Monday, December 19, 2011

The Ashes

The Netherlands? No, Chile is this beautiful.

Mt. Fuji, Japan? No, just another volcano in Chile, they've got loads.

The flowers and volcanos are nice, but I've done them one better!
We spent two days riding south through Chile, on their amazing Interstate-quality superhighway Panamerica One - THE highway. It was great, no traffic, great weather, no speed limit and amazing mega-gas stations every 60 miles or so.
Chileans are enthusiastic about wieners. See upper center.
There was only one problem with Chile - everything but wine was extremely expensive. Instead of trading the bike for a hovel and finally going pro as winos, which would have been the sensible thing to do, we forked out $8 a gallon for gas and $30 for a gas station lunch. These prices are in US DOLLARS. I know you can see the photo above, but, trust me, the wieners were not THAT good. He's faking it. So, call it "when in Rome", or "we had no choice", or "it saved us days over driving on bad roads", or whatever, but two days later we left Chile at least $4 million lighter. We were bound for San Martin de los Andes, one of Argentina's northern Patagonia mountain resort towns. For reference, resort town restaurants in Argentina are cheaper than gas stations in Chile. But we're not there yet.

As we got close to the border we turned onto a fantastic two lane road. Ten miles from the border they ran out of asphalt, but luckily they still had big, uneven river rocks and sand. Almost every time I changed a tire I thought "why am I buying these outrageously expensive off-road tires, we are done with off road" but, every time, we found ourselves on a road where they were indispensable. Buy Continental TKC 80s, no matter what. Anyway, we rode the ten miles and arrived at a Chile/Argentina border that made the last remote one look like Times Square.
These furry trees welcome you back to Argentina, where you can afford TWO hot dogs!

This is the parking lot for the border. Really.
The only other people at the border were a shifty couple in a Porsche stuffed with un-delcared bananas, perhaps? I'd like to think so. I was afraid to take their picture, sorry.

We were counting on Argentina to be cool and pave the road right at the border, if only to thumb their noses at Chile, but no. On the Argentina side it was a National Park, so they can't pave it? That's the law there, don't ask me. Argentina did provide smaller river rocks and shallower sand, so we appreciated that.
Here's the name of the river this bridge might collapse into, just so you know.
It was paved again soon enough, but everything started to turn grey. We had heard about a volcano in the area erupting and spewing ash for hundreds of miles, and this seemed to be the aftermath. It wasn't to bad in San Martin, but anywhere outside of town the ash coated everything.
No ash in this photo, EXCEPT the ash in Jill's eye as she takes it - look in the mirror, lower left!

The next day the wind had shifted, and the lake looked like this. 0% of this is fog; all ash.
It is quite late right now, so I will finish this post soon. Please talk amongst yourselves. Thanks!

Banana Smuggling & The Art of The City

WOW, that was quite a "siesta"! Sorry! So, where were we? It looks like the last update had us lounging around Mendoza, and after four days of that we decided to move on to Valparaiso, Chile. We heard that the drive took anywhere from eight hours to 12 hours, but we made it in six...must have been a tailwind. We had also heard that the pass over the Andes made it the coldest day of the trip for our friends Andy and Cass. Sounds promising!

The road was beautifully twisty as we climbed toward the border, which was just to the far side of the Andes. Driving past rocky peaks and ski resorts made us feel like we were back in Colorado, and other than the unpredictable wind it was a great ride; and probably never got below 45 degrees - even with snow all around. I guess Aussies just think anything below 68 degrees is cold!

At the 14th border of the trip we found something I had given up on seeing in my lifetime. At first I thought I was hallucinating because of the altitude, but, no, it was real. A SIGN EXPLAINING THE ORDER OF OPERATIONS AT THE BORDER! This 6' by 8' sheet of metal answered a prayer I had made (mostly with foul oaths) as I scrambled around every border in Central and South America with two hands full of crumpled paperwork in search of various, dubious, "officials." It may have only cost them $200 to make, but to me it was the holy grail. So simple, so beautiful; I couldn't tear my eyes away. It was only in Spanish, but I can't really fault them for that.

Anyway, we breezed through the border with little issue, until stop #4 - "Control Fitozoosanitario" and Jill's contraband banana. (a "contrabandnana", if you will) They asked if we had any fruits or vegetables - as our visa applications indicated that we did not -but under the scathing scrutiny of the banana-sniffing dog I cracked...and admitted that we were in possession of exactly one Argentine banana - or 1/2 kilo of "Argentine gold" as they call it on the streets. The agent rolled his eyes and sighed in appreciation of my belated honesty, and led me into a special room to fill out paperwork declaring our previously-undeclared banana. I then filled out a full page document detailing the banana, myself, our trip, etc. When I handed the sheet to the agent I held out my other hand to receive my newly-declared banana - but there had been a serious misunderstanding. He wagged his finger at me, and then looked me straight in the eye as he chucked the banana in the trash. OK. So, I was in a remote government office somewhere high in the Chilean Andes having a tense exchange regarding a document legalizing the disposal of a piece of fruit. High Adventure! and, Declare Your Bananas! So after that AND the border sign I was pretty impressed with Chile - a country must really have things pretty well sorted out to have the money to pay for banana-sniffing dogs, border signs, and uniformed, stern and professional banana-trashers. Onward! Banana-less.

Either Chileans don't like mountains or vice-versa, because the Andes called it quits about 50 feet out of the border station. It's hard to see in the photo, but these are the 13 switchbacks in a row as you enter Chile. 12,000 feet to 10,000 feet in one mile as the crow files. Within ten miles it was green and beautiful again, and within an hour we were down to 3,000 feet or so. Sadly, with the time (not to mention nutritional value) lost in the banana incident, we couldn't make it to Valparaiso that night. But we did make it here:

Please note the heavenly sun ray at the upper right lighting our path
This "auto hotel" was even more evidence that Chileans knew how to do things. Somehow we didn't take any pictures of the interior, but it might have been the best-appointed room we had during the entire trip. TOWEL HEATERS, people. We booked the room - $20 for 12 hours - and ran into town to get what turned out to be the best Chinese food of the trip. After a full breakfast delivered to our room in the morning, we made the final two hours of the ride to Valparaiso in love with the world.

We cruised around town to check things out a little, and then drove up Cerro Conception to find a place to stay. La Masion du Filou was not particularly eye-catching from the exterior, but bay views, theme-park like hallway decorations and the hospitality of the owner, Fabien, made it one of the highlights of the trip.
I walked out onto our balcony and felt a sudden urge to chug Port, chain smoke and write pithy, introspective novels on a typewriter.
We unloaded the bike and talked with Fabien about the highlights of the neighborhood. On his direction we went out for a stroll around town, and somehow ended up with a bottle of Havana Club rum, a couple of bottles of wine and some Stella Artois. I don't remember if that was his idea or ours. Over the next four days we did a lot of walking around, cooking in the hostel kitchen and...enjoying. We didn't DO anything of note, and we were both absolutely fine with that. Bolivia really was rough. On the main plaza near the port there was a protest; the college-age students are fighting for the socialization of the universities. Too bad U.S. citizens have been convinced that this is impossible...
They protested for better educational opportunities, we ate ice cream WHILE drinking beer. Why isn't our college free?!
Valparaiso was one of the highlights of the trip, and I feel like I mentioned that we didn't really do anything but walk around. The colors and the blending of old and new architecture make every street a unique work of art, so you don't have to work hard to stay interested... or take good photos.

If Jill and I ever disappear without a trace, this little house would be a good place to look...
Yeti pose

Graffiti is not a crime in "Valpo" This is a city sponsored art and music festival featuring local street artists

The photos tell the whole story - just walking around and being in a place like Valparaiso is more rewarding than many of the "sites" we've gone days out of our way to see, so go if you can find a way. See you soon!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

In the land of wine, steaks, and siestas...

Leaving Bolivia was bittersweet...but crossing the border into Argentina felt absolutely amazing!  Everything around us was green, all of the flowers were in bloom, the weather was beautiful, the road turned from washboarded gravel to perfect pavement; it was exactly what we needed.  Bolivia really was one of the highlights of the trip with its otherworldly scenery, but it can be tough being somewhere where finding anything familiar can be nearly impossible.  Not to mention we were both not feeling our best and everything we owned was completely caked in dust.  It would be nice to finally enjoy some delicous food (some of the best steaks in the world!) have a glass of local vino and regroup.  You can even drink the tap water in Argentina, which was a first on this trip.

One of our first meals in Argentina...I'm pretty excited about the giant bottle of Heineken as you can tell!

Homemade noodles and sauce with a giant piece of Argentinian beef to top it all off...Ty wishes I could cook like this!
Our first night we stopped in Humahuaca, a pretty little town near the border.  We checked in to a sweet little hospedaje where the senora made us our first ever empanadas (which are so addictive, I should add) and slept for what felt like FOREVER! 

I forgot to take a picture of empanadas, but this is exactly what they look like...sooo good!
I ventured out to get some fresh juice in the morning (to go with the delicious breakfast that came with the room…literally every hostel in Argentina includes a great breakfast…such a nice change!) and quickly noticed that the town had a very European feel to it, which was different from anywhere else we had been.  I also quickly noticed that NO ONE will part with small change in Argentina.  They would rather give you something for cheaper than give you a coin or small bill (this can take several minutes sometimes to come to this conclusion, however) and it becomes almost like a battle of wits between you and the cashier.  We later found out that there is a pretty serious shortage of small change in the country and we always try to keep a collection of coins, just in case we lose the battle. 

We headed out for Cafayate, a beautiful town in wine country recommended to us by our buddies Andy and Cass, on what would be one of the most amazing rides of the trip.  South of Humahuaca there is a road called the Quebrada de Humahuaca, which is a Unesco World Heritage Site for good reason.  It is a curvy road that runs through multi-colored mountains, deep gorges, and giant cliffs; it was like it was made for a motorcycle.  A lot of other motorcyclists must have thought the same thing as we ran into several other people on bikes and, for the first time in a long time, we saw multiple people on V-Stroms! 
Some of the very unique rock formations that make this road a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The winding road with this backdrop was spectacular!  Not to mention the perfect temperature...
We arrived to Cafayate after a great ride and as we pulled up to a stop sign we were approached by a man on a bicycle.  He was very friendly and told us that he ran a small hostel near the center of town and quoted us a great price.  The hostel had a lovely courtyard with internet, laundry nearby and was next to everything; it was exactly what we wanted.  The next couple of days were spent mostly regrouping, doing some much needed laundry, eating lots of empanadas and steaks in the lively town square, sampling some of the fantastic local wines (torrontes is the most well-known wine from Cafayate…it is a sweet, citrusy white wine and is VERY cheap!)  
Driving by one of the Cafayate Vineyards whose wine we would drink plenty of over the next few days.
One day while having lunch in the square, we heard a very familiar sound coming around the corner.  Ty quickly recognized the sound as several V-Stroms headed right for us.  Turns out it was the Argentina V-Strom club stopping for lunch on one of their yearly trips!  We hadn’t even gotten our food yet, but we both knew Ty had to run and get the bike from the hostel.  We spent a good hour or so talking to the guys (and girls!) in the club.  Ty was in heaven being able to talk about the bikes with the guys and I quickly made friends with Mariu, who was on a V-Strom with her boyfriend. 
My fellow female V-Stromer and I hanging out by the bikes :)
Ty standing in the sea of V-Stroms
Everyone was so friendly and each person wrote down their contact information, telling us to call them when we reached their respective cities.  One of the guys even gave Ty his Argentina V-Strom Club t-shirt.  It was so much fun meeting other people with the same hobbies as us in a foreign country and we were sad to see them drive away.

Sporting his newly aquired Argentina V-Strom Club t-shirt!  Thanks guys!
Another thing that made it very easy to relax in Cafayate is that it is siesta country; almost everyone shuts down their businesses from about 1PM to 5PM so that they can go home to have a hearty lunch and take a nap.  We found it to be a pretty good excuse to do the same!  The couple running the hostel had two adorable kids and a very funny dog named Coco who all provided tons of entertainment while hanging out in the courtyard.  All in all, it was very relaxing couple of days.
Our next destination was Mendoza, a much bigger city, but still in wine country.  Ty’s brother Jack and his wife Sarah had recently been there and really enjoyed it, so they recommended that we make a stop there.  It turned out to be another awesome recommendation.  We started out the day driving down another beautiful road called the Quebrada de las Conchas, where we ran into several other bikers and saw even more beautiful scenery. 
More lovely scenery and great roads...
One of many tunnels we drove through...
A roadside grave we passed on the drive
It took us a few days to get there, but we finally arrived in beautiful Mendoza, the nicest big city we had visited on the trip so far.  We saw a McDonald’s and, having not had in several months, decided we had to stop.  Little did we know that McDonald’s was a hot commodity in Mendoza and priced accordingly, and we ended up spending about $25 on lunch, quite a feat I might say.  We quickly realized eating locally was better on the budget and on the stomach and, as an added plus, you can have wine and beer at a real restaurant!  To be honest, we really didn’t accomplish too much in Mendoza either.  We were still pretty worn out (I know it sounds silly, but try spending a couple weeks in Bolivia and see how you feel!) and still had a lot of blog writing and skyping to catch up on.
I made a visit to the corner market a block away and made a fantastic discovery; Argentina has REAL cheese, it is incredible, and costs about $2 for a giant cut.  I was in heaven!  We bought salami, cheese, fresh baked French bread, fruit and local wine and had a mini feast at the hostel.  It reminded me so much of some fun nights we had back at home and it was a wonderful night.
Our awesome DIY nice to be able to have a night in for once!
Next up….the much anticipated Valparaiso, Chile!!

Three day a box...

Ty standing by our "home" for the next three days
The next morning we headed over to the tour agency at 10 to meet up with the group we would be traveling with over the next few days.  Our Toyota Land Cruiser held eight people: Leonie and Rick, a couple from Holland, Paula and  two girls from Germany, Carlito, our driver who was from Bolivia, Gonzalo, our guide who was originally from Bolivia but had lived in Miami for several years, and Ty and I.  It was a tight squeeze but everyone was excited about the trip.  Due to the fact that we were practically on top of each other we all became quick friends and thankfully everyone spoke English (except for Carlito, who would, however, say hilarious things in Spanish at random.)  There was also an iPod plug-in which provided hours of entertainment when we ran out of things to talk about.  Over the next three days we would be putting in several hours packed in that car in order to cover all of the amazing sites around the area. 

Ty and our guide think the Salar is AWESOME...and Gonzalo forgot his sunglasses...ouch! :(

Leonie, Rick and I in...Bariloche, Argentina! We've met up with them randomly a couple of times after the Salar :)
Day One:
Our first stop was Colchani, a tiny town right at the edge of the Salar where we would learn about how the salt is refined and packaged.  The people working there have it pretty rough; often, they start their day at 4:30 shoveling salt and won’t get done until late in the evening.   They still use very basic methods in most of what they do; even the men who package the salt sit by a fire and melt the packages closed by hand. 
A man working by a fire hand-sealing salt packages...a modern day Sisyphus.
Next, we started our drive out to the Isla de Pescado, or Fish Island, an unusual mound of rocks covered in giant cactus located out in the middle of the Salar.  As we drove through the white salty desert it seemed only appropriate to blast Bob Marley over the speaker system.  His popularity seems to carry over to all cultures and everyone was in agreement that it was the perfect soundtrack for the Salar.  We made a quick stop at one of the famous salt hotels, where several flags from different countries had been planted out front.  Of course, one major flag was missing from the bunch…

The US flag is not very popular in Bolivia...but we took a picture anyways!
Gonzalo wanted to show us the giant salt crystals in the water that are just below the surface of the Salar.  From what we gathered, it seemed that there is lake a few feet under the salt flat.  He dug a hole, stuck his arm all the way in the salty water and pulled out a beautiful salt crystal.  Ty gave it a try to and found us some beautiful souveniers to take home with us.

Looking for underwater treasure...
He pulled out some pretty beautiful salt crystals!
We arrived at the Isla de Pescado just in time for lunch.  The guides and drivers cook every meal on the tour and the food was actually pretty good.  They served up llama for lunch (which I passed on, considering I let out a squeal of delight every time we pass a llama on the road) and we were given some time to walk around the island.  The cactus (which is actually plural, pronounced cac-toos, as they are a special kind used for their wood) cover the island, some as tall as forty feet. 
The cactus were awesome...and the view wasn't too shabby either!
We took a few more of the famous Salar pictures and headed onward for the salt hotel where we would spend the night. 
Ty really can drink his own body weight in Coke!
He had enough...
Yes, the entire hotel is actually made of salt, down to the beds, tables and chairs.  Over dinner and beers, Gonzalo gave an inspiring speech about the Bolivian people and the struggles that they have dealt with over the past several decades.  He seemed encouraged about the current situation there however, and everyone was inspired by his dedication to his country.  After a few more local quinoa beers with the group, we all headed off to our dorms to sleep for the night.

Ty with some of the group imbibing in the salt hotel...sitting on salt chairs at a salt table in a salt hotel!
Day Two:
The next morning we were ready to hunker down in the car for some serious driving time.  Our goal was to see some of the lagunas in the area, including the very famous Laguna Colorada.  On the way, we made a couple of other stops to see a beautiful active volcano and the famous “rock tree.” 

Relaxing in the shade of the rock tree
When we finally arrived at the Laguna Colorada, the view from the top of the hill took my breath away.  First of all, the lake, which is surrounded by striking mountains and volcanoes on all sides, is a very unusual adobe-red color and is completely fringed in white on its beaches.   But the most spectacular aspect of the lake is that it is full of thousands of neon and pastel pink flamingoes hanging out in the water.  We also noticed a few white flamingos, and when Ty asked about them, Gonzalo explained that they were young, and that they only turn pink after they have lived in the red lake and consumed food and water from it. I don’t know about the science, but it would seem to make sense.

We could have stayed forever looking at that beautiful lake and its graceful occupants, but we had to get going to get to our accommodations for the evening.

Day Three:
Unfortunately, the wake-up call was at 4:30AM the next morning and I was not feeling so hot (which seems to happen a lot in Bolivia.)  We hopped in the car, got about 2 miles down the road and the car overheated.  The driver and Gonzalo got out to see what was going on (keep in mind it is FREEZING and dark outside) and said “Oh, the radiator hose is frozen, this happens all the time. They lit a newspaper on fire, held it under the hose, and thought they had fixed it. 
We drove another 100 feet or so and it it started overheating again.  Ty said, “The thermostat is probably stuck, I used to fix these all the time in Vail.” To which Gonzalo replied, “No, the hose is frozen, we’ll be going in a second.” He and the driver hopped out again, lit more things on fire and stuck them under the engine. Meanwhile, Ty explained to us that the only way the hose could freeze was if the thermostat was stuck, and that he had fixed Land Cruisers with this same symptom on multiple occasions. He also told Gonzalo that thermostat is not vital to the car, so removing it would be a quick fix and get us back on the road. But Gonzalo wasn’t hearing it. “Ok, it’s good now.” Another 100 feet, and the temperature was climbing again. 
Unfortunately, Gonzalo continued to insist that it was a “frozen hose…just a frozen hose!” and we sat in the cold (because they wouldn’t turn on the heat, which Ty also gently informed them would actually help keep the engine cool) for a total of two hours.  After an hour, one of the sweet, soft-spoken German girls spoke up and asked why no one was taking Ty’s opinion seriously, “We have a professional mechanic in the car, why aren’t you listening to what he’s telling you?” (you go girl) Gonzalo still wouldn’t relent. He got out and got the spare fuel tank from the roof, soaked a rag in gas, lit it on fire and stuck it under the radiator. While we all sat in the car.

Another Land Cruiser happened by, and they talked to the guy driving it. He immediately told them to take out the thermostat. Right after he left our driver got out some tools and fifteen minutes later the thermostat was removed and we were on our way back to Uyuni.  Ty asked Gonzalo, as he held the thermostat in his hand, “So, what was wrong?” and he said, “The hose was frozen, AND the thermostat was bad, too. Crazy, huh?”  Yeah Gonzalo, crazy.
We started two hours late, so the rest of the day was sort of a blur. First, we made a quick stop at some geysers which were spitting out pretty insane amounts of sulfur steam.  Although it seemed a little dangerous, we were able to walk among them as long as we "watched our step."  You could end up with some pretty serious burns on your feet if you weren't careful. 

 We also spent ten minutes at the Laguna Verde “Green Lagoon” which was not very green that day because of the lack of wind. Apparently the color is caused by a reaction between the chemicals in the water and the air passing by. This place is strange. We did manage to see the Salvador Dali Desert (so named because the rock formations look like something out of his paintings) and it was a very beautiful final attraction.   Around six that evening we arrived back to Uyuni.  We said our goodbyes to all of our car buddies and went to our hotel to promptly pass out, very content but exhausted from our endeavor. 

The Laguna Verde not looking very "verde"...although still very beautiful!
The serene Salvador Dali Desert...we both love his work so it was neat to see it "come to life" in a way