Archive for April, 2008

Pisco sweet

April 30, 2008

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The skies over Chile’s Valle del Elqui are clear more than 300 days a year, making it an ideal place to study the stars. During our two days in the valley, Laura and I did just that… sort of.
The guide of the astronomy talk we signed up for led us to a dusty field, set up his telescope and then declared that science, constellations, the cardinal directions and naming things are — and I quote — “stupid.” Needless to say, we didn’t learn much about astronomy. We did, however, manage to see Saturn and its rings and a couple bright stars, I’m not sure which ones.

(We found the tall spiky gate to our hotel padlocked shut when we returned from the talk around midnight. Lacking other options, we hoisted ourselves over the gate and into the jaws of a snarling Saint Bernard named Fiona. Fortunately, Fiona was more a barker than a biter and retreated as soon as we hit the ground on the other side. We’re fine, everyone, we’re fine.)

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Valle del Elqui stretches the width of Chile, from the northern beach town of La Serena to the Argentenian border. It’s punctuated by little villages that sustain themselves mostly by growing the super-sweet grapes used to make the alcohol pisco, Chile’s national drink.

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Labels for the pisco bottles, still on the spool

More than 85 percent of the pisco produced in Chile comes from the valley. On the way in, we toured the family-run Fuegos distillery, where we tasted the grapes and sampled the pre-pisco alcohol, which has an alcohol content of 68.7 percent.

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Me, descending

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A horse along the road

Laura and I fell in love with Valle del Elqui during our time there. On our second day, we rode mountain bikes down the dry dirt road from the far interior town of Alcohuaz to our home base in Pisco Elquis. Along the way, we passed lots of grape vines, a few men on horseback and many dogs too sleepy to bother chasing us. We stopped at the artists’ community outside the village of Horcón, where we wandered among artisans in hammocks and browsed booths filled with medicinal herbs, handmade jewelry and batiked clothing.

Laura and me during our bike ride, wearing protective head gear to prevent injury.

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The REAL Santiago

April 23, 2008

During our two days in Santiago, my sister Laura and I didn’t visit the city’s main tourist attractions. No, we stood in line at the bank, visited a notary, mailed packages and took a series of buses to a mall in the suburbs to exchange a piece of merchandise at the only Patagonia store in the greater Santiago area. Who needs to visit the poet Pablo Neruda’s house or the fine arts museum when you can see a real, working office and learn to navigate a bus system?

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Santiago

Anyway, we got the errands run, and we’re off to Valparaiso.

Buenos Aires: tango, mullets and cheap steak

April 23, 2008

It was not your typical tango show; it was not a formally-attired couple twirling dotted duple amongst the tables of lunching tourists.

It was the 12-piece Orquesta Típica Fernandez Fierro performing in a moody bar before a sea of 30 packed cocktail tables. It was passionate and edgy, it was Converse and dreadlocks, and it turned tradition on its head.

While the crowd sipped fernet, wine or gin and tonic, in the case of my hostel-mates and me, the musicians delivered the type of show that leaves you breathless after each song. The stage lights, which alternatively illuminated different sections of the orquestra in red, blue, white and green, lent a sense of urgency and drama to the music.

The energy, more than the actual look, of the Orquesta Típica Fernandez Fierro (Lighting was a challenge)

The highlight of the performance, I’d say, was the four accordian players seated in a row along the front of the stage. They played music with their entire beings, throwing their heads back and folding forward as they squeezed and stretched the instruments on their laps.

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Apartment buildings along the street 9 de Julio

Me encanta Buenos Aires. The city of 14 million has it all: 18th century European-style architecture and modern skyscrapers, cobbled streets and six-lane roads, privately-owned fruit stands and trendy, high-fashion clothing stores, business people and bohemians, public squares and green parks. It’s huge, but it moves at a relaxed pace. You don’t get crushed you if you pause before crossing the street or stepping onto a subway car.

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A foggy park we discovered at one end of the pedestrian-only Florida Street

Some observations about the Argentine capital, and some photos:

  • The mullet (negocios in the front, fiesta in the back) is quite in style, as is the color purple. With long hair and mostly blue capilene and quick-dry clothing in my backpack, I had no chance.
  • Porteños (BA locals) are incredibly sweet. People we asked for directions on the street or in the subway often escorted us to our destinations, or at least to a corner from which we could see them.
  • Creativity is in the air. Art galleries, design shops, handmade clothing stores and street markets abound, and the creations are cool.

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Our hostel-mate Tim among the colorful houses and art for sale in the La Boca neighborhood.

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Necklaces for sale in a San Telmo neighborhood market

  • People eat late. Lunch takes place mid-afternoon and dinner around 10 p.m. Discos get rockin’ around 3 a.m.
  • Speaking of which, Argentenian steak is abundant, inexpensive and deeeelicious.

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We dined at the renowned La Cabrera one night. Alexis and I shared a tenderloin stuffed with ham, cheese and sundried tomatoes. Soooo tasty.

  • Argentenian boobs are perkier than most. (Alexis and I were tempted to inquire in undergarmet stores for bras that would lend an Argentenian look to our chests. Probably would have been told the bras aren’t magic.)
  • Though electronic music is wildly popular, the Buenos Aires music scene is quite international. On any given night, you can find musicians performing tango, flamenco, jazz, rock and hip hop music in clubs around the city.
  • Many golden retrievers live in BA, and they are beautiful.
  • Alexis and her boyfriend, who later romped in a pond and, wet and dirty, lost her interest.

    • Porteños are fútbol fanatics. On the bus ride from the airport to the city center, I passed about a dozen games being played in the fields and buildings along the highway.
    • Argentina does coffee better than Chile. Chile does avocados better than Argentina.

    And now, for some photos of the Recoleta Cemetery. I know, I’ve posted cemetery photos on this blog twice before. I can’t help it.

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    Evita is buried in this ornate burial ground, but I didn’t manage to find her grave.

    Got my feet did!

    April 13, 2008

    After six months of schlepping me around Torres del Paine National Park, my feet got some royal treatment the other day. While Alexis got her hair cut at Buenos Aires’ Nuevo Club Creativo salon, I got a pedicure.
    A dainty little girl soaked, peeled and buffed my feet, then cut and painted my toenails.

    She felt it necessary to wear facial protection during the process. And she was probably right.

    Olympic torch passes through

    April 12, 2008

    The Olympic torch trotted right past me on its 8.5-mile journey through downtown Buenos Aires yesterday. Today, it’s headed to Tanzania and tomorrow, Oman, on its 23-city trip toward Bejing for the 2008 Olympic games.

    In other parts of the world — namely San Francisco, London and Paris — the passage of the torch generated protests against China’s human rights record. Though Argentenian activists promised “entertaining surprises” during the torch’s relay through their capital city, nothing too surprising happened. The protestors paced peacefully down Pte. R. Sáez Peña Avenue with signs bearing slogans like “No rights in China,” “Eighty million dead since 1945,” “An Olympics against humanity” and “Free Tibet.”

    A woman in a toga and gold sandals led the group, and a brigade of shield-bearing policemen and a truck blaring opera music followed. Argentine pedestrians stopped along the sidewalk to snap pictures with their camera phones, and taxi drivers encountering the march honked their horns and executed frustrated three-point turns to escape the blockage.

    In an attempt to diffuse possible tension, hundreds of China supporters decked out in matching red windbreakers gathered near the Washington-monument-style Obelisco on 9 de Julio Avenue.

    Hiking a hidden valley

    April 9, 2008

    My friend Juliana and I meant to spend a day meandering through Valle Bader, the high-elevation valley that runs between the 7,200-foot slab of the easternmost Cuerno and the 8,700-foot glacier-capped Almirante Nieto. Instead, we ended up scrambling up and down one of the more precarious moraines in the area and almost summiting both peaks. Not bad for a dayhike.

    Despite the wrong turn five minutes into the hike through the trail-less valley (the RIGHT side of the river, the RIGHT!), we saw some of the most amazing views ever. From the valley’s entrance, we could see numerous lakes, each a different shade of blue, and once inside, we could see the actual base of the cliffs we’re so used to seeing from afar. Rainbows arced overhead most of the day, and we saw wild parakeets on the return hike.

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    That’s me, squatting low to avoid blowing off the mountain, near the entrance to the valley.

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    That’s Juliana. She’s taking a photo.

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    Lago Nordenskjold and Lago Sarmiento, two of the lakes we could see from up high.

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    Nordenskjold again. Pretty.

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    During our hike, it rained, it snowed, the sun beat down on our backs, and the wind blew.

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    This is the Cuerno we almost summited, accidentally.

    We traversed the top of this moraine — and ate ham sandwiches almost at the base of the Cuerno — before realizing we were probably very far from where we were supposed to be. We decided to walk out on the other side of the valley, where we could make out a faint trail through much safer territory.

    Descending the moraine of loose rock was tough. We scooted backwards down the mountainside, placing our hands and feet on the rocks with great care to avoid starting avalanches. We crossed the pounding river at the base of the valley, and in the process of searching for the trail on the other side, almost summited Almirante Nieto.

    While we didn’t see as much of the valley as we could have if we’d had more time and hadn’t climbed so far in the wrong direction, we were blown away by what we did see. Valle Bader is a magical place for sure.

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    For more photos of Valle Bader, click here.