A Travellerspoint blog

Waterfalls, Scam Artists and Evita

But is it art?

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After our mostly rural introduction to Chile, we´ve proceeded to eat our way through the cities of Santiago and Buenos Aires, flown up to the astounding Iguazu Falls and are now hoping to catch a ferry tomorrow to Uruguay´s coastal cities of Colonia and Montevideo (more pictures coming when I can find a decent computer).

Restaurant menus here give you lots of options, but they´re mainly designed to show you all the tasty side dishes you can order with the different cuts of your big slab of beef. We´ve had some magnificent steak, as well as sausage and pork and prosciutto, though I imagine it´s a bit more difficult for vegans.

Although it was disorienting to wander around such a big city after touring the countryside, Santiago´s colorful street life and take on public art made for some fun walks. The scam artists, not so fun. Especially the "I´m a university professor, or student, or someone somehow affiliated with a school and I´m helping autistic children by handing out sappy poems and asking for donations" trick and the "No, really, that was a 1,000 Chilean pesos note you gave me for the cab ride and not the 10,000 note that you´re quite, quite sure you handed me" scam.

Poorer, but wiser.

At any rate, Santiago boasts a great pre-Colombian art museum featuring intricate ceramics and textiles, gold and silver figurines and a wonderfully creepy statue of a warrior wearing a full monkey skin over his own. Unexpectedly, the museum also has a fascinating exhibition on well-preserved woven hats that once identified the various communities of the country´s northern desert region.

Buenos Aires has wiled us with its own charms, including some top-notch museums and cafes. One of the best exhibitions, oddly enough, was the modern art museum´s display of photographs by New York artist David LaChapelle, including a brilliant one of transexual Amanda Lepore done up like Andy Warhol´s Liz Taylor. Here´s one from the same series. Warning: most of his other works are a bit more challenging.

We´ve been staying at some fun hotels in the city´s Palermo neighborhood, which is apparently so trendy that they briefly tried to name one section Palermo Brooklyn (no kidding). One of our favorite places, though, has been a much, much less lively district in a neighborhood called Recoleta. Specifically, it´s the Recoleta Cemetery, a fascinating necropolis of Argentina´s well-heeled set - including, of course, Evita Peron. The angel statues and crypts and mini-monuments are grand, if a bit spooky, though the dozens of friendly cats residing on the premises seem particularly well cared-for.

Earlier today, we walked through the neighborhood of San Telmo, which hosts a weekend antique fair with stalls upon stalls of old coins, dolls, swords, colored soda siphons, wooden shoe molds, lace, and just about anything else you can imagine. Interspersed with the stalls and street artists and human statues were some really good tango bands and dancers putting on shows for the crowds. A great way to spend the afternoon.

One of the best days, though, was the 24-hour side trip we took to Iguazu Falls, which straddle the border between Argentina and Brazil. The falls were, in a word, mind-bogglingly breathtaking.

OK, three words. But there´s really no way to adequately describe how the pit of your stomach drops out much more than with any roller coaster-induced case of the butterflies when you´re standing on a metal catwalk that´s taken you across a series of islands and has now ended less than five feet above a gigantic horseshoe-shaped torrent of rushing water heading straight down into an abyss that appears to be a seething mass of foam and spray and a gazillion gallons of water.

Niagra Falls is a garden hose compared to this - according to one guide, there can be up to 260 individual falls in the whole Iguazu complex depending on the amount of rainfall. A one-kilometer catwalk ends at the biggest continuous stretch of them, the horseshoe-shaped Devil´s Throat, which is very aptly named. And incredibly, hundreds of swifts are diving down into this roaring pit, where they actually live behind some of the walls of water.

After seeing the falls during the day, we took advantage of the nearly full moon and returned for a special moonlight tour. No lights, just the moon and starlight for the hike across the catwalk and out to the very edge of the falls, which seemed even more awesome as they plunged beneath us while managing to send up large billowing clouds of fine spray.

And speaking of butterflies, they first appeared on the Iguazu airport tarmac and were soon fluttering all around us, landing on us, decorating the car windshield (unfortunately unavoidable), and accompanying us virtually everywhere we went until we flew back to Buenos Aires. They included dozens of different species in seemingly every color and design, like one with brilliant orange spots on a black background and another called an Eightyeight because of the cool "88" design on its wings.

Apart from the butterflies and some interesting new bird species, we saw plenty of the raccoon-like coatamundis and a rather large crocodile in a quieter tributary of the river. We were able to visit both the Argentinian and Brazilian sides of the falls and enjoyed each (Argentina for its up-close access and Brazil for the panoramic views), though we were a bit put off by Brazil´s theme park approach to the falls, and more than a little saddened by a display stating matter-of-factly that the entire region one of the most biodiverse in Brazil, has lost an estimated 97 percent of its forest cover since 1930.

Here´s fervently hoping that the remaining three percent can manage to hang on.

Posted by brynster 15:53 Archived in Argentina Comments (0)

Stray Dogs and Nescafe

Enjoying the finer things in Chile

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Greetings from the land of volcanoes, stray dogs and instant coffee - otherwise known as Chile. Despite the often chilly fall weather, we´ve enjoyed the first two of the country´s defining attributes and I´ve managed to find some nice alternatives to the third.

After our triumphant hiking adventure in Patagonia´s Torres del Paine, we were treated to more spectacular mountain scenery on our drive through Chile´s Lake District, though we also endured our second volcano flop of the trip. Unlike our failure in Nicaragua due to excessive flabbiness, however, high winds forced us to abort the scaling of the very symmetrical and very active Volcan Villarrica after about an hour of climbing. The pity is that we could have slid down the mountainside in the snow, using pickaxes as brakes. More or less.

As a nice consolation, we discovered a fantastic complex of volcano-heated thermal springs in a waterfall-fed canyon called Termas Geometricas. We spent the rest of the afternoon hopping from pool to pool, enjoying the Japanese-style design with its rustic red-painted changing sheds and walkways - and only reluctantly left what has been the hottest water we´ve yet found in the country.

On our week-long tour of the scenic Lake District (south of Santiago) we also sampled some very nice lager beer, sauerkrat and pork sandwiches in the heavily German-influenced region. One of our best lunches, in fact, was at a chain restaurant called Bavaria. To our great disappointment, though, the waiters did not wear lederhosen.

And then there are the dogs. Chileans love them, but seem to be incapable of keeping them in any one location for very long. Hence entire packs of what look like extras from a lovable Disney movie endlessly roam the nation´s streets, yards, highways, woods, riversides and any other accessible surface. Fortunately, they´re quite friendly, and several only half-heartedly tried chasing our car while a small army of floppy-eared mutts looked on with only mild interest.

As we´ve found, the country´s many mountains represent only a small fraction of Chile´s natural beauty. Near the resort town of Pucon, we spent a day in the lovely and well-maintained Huerquehue National Park where we hiked up to a lake ringed by old-growth monkey puzzle trees, or araucaria. We had seen one or two of these odd-looking evergreens in botanical gardens but never so many big ones growing wild. Very impressive. Here´s a view of the lake in the late afternoon sun.

Also noteworthy is the beautiful but otherwise deserted wooden lodge where we stayed in the park that night and where we enjoyed a superb wine-accompanied dinner. Despite its many attractions, it listed as its prime amenity the unusual fact that it served real coffee rather than Nescafe instant for breakfast. Priorities, priorities.

Geoff has been gradually adding to his list of new bird sightings, with some colorful ibises and species spotted in the Chilean countryside. Other species have apparently sensed his affection for avian life and sought him out like an old friend. Hiking back to our rental car from the park lodge, for example, he was befriended by a flock of local chickens residing on park-bordering farms, who were really, really reluctant to let him leave after he fed them some delicious trail mix. Here´s a nice shot of them in hot pursuit, seemingly screaming, "Ah, kind sir, just a bit more?!!"

After our narrow escape, we headed down to Chiloe, a large and very atmospheric island known for its fishing, folklore and a collection of antique, Jesuit built, wood-shingled churches that have been preserved as a UNESCO world heritage site. As with the rest of the Lake District, we had nearly every tourist spot to ourselves and encountered plenty of dogs and Nescafe. The old churches were indeed fascinating, though several of them were populated only by giant black vultures perched atop their steeples.

We´re now in Santiago, which is quite large but vibrant and full of interesting art. The city´s museum of pre-Colombian art is nop-notch and apart from preserved textiles, burial urns, and a wonderful sculpture of a monkey skin-wearing warrrior, contains some really old pots that were undoubtedly used for the country´s first batches of instant coffee.

Posted by brynster 15:10 Archived in Chile Comments (0)

Towers of Pain

And other beautiful scenes from South America

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We did it. And we have the stinky clothes to prove it.

Our four-day trek through Chile's Torres del Paine national park required frequent last-minute changes of plan, waterproof jackets, pants and backpack covers and most importantly, a complete indifference to clothes and boots that reeked of cheese left in a hot car for several weeks.

After a few days of less-than-ideal weather, however, we lucked out with a magnificent view of the park's three iconic towers on our last, stunningly beautiful day.

(First, though, one image from Lima, Peru, where the facade of the beautiful La Merced chuch formed a striking counterpoint to a military statue across the square):

Even before officially entering Torres del Paine, we saw three of the big five animals inhabiting the area: several guanacos, which are essentially llamas; the Chilean condor; and the nandu or lesser rhea, a smaller cousin of the ostrich. Which leaves the puma and a small deer species, both of which were apparently smart enough to take cover in the foul weather. We're also fairly sure we spotted a few Chilean flamingoes, which were likely regretting their decision to dawdle a bit more before heading north with the rest of the flock.

The most popular hiking route through the park is a W-shaped trail, with the towers most visible at the W's final tip. Due to the lousy weather, though, the park rangers suggested we save them for last, which ended up being great advice. A brief recap:

Day one: Our first icebergs. After donning our so-called rain-proof outfits and backpack covers that made us look like workers responding to a chemical spill, we caught a catamaran across a lake and slogged 11 kilometers in the rain and snow past another large lake to a rustic refugio. The smallish cabin was a bit like a ramshackle skiing lodge, with bunkbeds crammed into tiny upstairs rooms and a common space with a small fireplace on the ground floor. The skies cleared a bit toward the end of the day, and we were able to admire the impressive Glacier Grey, which has scoured away the rock around it even as it retreats, leaving large blue icebergs floating in the slowly expanding Lago Grey. Monkey, our travel mascot, had a particularly nice view.

Day two: We began with a nice hike to get to a closer vantage point of the glacier.

After much oohing and ahhing, we headed back the way we had come and stayed in the far cushier Paine Grande refugio - about 19 kilometers of hiking in all. After blissfully hot showers and an impressive dinner, we were able to get to know some of our fellow travelers a bit more (a big hello to Gareth and Suzanne from London, Marilou and Wilbert from Amsterdam, Luis from Madrid and Eric from Beijing). Clothes were beginning to have that not-so-fresh aroma.

Day three: A bit of a washout. We had planned to hike a good bit of the base of the W and see the "not to be missed" Valle Frances. After an hour of hiking through pelting rain and gusts that easily topped 60 miles an hour, we were completely soaked, absolutely miserable and unanimous in our decision to miss the valley in favor of another boat and bus ride to a brand new and rather warm refugio that would at least allow us a shot of the seeing the towers the following day. Clothes had a rather indescribable fragrance.

Day four: A welcome break in the weather. A pre-dawn hike led us up through pasture land, around a mountain, into the woods and finally, after a precarious and exhausting scramble up a steep pile of icy boulders that ranks as one of the more adventurous things we've yet done, we were rewarded with a spectacular view of the three towers and a small lake below them. Despite the howling wind and our aching muscles, we were able to savor the sight and bask in the sunshine with our hiking companions, Gareth, Suzanne and Eric:

We're now recovering at a wonderful hotel called Indigo with impressive views of Puerto Natale's Last Hope Fjord, and the clothes have been thankfully banished to a laundry service.

Posted by brynster 12:11 Archived in Chile Comments (0)

Naughty Pots and Chilly Bits

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Hello from the bottom of the world.

OK, not quite, but as far south as either of us has ever been. In the last few days, we´ve gone from the tropics of Panama City to Lima, Peru via Miami and then on to Santiago, Chile and down to the rather chilly Patagonian cities of Punta Arenas and Puerto Natales. Tomorrow, we begin a four-day hike through Chile´s Torres del Paine National Park, and are hoping that it won´t snow again so we can access all the trails.

Going from nearly 90 degrees to less than 40 has been a bit of a shock, but southern Chile is lovely despite the weather.

During the lesss than 24 hours we spent in Lima, we did dine on less then appetizing guinea pig but also visited some beautiful churches and the Larco Herrera museum, which had possibly the most amazing collection of ceramics I´ve ever seen. All were pre-Columbian pots, some sporting amazingly sophisticated scenes, colors and glazes. And the storehouse of extra ceramics not on display is jaw-dropping, with row upon row of perfectly preserved jars arranged by topic: scenes of bats, monkeys, one bird, two birds, husband and wife drinking in their house, and so on.

The museum even has an entire wing devoted to erotic art, including several scenes that would make Hugh Hefner blush and a section of skeletons, um, doing the nasty.

Whereas parts of Lima seemed like a never-ending U.S. suburb, I´m sure that Chile´s Puerto Natales would remind us of northern Europe if we had ever been there. The fairly modern city lies on a pretty fjord with snow-capped mountains in the background. It´s also rather colder than we were expecting, but we´re excited to have a closer view of the beautiful mountains starting tomorrow. Stay tuned ...

Posted by brynster 22:46 Archived in Peru Comments (1)

Disco Fish and Star Wars

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When we last reported from Panama, a three-toed sloth with baby in tow was being harassed by small boys in their underwear using the blue-tiled gravesite of one Harriet S. DeDowner as a launching pad for their slingshots. Not sure if she would have been amused or horrified, but I´m happy to report that the sloth was still there and quite intact several hours afterwards.

To be fair, much of the archipelago of Bocas del Toro outside of the main towns seems fairly well protected and is still teeming with wildlife. While there, an indigenous guide in the small community of Salt Creek on Bastimentos Island took us to see impossibly cute Western night monkeys, a very cool black and white owl, nearly crocodile-sized caimans partially submerged in a murky pond and thumb-sized bright red poison dart frogs.

And after a wonderful snorkeling session during which we saw a fish that could only be properly described as a small purple disco ball, a mother and baby bottle-nosed dolphin began playing in the wake of our motorboat, encouraging our driver to maneuver into wide circles so the baby dolphin could draft behind the boat, occasionally trying out its jumping abilities.

Panama City couldn´t be more different, with a Miami-ish feel to all of its palm trees and high rises. The city is booming, with well over a dozen skyscrapers under construction. The most compelling neighborhood, though, is low-rise Casco Antiguo, with beautifully restored colonial buildings standing side by side with crumbling ones, some little more than roofless stone shells. The president of Panama lives here and government workers share park space with traditionally dressed Kuna women selling colorful molas, or colorful textiles. We also found one of the very best restaurants of the whole trip there, a modern place called Ego that has awesome tapas like ceviche and octopus carpaccio (better than you´d think) served up with sangria in a wonderful outdoor square.

The Miraflores locks of the Panama Canal also exceeded our expectations. The justifiably proud Panamanians have built an impressive visitors center with good vantage points. The sheer scale of the locks is best demonstrated by seeing huge cargo ships being raised and lowered dozens of feet by water alone. And the very well-done three-floor exhibition of the canal´s history, watershed, logistics and future was fascinating, as were the science of the undertaking and its impact on ship size and shipping economics.

Still more than a few reminders of the U.S. presence there, with abandoned bunkers on the way up to a superb vantage point on the city´s Ancon Hill, the bombed-out former recreation center for Noriega´s soldiers and massive U.S.-style development that has turned a string of three pretty islands into something approaching a hideous megamall for the rich.

After an inconvenient layover in Miami, we´ve officially begun the South American leg of our journey with a stop in Lima, Peru. The late-morning changing of the guard at the government palace was impressive if somewhat odd: marching soldiers and riot police and huge tanks keeping guard while the military band played the theme from "Star Wars."

And I´m unhappy to report that roasted guinea pig tastes somewhat like chicken, only fattier, chewier and stringier.

Posted by brynster 12:11 Archived in Panama Comments (0)

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