we headed on a bus to Talca (Just 3 hours south of Santiago), then a local bus to a guesthouse called Biota Maule. It is just 200 meters from a biologocal reserve called Reserva Alto Lircay. We spent 4 nights and 3 days getting our butts in shape for the hiking to come. On our first day we hoofed over 26km up mountain sides to reach the most beautiful Laguna Alta. (high lake). As we trekked up the mountain with just our daypack (which the gallant Marc carried the whole way), we passed groups of kids who were apparantly part of a scout troup. They were heading to the same destination as us, but they were carrying full bags with pots and pans attached to the backs of them. Big bottles of water, and one poor kid had a full sized shovel strapped to the back of his pack. The whole bunch was wearing jeans and sneakers and looked like they were having the most miserable time. We met them on our way back down, and they got so happy when we told them that they only had another 15 or 20 minutes to go.
At the Laguna Alta, is where we learned the second lesson of the trip (I already knew this one but had to learn it again apparantly). South American sun is HOT! The ozone here is very thin so after a quick dip in the lake, Marc and I sat in the sun for maybe 15 or 20 minutes to dry off. When we finally slogged it home from hiking and had showers, we realized that we would be sore from more than just the exertion. You could see exactly where our hands had missed with the sunscreen. My butt where my bathing suit line was was bright red, and Marc´s back and calves got the worst of it. Lesson learned.
We were just knackered after our first day of hiking so went on a smaller adventure on day 2. We hiked down to the river in the park (4 k or so away) and spent the day playing in the cold clear water, rock jumping, Marc took photos, and we watched the humming birds dive around us to enjoy the fushia flowers hanging down by the river. At the cottage that night we got to witness 2 male carpintero negros (big black woodpeckers with bright red heads) squaking at each other. They made such funny laughing noises. Back to our place for an early night (which was thwarted by some very noisy small children who are staying at the same place we are), as the next morning would be an early one too.
Day 3. Up to be at the administration of the part (2 k away) at opening time. We got to hike in the cool morning which was great as we were heading a full 30 km this day. We passed several camping sights, and headed up up up before we turned a corner to see a huge plateau in front of us with snow capped mountains in the background. We climbed up onto a HUGE plateau (some believe this flat spot is a UFO landing site). It was made up of massive rocks that look like paving stones, but when you get to the edge of the plateau and see where these rocks have tumbled down, they are 5 to 8 feet deep. Very cool. We got to sit up there, have a bite to eat, and be mesmerized by the incredible views. A green valley below with a river running in it, backed by a huge range of massive mountains. Marc went snap happy while I poked around the rocks to see how many lizzards I could find. I found a lot. Back to our cottage for the final night in this beautiful place.
Friday morning we headed out early for Talca, booked the LAST 2 seats on a bus to Valdivia, and booked what seemed to be the last 2 beds in the town as well. We´ll be spending the next 3 nights here planning, laundering, and sightseeing before we head down to the island of Chiloe.
Marc´s Spanish is improving every day. It´s so great that he´s not shy at all about giving it a try. And everyone here is so friendly and encouraging.
Great country!
I´ll try to be more regular in these postings now.
Hugs to all
Erin and Marc

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Cadiz, Madrid, Manitoba

Jill and I spent almost 3 days in Cadiz. When we arrived on day one we walked the coastal route. Cadiz city is a peninsula so is almost completely surrounded by water. As it was a major trading port and where many ships set sail, jealouse nations attempted to plunder it several times. This means that today visitors can walk the rampart route around the town where lookout towers and heavy stone walls would protect against invaders. The old town is the most densely populated city in Spain. Streets so narrow that it's a wonder any car can fit down them. A maze of pedestrianized streets. And dozens of squares where people who live in the apartments around come to walk their dogs, sit on park benches, eat, drink, chat, children play in the squares and the streets. Elderly people walk by holding arms while walking little dogs that the kids in the street stop to pet. When you get rid of big houses, back yards and 2 car garages, it's amazing the kind of community that you get in return. I can't imagine anyone feeling lonely in this city. Solitude would be found in people's homes, behind closed shutters and in rooms off of the main squares. But community is found on every street, in every square, and every cafe nearby,.

Our second day in Cadiz was bright and sunny so we took advantage to take the ferry (one euro) over to a little town across the bay called El Puerto de Santa Maria. This is one of the main towns in what is called the "Sherry triangle". Like Parma ham and Champagne, Sherry wines can only be called such if they are aged within the specific Sherry triangle. An area between Jerez de la frontera, El Puerto de Santa Maria and SanlĂșcar de Barrameda. The white grapes grown for the sherry can be grown outside of this area, but for the fortified wine to be called Sherry, it must be made (pressed and aged) within this area. Apparently it's the proximity of the sea while aging the sherry in oak barrels that gives it a particular taste.

So off Jill and I went on a tour of a Sherry bodega in town. There, our lovely guide gave us a splendid tour in English where we learned everything that we ever wanted to know about sherry. Sherry is made from white wine mixes with distilled grape liquor, thus is a fortified wine. Sherry is aged in barrels that are stacked no less than 3 high. As aged sherry is removed from the bottom row for bottling and sale, the more mature sherry from the middle row is used to refill the bottom row, and then the top less mature sherry from the top row is used to refill what was taken out of the middle row. Fresh unaged fortified wine is added to the top to make up the volume difference and then the workers at the bodega wait for the sherry to age before starting the process all over again. This is why bottle of sherry never have a year written on them. As only 20% of a barrel is emptied at a time, it is the sherries of many different years that mix in final barrel before bottling, making the dating of the wine impossible.
There are different kinds of Sherry, from a dry fino (yuck) to the very sweet pedro ximinez which is distilled from dried grapes, nearly of raisin consistency making it a syrupy sweet drink with prune and fig tastes. Not to my liking but the tour was facinating. We spent the rest of the day wandering around the town before taking the ferry back to Cadiz and having supper at our favourite restaurant. The translation of the restaurant's name would be "The fat lady makes you eat" and Jill and I obsessed over it. A wide variety of tapas for 2 euros each, with portions meaning that 2-3 tapas made a good meal. We were in heaven as we could finally taste a wide variety of Spanish dishes without the big fear of ordering brains by mistake. We basically ate there for every meal while we were in Cadiz.
Good thing that we had taken advantage of the great weather for our boat ride as our last day in Cadiz was pelting rain all day long. We still braved the weather and headed out to see the local Saturday market (very cool), and visit the crumbling cathedral, and its open air bell tower (great views of the town, and an excavated roman site. As the weather was not supposed to take a turn for the better we decided to book out of town on Sunday, on to Madrid.

I'm usually not a fan of big cities. When traveling I hate to admit it, but I often give most large cities a miss or a measly 1-2 days on my way into or out of a country. Madrid made me rethink my opinion of big cities. With 4 million people (6 if you count the outlying towns) Madrid is buzzing. It had a cheap, efficient and coprehensible metro system. Its downtown is walkable. Old buildings abound and are cherished but are lived in, used as apartments, restaurants, grocery stores. The city has spent a lot of money subsidizing tours meaning that Jill and I got 2 awesome historical guided tours(2 hours each) of the downtown with highly trained historians for the grand price of 3.5 euros each. The prado museum is free after 6 pm. There is a police presence that is heavy enough to be comforting,(you could ask them directions) but not so heavy as to be worrying. The food was affordable and delicious, there are over a hundred squares in the city where residents hang out, AND the 2 main parks take up almost one THOUSAND acres of prime real estate. Meaning that everyone has the opportunity to enjoy some greenspace in a densely populated city. Very cool, very livable, very friendly.

In our time there Jill and I took 2 walking tours, went to the prado museum, another fine arts museum whose name I forget, wandered the streets, went through the royal palace, visited the squares, rode around on a tourist bus snapping photos of the amazing buildings, and generally had a bang up time.

On to our 19 hours of travel back to Manitoba, and now here I am. With one week at home before Marc and I head off to South America. And all I have to do in that time is meet with 3 people, do my January month end, do my year end, get my photos on a disk to send to Monica, stop my mail, take the insurance of my car, pack the cats off to the sitters, contact some may be a busy week home. Stay tuned for Chile and Argentina in about 10 days!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Almost done in Spain, no me digas...

Jill and I arrived in Cadiz this morning after a tearful goodby to our good friend Monica in Cordoba. It had to be done. She has a 2 year old and a 4 year old and a now very tired and tattered husband waiting for her back home in Australia. So off Monica went to Madrid as Jill and I made our way to the coast. Cadiz.

Back to the beginning though. After our most awesome adventures in Granada we bussed our way to Cordoba and our new shoe box sized accomodation. Very clean, very quiet, but truly tiny. One of us had to be sitting down on a bed if someone else wanted to be moving around the room a little. After our first task oriented evening (laundry, internet, finding food, finding accomodation for Jill and I in Cadiz) we were ready to spend a day as tourists in Cordoba. We were up nice and early for our regular cafe con leche and to the Mezquina. The old Cathedral/Mosque/church. The Moorish rulers who took over Andalucia in the 700´s built this huge Mosque (its final size being big enough to hold over 40000 worshipers at one time) on an old Church site. The mosque (La Mezquina) has very unique archetecture with hundreds of double striped arches supported on thin marble columns holding up a carved wooden ceiling. We took advantage of the very awesome audio guide to learn everything there is to know about the building...then of course promptly forgot it.
In the middle of the Mosque is a huge catholic cathedral. When the Christians took over Andelucia in the 1200´s, the rulers took over the Mosque, had it blessed as a church and carried on converting and building to turn it into a Cathedral. Very strange.

On we went to wander through old royal baths, the twisty streets of the Jewish quarter, and for a walk over the old Roman bridge. Getting an idea of the centuries and variety of history here? Everyone once ruled Andelucia. And everyone left their mark. North african archetecture and cuisine meets roman aqueducts and mosaic, meets glitzy catholic virgin Marys´ meets jewish quarters with menoras. And each ruling empire lasted for enough centuries to leave an indellible mark on the area. Facinating.

Also facinating is my knowledge of/lack of knowledge of Spanish. I have managed to get us on the right busses, trains, booked hotels, had casual chats with people, rented a car, asked for directions...but menus still seem to ellude me. We so far have gotten
Fried Anchovies when we thought we were getting fried zucchini
A huge platter sized portion when we thought we were getting a small plate of eggplant
The list goes on
I´m pretty good at getting some of the main ingredients of a dish correct, but one wrong word and you end up getting something very different than you would expect.
So far Spanish food has been tasty but plain. Jill has commented on its lack of presence. You can spot Italian food, Indian cuisine, Thai dishes from a mile away, but Spanish meals tend to be more subtle. The ingredients seem to be more Spanish than anything. Locally made cured hams and sausages and cheeses. Chickpeas and broad beans are used more than we do in Canada. Cafe con leche and Churros for breakfast are a staple not found elsewhere. The hours of eating are also unique. Shops open at 10:30, and close from 2 until 5 pm for siesta, during which main meals are eaten between 2 and 3 pm. This is when restaurants offer a set menu that offers both good value and some more interesting choices that we wouldn´t otherwise try. After a nap, people go out for a stroll or a shop and then head out for a light something at around 9pm. I really don´t know when anyone works.

So Jill and I are now in Cadiz. We spend the afternoon strolling the streets and will be spending the next 3 days here checking out the coast and taking ferries to nearby towns.

Take Care

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Groovy Granada

Ok, it´s confession time. My last blog entry was almost entirly copy and pasted from my travel partner Jill´s email that she sent home. I couldn´t help it, I got lazy and she had time on the train to write up her journal on her snazzy iphone. But I digress.

From rainy and cool Seville we arrived via train to the most sunny and wonderful Granada. Our rental apartment was bordering on posh, our neighbourhood incredibly walkable, and the weather was great. What more could we ask for. We arrived in town at that horrible limbo hour of 3 pm, so by the time that we got into our aparment and got our bearing it was 4 pm, everything was closed and we were starving. No shops are open from 2 until 5'5:30 pm while the populace is snoozing off their big 2 pm lunch. We toodled around the city, gawking at the graffiti filled neighbourhood that our apartment was in, with no one around, wondering if maybe we were in a bad neighbourhood. At 5;30 though, all of the graffiti covered security doorways rolled up to reveal posh shops and the streets filled with well dressed Granadans holding onto the hands of their impeccably dressed children shopping the January Sales. The streets filled up with people within 20 minutes making the place a bussling mass. Very cool.

As we had previously experienced the dismal shut down of a city on a Sunday, we booked our tickets for the Alhambra to fill in the Sunday. That meant that we got to wander the old arabic streets of Granada. We looked through the shops, had tea and sweets at a tea-hooka shop, and meandered up the winding hills to a restaurant with a view of the alhambra. A very nice relaxing afternoon watching the sun play over the old palace. We dawdled our way back home before heading out to experience the free tapas that Granada is famous for. You buy a drink for about 1.5 euros, and you get a tasty hot snack to go with it. A great system but I have no idea how bar owners make a living with all of the free food going around. Beer must be cheeper that I thought.

Sunday we were up bright and early to trek up the Alhambra. I had been in Granada about 7 years previously and had visited the Alhambra, but forgot just how beautiful it is. An old moorish walled city containing military grounds, palaces, and gardens. We spent 5 hours wandering the grounds. After all of our pavement pounding we headed off to a night time arabic hammam. We got to hang out in warm pools and each got a 15 minute massage. Very nice and relaxing, but we left early, there is only so much time that one can spend in a pool of water before you get too wrinkly. Plus we had to get to bed early, we had grand plans for Monday.

Despite not having driven a standard for over 10 years and not having a proper map, we rented a car and Monica drove us out to the coast for the day. We were headed towards Malaga way near the coast. On the way we passed olive groves, beautiful counrtyside, small farms, one of which included an older man in a hat plowing his small field with a donkey and hand held plow. I guess the small plots still make this a viable method. Who knew.
We headed for the Caves of Nerja. The caves were found by some boys in the 1950s and are now a unesco world heritage site. Very cool. When we were finished spelunking, we headed to the town of Nerja to check out the Sea, blue water, white buildings, and more retired english people that you could shake a stick at. We got to enjoy a 20 degree sunny day, and I dipped my feet in the ocean before we headed up to the pretty white town of Friglliani. A beautiful day of walking around, soaking in the weather and for me, generally enjoying the fact that it was Monica, not I who was driving. On the way home we were stuck in a big traffic backlog. At the front of the back up were some national guards holding up traffic. They had big machine guns, but there was no car accident that we could see. Monica did spot a dead cat on the road so we began speculating whether the cat was an internationally wanted criminal recently gunned down by the guard. It was the only explination that seemed to make sence.

Today we headed out nice and early to get to Cordoba before the dreaded 3pm shut down. Alas the travel gods were not with us and our bus broke down, meaning that despite our best efforts, we still arrived at Cordoba in limbo hour. Ah well, time to get the next set of accomadation booked and laundry done. Tomorrow, we´ll see the mezquina, then we say goodby to monica who has to return to her children in Australia, and Jill and I will continue on to Cadiz.

Take Care everyone!

Saturday, January 16, 2010

On to Granada

On the train currently between Seville & Granada. It's
a nice bright day and we are passing wet green fields and olive tree
groves with some mountains in the distance.
We finally had the weather we were hoping for in Seville yesterday.

But I'll jump back to day 4 to fill in the gap. Another rainy one but
at least it wasn't cold. We decided to forge ahead with our plans and
caught a bus out of town to Santiponce to see the Roman ruins of
Italica. Loads of old mosaic floors, broad streets and different
floorplans have been excavated here - as well as a massive collosseum.
It really was miserable though - so wet and windy, my umbrella got all
bent out of shape and we were soaked. Bused it back to Seville,
changed to dry clothes and comforted ourselves with a meal at our
corner restaurant. The rest of the day we just kind of hunkered down
with books and popped out for a tapas snack before bed. I'll just
explain how the Sevillian schedule operates - it's very weird. People
sleep in and have bread or jamon sandwiches for breakfast. Then lunch
- the main meal of the day is eaten between 2 & 4pm. Dinner consists
of a smaller tapas meal between 9 & 11pm. Shops are open 10-2 then
again at 5-8:30ish. We are finally getting the hang of this :)

Day 5 was a drizzler again. We wandered around town and checked out
shops. Headed back to apartment for 3 as Angel invited us to eat with
him and his 12yr old daughter Margherita. He cooked up a fabulous
multi course meal with loads of fresh veg - very tasty. He also
showed us his roof garden, such a warm and generous man. Even though
our lodging here was a bit less clean than we would have liked, we are
glad we stayed here to have met him. That evening we met up wih a mob
of people from It was neat to talk to new
people, at least the few that spoke English. Forgot to mention that
Spain doesn't have any smoking bans so Everywhere indoors reeks, and
therefore so do we a lot of the time. Very hard to get used to - seems
like everyone smokes.

Day 6 we woke up to glorious sunshine and warmth. Spent the morning
wandering different neighbourhoods on bike and foot, shopping, having
coffees, etc. Back home for last La Madraza meal and a rest. Then out
for a bike ride more shopping and sightseeing until 9pm flamenco show - it was
fabulous. After show went to a flamenco bar where were heard more
gritty music and saw another dancer. Too smoky here so we didn't last
long! Back home for a snack and bed.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Espana Frio

Jill and I arrived in madrid on Friday to learn that our luggage had stayed in Paris. We got to lament this loss for the next 2 hours as we waited for our friend Monica who was flying in from Australia to meet us in Spain. We all reunited without a hitch, before taking the metro to the train station and heading off on the 2.5 hour train ride to Seville and our rental apartment. Our lovely landlord showed us around our very basic lodgings before we turned in for the night.

Saturday morning our landlord brought us morning coffee and showed us around the neighbourhood, where to buy groceries, where to get a good coffee, where the market was etc. All very handy iformation, including that there was a football (soccer) game going on that evening. Off we went to buy tickets, then learned how to use the city bicycle system. Once the system has your credit card number, you can ´rent´ bikes from a multitude of bike parking areas. the rental is free for the first half hour and 50 euro cents for every half hour thereafter. A great system. You grab a bike, to your destination and hook it back up. The system recognizes your user number, it recognizes which bike you take, and when you bring it back and charges you accordingly. Very handy.
We had a beautiful day of bike riding, drinking beer and having a picnic in the park before heading out to our very first ever European football game. The crowds were amazing to watch with a full section of the stadium singing for the WHOLE game. they had a big drum that kept the beat as they sang. Very fun.

In grand contrast to our glorious Saturday, Sunday was COLD 3 degrees, and raining for the full day. Because everything closes on Sunday this made the day doubly worse as we had no shops to duck into to warm up. We got a chance to tour the bullring and learn about the history of bullfighting in Spain. Apparantly it started as a military training exercise where 6 bulls were chucked into a ring with soldiers who were training. People started watching these training exercises, then formal rules were created and voila, the art of bullfighting was born. I was more than happy to tour the facility and learn about the history, but would never have the inclination to actually see the fight. We learned that top matadores are paid up to 180 000 euros per fight. but out of this pay they must hire doctors, have insurance, pay for the bull, pay for their horses, pay for their costumes, pay for their assistants etc. So though it may be a lucrative job, it does have some high overhead. Seville has 40 bullfights per season, each bullfight has matadores fighting a total of 6 bulls. The meat from the bulls is sold at a high price in the market after each fight. Though I´m not keen on the idea of bullfighting, I´m glad to hear that the meat doesn´t go to waste.

Monday morning had us up and out to visit the Alcazar. This royal palace was built by a series of both christian and Moorish rulers over the span of several hundred years. There is moorish stucco and tile work, with moroccan looking doorways, acres of gardens, and spanish buildings and rooms with coffered ceilings, yellow and blue tile and huge tapistries. The whole place took us well over 3 hours to meander through. I can´t wait to see the Alhambra in Granada when we get there. I had seen both the Alcazar and the Alhambra on a previous trip about 7 years ago, and am finding it very interesting to see everything again. It´s amazing how little I remember!

Tuesday was another pouring rain day that we braved to take a bus to the roman ruins town of Italica. We got to spend several hours in the rain touring the site, including baths, preserved mosaic tile works and an amphetheatre. All very cool.
Today we are looking forward to meeting up with some local people for Tapas. The Seville couch surfing group has invited us out to their meeting, should be a great time. then only one more day of wandering the beautiful streets of Seville before we catch a train on Friday for Granada. Hopefully the weather changes for the better.

Take Care
Stay Warm