Thursday, April 17, 2008

Ice Ice Baby

As the weather gets warmer and the folks back in Portland recover from one of the coldest, wettest, grayest winters in recent memory (or so we hear), it's going the opposite direction down here in the southern hemisphere. We went from moderately warm and sunny days in Puerto Madryn to rain, snow, wind and freezing temperatures in El Calafate, El Chaltan, El Bolson and now Bariloche.

However, we're almost done with our Patagonian circuit; we'll be taking an overnight bus up to Mendoza (wine country) within a day or two.

So what have we been up to?

Hiking, biking, riding buses and living in dorm rooms, almost exclusively.

We left off in El Calafate, where we were stuck without enough cash to book a bus ride to the Perito Moreno glacier. Finally on Monday, the bank refilled the ATM and I attacked it with a vengeance (4 max withdrawls). We left the next morning for the glacier. Sunrise at the bus station.

And here's the glacier, the main reason to visit El Calafate.

These aren't photoshopped; the ice really has this intense blueness to it, apparently from the minerals frozen inside.

We decided against hiking on the glacier, mostly because it was really expensive and would have blown our budget for 3 or 4 days in one shot. It was a lot cheaper to take the public bus to the park and view it from the balcony.

I'm just going to go ahead and keep posting pictures of the glacier, because it was downright stunning. My expectations were somewhat low because it was snowing heavily on the way in and I thought the visibility might be bad. Fortunately it cleared up for about an hour right during our prime viewing time.

On a clearer day, there are also mountains visible on the horizon. Oh well.

Although it is incredibly massive in real life, the glacier is not one of the largest in the area.

It is, however, one of the most active. This sucker moves and huge chunks fall off all the time. See that splash? Every time a piece falls off, even a small one, it sounds like someone just fired a cannon. Amazing.

Ok, see the ring of ice going out into the water in the background? A huge chunk broke off while we were watching and created this giant wave, which quickly slowed down and sort of "froze," in a way. It was really bizarre.

It started snowing again just before we left.

Last two.

When you could peel your eyes off the glacier, the surrounding area was pretty scenic in its own right.

On to non-glacier topics. Back in town, we decided to give pizza another chance. This was the best one I've had in Argentina (also the first time I've found pepperoni as a topping here), but still poor compared to our favorites in America. Too much cheese, too little sauce. The crust was very good.

From El Calafate we grabbed a late bus to El Chaltan. It was a bumpy ride... the road was mostly unpaved... but we did stop at a rest stop that had a llama chilling inside.

El Chaltan. One of the most amazing settings for a town I've ever seen. It reminded me a little of Yosemite... the place is just ringed with amazing cliffs and mountains. The entire town is under construction; in 5 or 10 years it will probably be like Whistler or Vail or something, but for now it's pretty small-time.

Looking back toward the town at the start of a 22km hike.

And here's our destination: Laguna Torres. On a clear day the view here is sick... there are awesome spires (torres=towers) visible on the horizon... but unfortunately it started snowing and raining about 20 minutes into our hike.

It was a bit cold up there.

Mr. Burny Tree sez: "Only YOU can prevent forest fires... by not throwing lit cigarettes into my crotch!"

We missed winter this year, so we're making the most of our 3-week version.

We woke up the next day and it was clear. Unfortunately my hamstring also exploded, so Liz was the only official Viva Robusto representative on this hike.

I really missed out.

We've done 3 hikes together in the past week; two were supposed to be spectacular, but it was cloudy. We had good weather for the third, but the scenery was nothing like this. Man!

I believe this set of peaks is called Fitz Roy.

Liz met a Danish girl on the hike (who took this picture).

Just looking at these photos is putting me on life tilt. I see what you people are talking about when you say you can't read our blog at work.


You can actually drink the water straight from the streams up there!

At least I got to participate in the ordering of dulce de leche waffles afterward.

Gotta run now. We have more photos but not enough time to post or write more just yet. You'll hear from us next in Mendoza.

Monday, April 7, 2008

No place is ever perfect

You knew it was coming. Argentina was sounding too good to be true, right?

Plus, we've complained to some degree about every other location we've visited on our trip; of course we would find fault with this country at some point.

On the whole, Argentina is a lot less frustrating than, say, Vietnam, but the country does have its annoying quirks. And now that we're kind of in the middle of nowhere, they're starting to rear their ugly heads.

It's funny, because the single most annoying thing about Argentina is something that every Asian country does extremely well: money.

Take ATMs. In Asia, they're everywhere. And they always work. Here, not so much. In San Telmo, for example, there are only three ATMs within easy walking distance. One of them is broken, another is hidden inside a gas station with no signage to indicate that it's there. The remaining single ATM that's highly visible and close to the center of the neighborhood almost always has a line of anywhere from 2 to 10 people, and it frequently runs out of money! Oh yeah, it doesn't have an option for the English language, either.

Additionally, most banks in Buenos Aires close for a siesta at around 2pm. You'd think you would still be allowed to use the ATM, since it's in a separate facility within the bank building, but nooooooooooo. Three different security guards at three different banks actually finger-wagged me when I tried to swipe my card to access the ATM chamber one day.

This sounds ridiculous, but I would honestly estimate that my success rate at actually withdrawing money on any given ATM visit is hovering at around 10%.

Another annoying thing about the money here is that stores never have any of it. That is, they never want to give you change. Just today, I tried to purchase a pair of fingernail clippers and some lotion for 23 pesos. I gave the lady 25 pesos, which is damn close to exact change if you ask me. She gave me sort of an exasperated look and asked for exact change. I said no. She rustled around in the cash register for a moment, then said she didn't have the correct change. We're talking a single 2-peso note, or a handful of coins. This is a clean, brightly-lit pharmacy in the middle of a super-touristy town, not some dingy hut in Asia (where, I might add, they will ALWAYS have change!) And forget about trying to break a 100-peso note on anything less than about 75 pesos. The cashier will give you a look like you just asked them to sell you their first-born child.

So, to sum up, it's a pain in the ass to get money, and equally difficult to spend it.

Argentina, take a hint from Asia: People want to spend money in your country. Make it easier for them!

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Extremo Sur

It's only been a couple weeks since our last post -- not an unusual stretch of time to go without updating the blog -- but we have a lot to catch up on. Unfortunately the internet connection is really poor at the moment, so I'll post as much as I can while it lasts.

Right now we're in a small town called El Calafate in Patagonia. Look it up on a map... we're almost as far south as you can get without being in Antarctica. We went from Buenos Aires to Puerto Madryn for a few days, then as far south as Rio Gallegos, before deciding on El Calafate over Ushuaia (the southernmost city in the world).

But before we get into all that, let's go back to La Boca. We need to talk about this so-called derivative of farinata, faina.

And there it is. Pretty innocent looking. To be honest, it wasn't terrible, just extremely bland. I had to blanket it with salt to make it edible. Of course, the portenos use faina as an accessory to pizza, soaking up the grease (and therefore flavor) before consuming it.

So why didn't we order pizza, you ask? Ah, but we did! This was at a restaurant called Banchero in La Boca. The place has been around for a long time, and claims to serve Italian-style pizza and "faina a la Genovese." Don't be fooled. File this under the "most disappointing meal ever."

We ordered the faina and pizza a la piedra (thin crust) with spinach and white sauce. I guess I was thinking the "white sauce" would be cheese, but it wasn't. It was bechamel sauce... a thick mush with the consistency of mashed potatoes and the taste of... well... not much. And the spinach... let me tell you about the spinach. We should have realized it would be terrible, because this wasn't the first time we tried spinach in Buenos Aires. For what it's worth, I love spinach back home... sauteed, in salads, whatever... it's one of my favorite vegetables. Here, it tastes like dirt. We made a salad with spinach one night in our apartment. I washed the stuff furiously beforehand and it still tasted like dirt. But I guess the lesson, "spinach tastes like dirt in Argentina," hadn't fully registered in my brain, so here we were with a dirt-flavored pizza topped with disgusting bechamel sauce. Blech. I couldn't even finish a slice.

On to happier topics. Here are some pictures from our afternoon in La Boca. Side note: I've spoken with my parents on the phone since our last post and got some clarification about our family history. Most of our Italian relatives in the States are on my grandmother's side of the family and are from Varazze, which is a small coastal town near Genoa. But it turns out that my grandfather's mother was actually born in Buenos Aires! Her family was from Italy, and they must have moved to Buenos Aires with many of the other xeneize immigrants. But at some point they moved back, or at least my grandfather's mother did, because he was born in Italy.

This is the Caminito, the most famous part of La Boca, and usually the only part visited by tourists. The wild colors and corrugated metal date back to when the area's poorer residents would salvage shipping containers and paint from the docks to build their homes.

These days the caminito is extremely touristy and the colors are exaggerated for show, but it's still a neat place.

Back to San Telmo and the rest of Buenos Aires. Liz has a few more pictures of the neighborhood and the ecological reserve that she wanted to share.

Super modern pedestrian bridge, the "Puente de la Mujer."

Viva Robusto: The greatest collection of pictures of wheat and flowers on the internet since 2007!

This kind of stuff pretty much never fails to amuse me.

My parents don't need any additional convincing to come visit Buenos Aires, but just in case, here are some of the scary dolls available at the flea market in San Telmo. Enjoy, mom!

Our friend Kara. She spent 4 or 5 days with us in BsAs, then we all headed to Puerto Madryn together. She should be arriving back in Portland any hour now after about 40 hours of travel.

Praying Mantis at Pride Cafe. Do we have these in Portland? I haven't seen any, if we have.

Another shot at Pride Cafe. In addition to praying mantii, they have great coffee, friendly staff and awesome panini and pasta for around $5.

Bonus feature at Pride Cafe: There's a crazy lady that patrols the intersection just outside. She yells at cars, directs pedestrians and basically acts like it's her job. We're pretty sure she's just insane.

Botanical gardens in Palermo Viejo. There are a lot of these Lupa statues in Buenos Aires, but this is the first one I've seen that actually has a little Romulus and Remus suckling at the teats.

You can't hardly turn the corner without running into some sort of classical sculpture.

More shots from the botanical gardens.

Liz keeps giving me a hard time about all the pictures of steak I'm posting, but I just can't help myself. Okay, this will be the last one. Probably. This is the bife de chorizo at Des Nivel. Dang, I miss it already.

Probably the best ice cream in the world. Super dulce de leche at Dylan in San Telmo. Think regular dulce de leche with extra thick swirls of caramel and chunks of chocolate. I'm not even that into ice cream and this stuff blew my mind.

Steps at Parque Lezama, San Telmo.

Night out near the Microcenter. This was a "fancy" bar inside an old mansion. You could still get a bottle of wine for under $10 US.

And now I present the Official Tango Containment portion of Viva Robusto. In other words, here are all the rest of our pictures of Tango dancing.

Another night in Plaza Dorrego.

Liz and Kara saw this character strolling around the neighborhood one afternoon.

Apparently he had some serious crimefighting to attend to, hence the readied crouch.

In case the Portland jazz scene dries up, Dave could find work down here.

Near the Recoleta Cemetary. Too weird not to post.

One morning we woke up to find a new kitten in our courtyard. It was a gift from Josefina's daughter... she found it wandering in the park.

There are so many dogs in Buenos Aires. We tried to photograph as many as possible, in case you hadn't noticed already.

A few more shots from the courtyard, looking into our apartment on our last day in Buenos Aires.

So long (for now), San Telmo.

After Buenos Aires, our first stop was Puerto Madryn to check out Peninsula Valdes, home to all kinds of wildlife, including sea lions, sea elephants, orcas, armadillos, llamas and, of course, pinquinos.

Checking out the waterfront.

Come on ladies, can't we all just get along?

That's better.


Apparently so.

The first full day after we arrived, we set out on a 34 kilometer bike ride. Here's a panoramic shot of the ride that won't fit in our blog.

Click for photo

And here are some more regular sized shots. It was a beautiful ride right along the sea with some spectacular views... but really difficult thanks to the piles of gravel and sand everywhere.

The next day we rented a car and drove to the peninsula. Quick stop for Tango in the observation tower.

Then we hit Puerto Piramides for low tide.

The boat was filled with sardines!

I'm pretty sure this is one of the locations on "Lost."

Our first look at some sea lions. I was expecting to see maybe one or two, but there were hundreds... laying out in the sun, swimming, playing... and making really loud burping sounds.

The other side of the sea lion habitat near Puerto Piramides.

Next stop, pinguinos. I was skeptical we'd actually see any penguins, despite this sign.

Nevertheless, there they were, thousands of them. Right at the edge of the desert, lined up along the water. So weird.


A shot through the binoculars at Punta Norte. This is a different set of sea lions, in other words.

And here are some sea elephants.

These little guys were equal parts cute and creepy. They had no fear... they'd come right up to your feet.

Wild horses (we presume).

So far we'd seen llamas, foxes, sheep, armadillos, sea lions, sea elephants, penguins and lizards. But the real prize is seeing killer whales at Punta Norte. During high tide they hunt the sea lion cubs and occasionally come halfway up on the beach in pursuit. We weren't there for high tide, but we were extremely lucky to see a couple dozen orcas swimming and jumping in the distance. They were waiting for the water to get deep enough to start hunting.

Unfortunately our camera is really limited. It was pretty spectacular in real life, but the 3x zoom just wasn't cutting it for this kind of photography. We were lucky to even get these shots.

What would a Viva Robusto update be without a disgusting picture of a spider? This one had just caught the bee... it was still buzzing.

On the (extremely long) drive back to Puerto Madryn, we had one of the most amazing panoramic sunsets ever. The photos really don't do it justice.

We'll leave you with this moment of absurdity we witnessed in Puerto Madryn. Hopefully we won't get so behind before the next update... we'll be checking out the glaciers in the next few days so we should get some spectacular photos. Until then....