Monday, March 28, 2011

Finally, to Uruguay After 39 Years!

The final destination on the South American phase of our walkabout is Montevideo, Uruguay.  We will be there until April 14.  There are several ways to get there from Buenos Aires.  We chose the ferry that crosses the Río de la Plata (River Plate) to Colonia de Sacramento, and then by bus to Montevideo.  We left the ferry terminal in Buenos Aires at 12:30 and arrived at the Montevideo bus terminal at 4:30 pm.

Buquebus (“boat-bus”) is the company that runs these ferries and busses.  Both the land and water portions of the trip were quite comfortable.

At the Buquebus terminal, you can check suitcases and carry others.  There are both Argentine immigration officers and their Uruguayan counterparts right next to each other, and so you do both passport controls at the same time.  Very much like the Eurostar at St. Pancras Station in London, where the French Police Nationale people are at the station for passport control. 

Arriving in Colonia, you will need to clear Uruguayan customs after reclaiming your luggage.  Some arriving passengers were chosen to have their bags put through the x-ray scanner, but we were not among them.  This is different from our experiences in entering Argentina four times in the last two months.  Between Osorno and Bariloche, in Ushuaia, and twice entering Puerto Iguazú.  At each of those places, each bag was checked without exception.

After thirty-nine years, I have finally arrived in Uruguay.  I was supposed to do my midshipman summer training here in 1972, but that was cancelled after the Uruguayan military suspended the constitution during the Tupamaro war.  I was disappointed, but also relieved that I could not be associated in any way with what I was pretty sure would take place.  My presentiments were accurate.  The current President of Uruguay was a Tupamaro guerrilla.

Buenos Aires, March 19-26, 2011

Buenos Aires is a great city, of that there is no doubt.  This is our third visit, and it was by far the best one.  The first time, we got a really good package deal from fancy Claridge’s Hotel, which is in the center on Tucumán.  The center has narrow sidewalks and is very busy.  The pedestrian streets are nice, but on the others, people are always in a hurry so they won’t get run down by busses or cars.   So our first visit was a mixed bag.  The second time was last year.  The big Chilean earthquake shut down the Santiago airport, and so we were diverted from Mendoza to Buenos Aires.  We spent only two days there and then flew straight home, but we had a nice time during that short detour.

Our week in Palermo Soho (or Palermo Viejo, if you prefer) was quite pleasant.  This was a very different kind of city living.  We were on Calle Uriarte, near Calle Guatemala.  The neighborhood reminded us very much of Chelsea in Manhattan.  Buenos Aires is mostly a high rise city.  Providencia is becoming more high rise with new construction, but it is much more spread out.  In that sense, Providencia feels more like Los Angeles in comparison.

We were close to the Bosque de Palermo, a large public space like Golden Gate Park or New York’s Central Park.  The Plaza de Italia Subte (subway) station was just a couple of blocks away.  Shopping was convenient, with a Disco supermarket just four blocks away.  Food prices in Argentina are cheaper than in Chile.  The owner of our apartment tells us that is because food prices are subsidized in Argentina.  Buenos Aires in the late summer can be hot and humid, whereas Santiago is hot and dry.  So it is kind of a trade off.  We like Boston and New York City, but we don’t want to stay in either one at the height of the summer…OR the winter either!  Spring or fall, pick one!

Our stay was short, and so we took some photos of the more famous things to see.  We were there for a four day national holiday weekend.  Plácido Domingo and Virginia Tola gave a fantastic open-air concert at the obelisk (9 de Julio and Corrientes).  We decided not to brave the crowds, which numbered some 120,000.  We did enjoy it on the television, and doubtless heard it better too.
Many subway stations have great murals like this one.

Entrance to a B Line Subte station

Subte station interior.
Casa Rosada, the presidential official residence and offices.

Protests in the Plaza de Mayo opposite the Casa Rosada.

The old Cabildo (City Council) building dates from the colonial period.

The Cathedral facade is very different from most in Latin America.

The Congreso Nacional houses the legislature.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Comfort Zones and Mental Limits

We all have our limits, by which I mean the boundaries of our own comfort zones.

Penny and I have met many travelers since we started this walkabout seven months ago.  One young woman from San Francisco was laid off, so she put her stuff in storage and hit the road.  She had just arrived in Puerto Iguazú and was having some ice cream when we came into the shop.  We have also met people who have been traveling for years after retiring, much like we are now doing.  When we tell people what we are doing now, we usually get raised eyebrows in response.  Some genuinely think they could never do what we are doing.  Sometimes, we can see the gears whirring inside their heads as they take aboard a new idea.  It is a big decision, though, to do this kind of walkabout.

Penny and I have developed rather large comfort zones over the years, but we too have a sense of limits.  Don’t look for us to head off to Uzbekistan at any time in the near future, even though one of our most adventurous friends has done exactly that.  At the other extreme, we know people whose comfort zone limits extend perhaps to the counties next to the ones where they live. 

But, it really doesn’t matter where your limits are.  You don’t have to decide to mosey across the border into Paraguay to be adventurous.  What does matter is to engage the wonderful world and its people as best you can.  I know some people who have gone to Italy and were so uncomfortable that they may never travel abroad again.  I know others who also went to Italy and found that it tested their comfort zone limits.  They still want to travel to other places or return to Italy when they can.  The difference, of course, is how you react to the challenge.   Do you challenge your limits?  If you do, then you have expanded your horizons and have created new limits for yourself.  You are actually expanding your very humanity.

And you get memories to keep as long as you can.  That is all that remains when you leave any particular place.  You have what you see before your eyes at a given moment, and all the rest are persons and places that you can visit no matter where you happen to be sitting.  You simply walk down the hallways of your collected memories, choose a treasure chest to open, and then conjure in your mind’s eye some person or place that you remember. 

As I write this, I happen to be in Buenos Aires.  It is a great city.  Not the greatest in the world, as I see it, but it is a great city.  I could right now visit Paris or Hong Kong again just as easily if I were sitting in…say, Winnemucca, Nevada, which I don't think is such a great city.  In fact, I have just gone back to Boston for a while, and Boston is a great city.  That’s the beauty of creating all these memories.

Iguazú falls, March 2011

From the Puerto Iguazú airport, we took the Four Tourist minibus to Los Troncos, the small hotel on Calle San Lorenzo where we stayed.  Sofia, the owner (I think) of Los Troncos, recommended this in lieu of an individual taxicab.  Good call!  It goes all over town and drops off all the passengers at their various hotels.

The waterfalls themselves are in national parks to the east of town.  This is true of either town:  Puerto Iguazú, Argentina, or Foz do Iguaçu, Brazil.  The Brazilian town is rather larger than the Argentine one, and there seem to be more and larger hotels there.  From the Brazilian side, one can appreciate the magnitude and the majesty of the falls.  Those panoramas are seen from a distance.  On the Argentine side, you find walkways that go out over the falls themselves.  You can look over and down.  Of course, you will get wet, as you can see above.

If you are traveling on a US passport, then you will need to get a Brazilian visa if you want to visit that side.  Look on the web for the current procedures.  There is a charge, and a delay, at whatever consulate general you use.  This is because the US makes their citizens do the same to get a visa.  Sofia told us that Americans can get a visa with a twenty-four hour turnaround at the Brazilian vice-consulate in Puerto Iguazú, but I can’t verify that myself.  We have our Brazilian visas from last year.

Besides the falls themselves, you also get to see the wildlife in the parks.  It is the jungle.  Think insects!  Fascinating swirls of colorful butterflies!  Catching them in photos was at best difficult and usually impossible.

We spent one day at each side of the falls, and on the third day, we took the bus from Puerto Iguazú to Ciudad del Este, Paraguay.  That is not a very pleasant place.  Passport control in Argentina seems rather tight, but there was none at all in Paraguay.  The main attraction of Ciudad del Este seems to be a shopping district right after the border bridge.  If you have ever been to the markets along the Mexican side approaches to the San Diego-Tijuana border crossing, then you know what the Paraguayan shopping area looks like.  We didn’t see any organized crime or Hezbollah activity, but web stories indicate that there is quite a bit of both there.  There seemed to be quite a bit of petty smuggling by Argentine tourists.

On the first day, we ate at the small restaurant in Los Troncos, and that was nice.  On the Brazilian side, we made the mistake of eating at the buffet in the park center.  Over-priced and under-good.  When we got back from being drenched on the Argentine side, we had a very nice fixed price meal at the restaurant across from the bus station.  In Paraguay, we had roast pork at a sidewalk café/barbecue.  But don’t think it was like the ones in Paris’s Rue de Rivoli, because it wasn’t.  The pork tasted good, but…it was where it was.

Another enjoyable thing about our short stay in Iguazú was meeting other travelers.  This is always one of the nicest things about our travels.  Iguazú is one of those places that attracts people from all over the world, and it adds an extra dimension to a visit.  After all, we all had come a long way to a very remote place in the jungles of South America.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Bariloche, Argentina February 28-March 14, 2011

We have just spent two weeks taking it very easy by Lake Nahuel Huapí, Argentina.  We arrived at the town of Bariloche by bus from Osorno, Chile.  We stayed at Balcón del Lago, located in Llao Llao, 23 km west of Bariloche.  It was just great and Rodolfo Gabarain, the owner, is a wonderful host.

The weather was quite warm when we got here, but summer has been rapidly disappearing.  We caught a bit of rain, and when the Patagonian winds came across the lake, it got quite cool. 
Araucaria tree
I don't know what these are, but they are pretty.

The lake area is simply gorgeous.  It is somewhat like a mix between Lake Geneva and California’s Sierra Nevadas.  There are many hikers here, and Bariloche itself has many accommodations for them.  Nahuel Huapí is fed and drained by rivers.  Just a few miles toward the Patagonian flat lands and away from the Andes, the terrain changes dramatically.  That is much the same as leaving Lake Tahoe and going east into Nevada.  In many ways, our two weeks here reminded me of going to the cabin we used to have at Big Bear Lake.  We did much the same things here as we used to do there, which is to say, not much of anything!  That’s what’s so great about it.  We don’t fish, we don’t ski, but we had a mountain lake cabin.  We didn’t fish here either, but we did go out to eat a couple of times.
The fancy (and expensive) resort hotel in Llao Llao.

I can strongly recommend for lunch El Tronador in Llao Llao just before you get to the turnoff from Av. Bustillo to the fancy hotel.  It is run by two sisters, and they don’t do dinner.  Also, we went to El Boliche de Alberto, a parilla (grill) restaurant.  After all, this is Argentina, and they eat beef here. Lamb and chicken were options, but not trucha (trout, a favorite of Penny's) like they had at El Tronador.

We drove north along the highway into the province of Neuquén for a while one day, and it was like going into another world.  A motorcycle with Alaska plates passed us.  I couldn’t catch up with it to get a picture.  I wonder if they came from Ushuaia and are on their way to Point Barrow?  Doing the whole hemisphere! 

We decided not to take the bus to Buenos Aires from here.  It would be an eighteen hour trip.  We could have split it up and stayed at a town somewhere in the middle for a day, but that would have meant buying separate tickets.  And besides, we want to see Iguazú Falls and still have some time in Buenos Aires before we head over to Montevideo.   So we are flying on LAN to Buenos Aires, staying one night, and then flying up to Puerto Iguazú.  

Thursday, March 10, 2011

By Bus in South America

Air travel around South America is comparatively expensive.  For example, I just went to the LAN web site to see prices for a round trip next week between Santiago and Temuco.  If you enter the site as a USA resident, the trip costs about US$525.  If you enter as a Chilean resident, then it costs about US$100.  If you don’t have a Chilean bank account with a Chilean credit card account, then you cannot buy the Chilean-priced ticket even by going to a LAN office in Santiago.  That is what a German friend of ours found when she tried to do it.  She decided to take the long-range bus.

Many people in South America travel cross-country by bus.  Some North Americans tend to think of Greyhound travel as a bit dodgy, but they should not project that onto the situation in South America.  And there are comfortable, high-quality, inter-city services.  That bus to Cartagena in Romancing the Stone does exist, but so do other choices.

So here are some of our experiences that we feel might be worth sharing.  In Chile, we have traveled by bus between Santiago and places far to the south such as Temuco, Gorbea, and Valdivia.  We have also taken shorter trips between Santiago and Valparaiso and Viña del Mar.  We have also gone from Valdivia to Osorno, and then from Osorno across the frontier to Bariloche, Argentina.  In Peru, we have traveled between Lima and Huánuco.

Most of our trips in Chile have been on Tur-Bus.  We have found them to be completely satisfactory and reliable in every regard.  Tur-Bus tends to be a little more expensive than some other choices.  In Santiago, Tur-Bus operates from the bus station near the Universidad de Santiago Metro station.

Tur-Bus has the best checked baggage control.  You give the attendant your luggage to stow underneath the passenger area, and you will get a tag for each one.  The attendant gives it back to you after checking your ticket against the tag.  A good system!

Another leg might not have been so good.  Our Osorno-Bariloche leg was on TAS-Choapa.  The loader there expected a tip, which I never saw on any Tur-Bus trip.  Of more concern was what happened at Bariloche.  Local youths unloaded all the luggage and aggressively demanded tips.  The bags were taken off the bus before the claiming passenger even presented the ticket.  We got all of our things without any problems, but there did seem to be a potential for theft.

Day legs are on inter-city busses with reclining seats.  Long trips offer a sleeper bus option.  You can get a double-decker bus-cama, or “bed bus.”  The lower deck has seats like first-class in an airplane.  They fold down into completely flat beds for sleeping, and there are a number of places where you can safely stow your hand luggage.  This costs more.  When you decide which option to take, don’t forget to figure that the overnight on the bus is one day’s bill that you will not pay to a hotel.

In Peru in 2009, we had an interesting experience.  I have been writing about a failed rebellion in 1812 that took place in the Andean city of Huánuco.  This city is in the eastern Andes, about halfway down to the Amazon basin.  It is an eight-hour bus ride from Lima.  There is an airline service to Huánuco, but it is much more expensive.  Besides, I needed to see the central highlands from Tarma and La Oroya through Cerro de Pasco and on to Huánuco because that was the line of march followed by the royalist troops.  So we took the bus!

We took the day bus up to Huánuco.  It cost about US$25 or so, and that included a lunch served by the attendant.  The trip was fine, and the only problem was that the latrine facility filled up and had to be closed.

Having seen the countryside that I needed to see, we decided to take the more comfortable sleeper bus back to Lima.  This cost some more, of course.  I booked the return tickets at what is today the ETPOSA terminal and office in Huánuco.

Printed passenger manifests were prepared for both of these trips.  Baggage was checked as in Chile.  We were only going for a couple of days, and we weren’t carrying much.  So we carried our small bags on board and did not check them.  Checked baggage was taken inside the terminal and loaded onto the bus by employees.  Everything went through security checks to get on the bus. 

The night bus left around 10 or 11 pm.  The entire loading process took place within an enclosed terminal area.  When we were ready to depart, the terminal gates swung open and the bus immediately pulled out.  Off we went.  Some time around 3 am, the bus stops on the highway.  This was at La Oroya, which is where the road up to the central highlands from Lima joins the highway running north-south through the Andes.

The stop was at a narcotics police checkpoint.  Many other busses and vehicles were waved through the checkpoint while we waited for more than an hour.  The cause of the stop:  One person who had checked in at the terminal, and checked luggage into the baggage hold, did not board the bus himself when it left.  The police had been advised of that fact by the bus company.  They wanted those bags, and they got them.  They were curious about why gringo-looking people were coming from a remote place like Huánuco, but once they understood that we had not checked any bags into the hold, then they were no longer interested.  Also, there was one passenger who did not match the age and physical description on the manifest.  That was a young man from Tarma, and the police removed him from the bus for detention and questioning.  The bus attendant told us that there had been a real possibility that the entire bus would be detained, but the police decided not to after they got the man from Tarma and the bags in question.

Off we went again, turning onto the Carretera Central (Central Highway) toward Lima.  An hour or two later, we again came to a stop.  There was a long line of backed up traffic.  We were in the town of Matucana.  That is not very far from Lima, although Penny and I did not know that at the time.

A landslide had blocked the two-lane Carretera Central.  We learned later that clearing equipment had been unable to reach Matucana from Lima because up-bound traffic had filled up both lanes and the snarl would be difficult to untangle.  Because it happened early in the morning, the Policía Nacional Peruana (PNP) were slow in responding.  So it was a mess.  At around 10 am, a clamshell-type bulldozer passed us, coming from the Andes side.  Most likely from La Oroya. 

Many of our passengers got off and walked.  Passengers from other ETPOSA busses walked down, stayed on our bus for a while, and then went on by foot.  We decided to stay, as did a dozen or so of the original passengers.  We had a couple of large water bottles with us, and a stash of granola bars.  We shared those with our stranded fellows, and had a good time talking with them.  We stayed there all the next day, the next night, and most of the following day.  Finally, the bus went into Matucana, down along the river on the old road.  The river crossing was actually a fording, because the road had been washed out years before and never repaired.  They didn’t go that way, because the Carretera Central was available.  As we moved along, I could see the rockslide being cleared by the one bulldozer that I had seen the previous morning. An eight-hour bus ride ended up taking forty hours.  We arrived safely in Lima late Thursday afternoon on a trip that had been scheduled to arrive Tuesday at dawn.

Of course, ours was a very unusual experience, but it shows that you can have an adventure traveling by bus in South America.