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Wandering in Argentina

Nahuel Huapi National Park, outside of San Carlos of Bariloche, Argentina.

Argentina went by too quickly. I spent three weeks there, and wish I’d had a bit more time to see Mendoza and visit its bodegas. Of course, when you are traveling for seven months you begin to think this way—three weeks is not enough, etc.. Nevertheless, I found no lack of cheap, good red wine in Buenos Aires—Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon—among other delicious foods to try.

Bariloche, Mountains, Chocolate

Enjoying churros and hot chocolate at Friends Cafe in San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina

My Argentinean journey started in San Carlos de Bariloche, a town surrounded by sapphire blue lakes and sharp, jagged mountaintops, laced with snow. A feast for the eyes at every angle, and filled with chocolate shops, to my surprise. I lost count of how many lined the main streets of that city. Furthermore—in every café you can find a warm jug of hot chocolate churning in a vat, waiting for its next customer (me).

Truth be told, I didn’t much like any of the chocolate I tried there, but that is a different story altogether…the story of how I don’t like chocolate anymore, which I’ll explore in a later post.

Valdivia, Chile.

How did I get to San Carlos de Bariloche? I took a bus from the verdant, neat-trimmed town of Valdivia, Chile—a place that reminded me vaguely of suburban Minneapolis in July, which felt both strongly unsettling and vaguely comforting. In Osorno, I changed buses; and from there the bus took me through the mountains of northern Patagonia—the Lakes Region—to San Carlos de Bariloche.

From Osorno to Bariloche I was reminded how decadent very long bus rides can be when traveling in new countries. Along this route, towers of mountains covered in green pines border pristine turquoise lakes on the shores of which fly fishermen work their magic. With a good musical playlist—lately I’ve been cycling through Birdy, Julio Jaramillo, and playlists of folk and Americana songs—the hours dreamily melt away.

As for the crowds of trees: my body gladly soaked in the arboreal images. After spending several months in high altitude places—Peru, Bolivia—and in desert climes, such as northern Chile, my eyes were thirsting to see green.

Maipo River Valley, Chile. Beautiful snow-capped mountains…
but no trees.

For example–a distinct ache bloomed in my head when I arrived to hike in the Maipo River Valley, Chile, another area of tree-barren, rocky terrain characteristic of high altitude places. I realized then that I like mountains, but I’ll trade the smaller, emerald green gems of Colombia for the majestic but chilly slopes of high altitude ranges in Chile, Bolivia, and Peru.

My first night in Bariloche was spent in a somewhat rundown hostel in the middle of town. I didn’t mind; I was out during the day, and at night, simply stuck myself in my bed wrapped in blankets watching the Netflix series, “You”—a series I quickly became enamored with, as I enjoy unreliable narrators.

My first evening in Bariloche I discovered that Argentinians stay up REALLY LATE compared to Minnesotans (For us dinner is at 6pm; bed at 10pm). My first night I zonked out at ten, about the time the locals—including a group of very good-looking lads—were getting out pots and pans to start cooking. I swore to myself the next day I would eat late, drink a beer, and be sociable, maybe flirt a bit—but after a long hike, I zonked out around ten again, when the lads were starting to cook up meat and other things which smelled quite nice. Same story my third night.

Another interesting tidbit, which of course I’d known about beforehand, but had never observed firsthand, is that Argentineans drink a helluva lot of mate. Gourd-like cups filled with sucked out semi-dried light green yerba leaves are everywhere, along with the thermoses filled with water. Straw-like silver metal filters called bombillas are in every gourd; without one it would be impossible to drink the brewed tea. Sidenote: The word “mate” is used in reference to the whole setup: bombilla, gourd, hot water, and herbs.

San Carlos de Bariloche on a clear day.

San Carlos de Bariloche is a ski town in winter; and though it was summer, it often rained and hailed and even snowed occasionally. It is not a town for outdoor picnics at the lakefront!

Toncek Lagoon, Nahuel Huapi National Park, Argentina

Fortunately, the weather was splendid the day I hiked with a friend to Refugio Frey, a popular trek. Refugio Frey is a stone shelter that sits on the Toncek Lagoon, about a seven hour roundtrip hike from the Cerro Catedral ski resort, where the bus stop is. The bus (#55) doesn’t come around very often, once an hour, so we had to wait.

I spent my three days in Bariloche with a new friend from England named Grace, who like me, enjoys learning and speaking Spanish and has experience teaching English. At the age of twenty-five, she’s already worked in Barcelona for two years as a teacher and translator and is now traveling South America for many months. Dressed smartly in black jeans, and a fitted black turtleneck, she spoke to me about her life and work in Barcelona; I was likewise fascinated to hear how her family, and especially her mother, had encouraged to spend these years abroad working and traveling. Her mother, she explained, also had Wanderlust, and spent her twenties living in Mexico. Today her mother works in bicycle tourism—planning cycling tours around Europe.

Grace looking out at Lake Nahuel Huapi on an overlook during our bike tour.

Given cycling is a pastime for Grace’s family, she suggested we do the bike tour called Circuito Chiquito the day after our hike. Although our legs were sore and we groaned our way up some of the steeper hills at the beginning of the ride, we loved it. The views along the way, and the viewpoints over the lakes and mountains atop those steep hills were breathtaking. It was handsdown my favorite activity in Bariloche, and one of the best experiences in my trip through South America.

Soaking in the Vanity: Buenos Aires

Evita on the Ministry of Health Building. Avenida 9 de Julio, Buenos Aires.

Traveling, and especially backpacking, is exhausting. There are long bus rides, late nights, early mornings…lack of healthy food options unless you can spend $12 on a salad at a fancy restaurant in the evenings…the like. Plus you begin craving all sorts of junky foods when your daily rhythm is off (at least, in my case). By the time I got to Buenos Aires, I was ready to settle in for a week of pampering, relaxing, and healthy eating. And resting my foot, which has continued to plague me with its flare-ups around the area where I had a fractured sesamoid bone removed last year.

In the light-infused, tree-lined streets of Palermo, where I had a heavenly Airbnb rental awaiting me, I sank into a reverie of reading and simply being. My friend Najet came over for a day of work, and at the end of it, we watched a movie on Netflix on the TV on the wall—not something I’d done in six months!

Dreamy Airbnb rental in the Palermo neighborhood.

One afternoon my friend Najet and I experienced firsthand how rainy Buenos Aires can get—on our forty-five minute walk to a salon we thought was closer, the rain completely soaked us to the skin. The last half hour we were wading in glee through calf-high pools of water in the streets.

When we arrived the salon staff kindly gave us multiple little white towels to help take the edge off while we got our nails done. I decided to go back the next day and do something I’d never done before: go blond. Truth be told, I don’t always care about how I look, but occasionally I go through phases where I do something bold, and it’s fun. The next morning I commenced a two-day process of lightening my hair.  It takes a damn long time to get your hair lightened, so I learned, and both days I was running to get to my afternoon Spanish lessons on time.

Most people I met the day of my blond transformation and after commented that they thought it was my natural hair color—I credit that to Perla, who chose the shade and highlights.

With my excellent colorist, Perla, at Cerini Salon. (There wasn’t time before Spanish class to style my hair!)

My teacher, Alberto, didn’t comment at first on the transformation of my hair—because he wasn’t exactly certain what he was seeing—until I told him that yes, my hair was definitely getting lighter, and he wasn’t crazy. 

One of the sillier situations I experienced that week had to do with meeting two British men, David and Paul, who lived and worked with their partners in Rio de Janeiro. Before they arrived, I was taking advantage of a completely empty dorm room to re-organize all my things. I’d bought new cosmetics as well as clothing, since most of latter I’d been traveling with was starting to fall apart. All my newly purchased clothing—along with bags of the old, plus the contents of my gutted backpack, lay all over the floor. Cue the entrance of David and Paul, who were a bit surprised to see a traveler with so much stuff—Paul, who had the bunk below mine, set his bag down and said, in his kindly British accent, “I’ll get out of your way” when he realized he couldn’t get through.

The next day when the three of us went out for dinner, Paul confessed, somewhat sheepishly, he thought that perhaps I was a little crazy and/or not very intelligent, traveling with what looked like “5 kilos of make-up”. (It’s true, I had the new and old spread out and it looked like I had a LOT of make-up). “And a lot of stuff, a lot of clothes,” he said, laughing.

While walking back to the hostel after dinner, he added, “I said to David I didn’t think you were a very smart person, because of the 5 kilos of make-up, but David said he thought that you were actually a very smart person.” I laughed pretty hard at this, and took it as a complement when he told me I was one of the most fiercely intelligent people he’d ever met.

Even still, I received further ribbing from the my British friends (and friends in general) when I admitted I hadn’t had time to do anything cultural, like go to a museum, because I’d been sitting in a salon most mornings during the week getting my nails and hair done.

My favorite afternoon drink: Cafe Irlandés .

My favorite treat in Buenos Aires was not, as many would guess, an alfajor. In fact, I didn’t like this type of cookie too much—the texture of it was not my style, and I can’t digest dulce de leche—a caramel made from sweetened condensed milk—very well (I’m lactose intolerant). But I did stumble upon the coffee drink of my dreams, which I enjoyed in the afternoons before my Spanish class: the Café Irlandés. A splash of whiskey, almond milk froth, espresso, and pieces of dark chocolate made this coffee a daily fixture during my 1-week stay in Buenos Aires. You’ll find it at the Café Martinez on the corner of Chabuco and Avenida del Mayo (I tried two other locations–it wasn’t available).

Alfajor.

What else did I do besides drink coffee, get my hair and nails done, and study Spanish? I went out for steak, of course. I rarely order this dish in the States, where it can easily cost thirty or forty dollars. But in Buenos Aires, a full meal with drinks cost around $20 per person (of course, we tourists love the cheap prices…but it isn’t a good thing for those who live and work in Argentina). As a person who doesn’t usually enjoy steak that much, I have to say–I was left wanting more.

La Cabrera, in Palermo, Buenos Aires.

The one tour I did go on, or attempt to go on (I left early out of boredom), was the Boca walking tour, supposedly one of the most interesting places to visit in Buenos Aires. It disappointed me. What I observed was a large mass of tourists taking pictures in a working class neighborhood painted in bright colors. (I’ve come to notice that many low-income neighborhoods in Latin America tend to be painted in bright colors; and tend to attract tourists, including myself, in hoards…). Perhaps I was too information hungry for the likes of that tour—being dropped off among fifty vendors selling magnets of the neighborhood I knew very little about was not exactly enlightening or enjoyable.

La Boca neighborhood.

I did learn it was the locale of immigrants and artists in earlier times, though now it seems to be a neighborhood with a famous street lined with restaurants and shops catering to foreigners.

Later that afternoon I was grateful when my Spanish teacher Alberto offered to take me on a historical tour of the center my last afternoon in the city—a much richer experience, and insightful. Plus, we finished our lesson by chowing down on a variety of facturas, or pastries, as they’re called in Argentinian.

Sketch of Buenos Aires, Argentina.

My last afternoon in the city I spent with a new friend named Leo, an engineer and artist, who lived near the airport. I met him while out the day before with his cousin, who an American friend connected me with.

I asked him if I could spend my last afternoon drawing with him, and he kindly complied. On his balcony, overlooking white buildings tucked in between plentiful green trees, we sat sketching the cityscape while discussing Buenos Aires, the crumbling economic situation of Argentina, creativity, and other things.

My talented friend Leo, with his drawings.

Córdoba, and the Pressing Heat of Puerto Igauzu

Iglesia del Sagrado Corazon in
Córdoba, Argentina.

In Córdoba , where lovely UNESCO protected buildings line the streets in the Jesuit Block, I wandered a street market with antique trinkets and puppies, tried the bitter, herbal liquor called fernet and took my first Zumba class. The instructor—a tattooed man who was intensely into hip hop—inspired me with his dancing zeal. Frankly however I could not keep up. Najet, who teaches Zumba in Medellin, Colombia, was rocking it, of course, and laughing at me, the white Minnesota gringa who can’t shake her hips.

Iguazu Falls, from the Argentinian side (which is better).

I ended my Argentinian adventure in Puerto Iguazu, a stiflingly hot and humid town next to a park that contains the absolutely impressive Iguazu Falls. I visited this park in the morning, did a long hike to see the falls from all possible viewpoints, and then returned by 2:00pm, before a tropical storm set in. The heat and humidity was so intense I passed out for several hours that afternoon, and the next day as well.

Ironically, while I lay passed out, sleeping in my own sweat (pleasant, I know), my friends and family were suffering through a polar vortex in Minnesota. My parent’s electric company was shutting off power intermittently, forcing them to heat the house using the wood-burning fireplace in their basement. My mom’s text explained, “We are managing to survive burning wood in the fireplace downstairs and running a little heater…They [the electric company] tell us people will have to burn wood…our gas backup isn’t working either…Back to primitive times, I guess. I’m staying inside… But we have had these before so us Minnesotans aren’t freaked out…” And really, for my parents and others, it wasn’t really that big of a deal (in Minnesota parlance)—we have had these vortices before.

Gelid beauty. Alexandria, Minnesota.

Even though I spent my afternoons panting like a dog on my bed, I must say being in the spectacularly forested and sauna hot clime of Igauzu Falls was preferable to being in a polar vortex…

That’s all for now, friends.

~Cici

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Thoughts and Feels of a Long-term Solo Traveler

The double-edge sword of traveling solo…I get the entire slice of cake. Yum. (Later: Oh, are my pants starting to feel tight?)

Backpack friendships

Traveling solo for months on end is tough at times. It is “vacation” but it isn’t. It is fun, exciting and overly stimulating at times, and sometimes not. Sometimes you get bored when you’re stranded somewhere for too long; you are stressed when a flight is missed or you have to change plans due to illness. Or if you get really sick and have to find a hospital—alone.

Twice I was a click away from buying a plane ticket back to Minnesota, even though I had no idea what I’d do once back there. In the first occasion, I was lying in a bed bug infested hostel bed, itching horribly from microscopic mites (AKA scabies) that had made my skin their breeding place, and an intestinal illness that had me running to the bathroom every ten minutes. My foot ached terribly as I’d somehow re-injured it in the previous weeks. My heart was broken by a friend back home and by the fact that I’d left the Amazon earlier than I’d planned, because it was too isolating and uncomfortable for me to be living there.

I experienced all of this physical and psychic turmoil alone in a hostel bed, my only companion a little bed bug hobbling its way across the white sheet.

In the second occasion, I felt exhausted and stressed from managing a rigorous travel schedule as well as making and maintaining friendships with folks I was traveling closely with. It is a challenge, no matter who you are with, to travel with friends (or partners, as I’ve learned) for weeks on end. During one segment of my trip I was sharing rooms with two other travelers, and we were seeing each other every waking hour of the day for several weeks. At another point, five of us rode in a car for 3 days, blazing across a barren salt flat. When we finally arrived in San Pedro, Chile, my introverted lizard brain made an impulse buy to fly to Santiago so I could be alone for a week, sinking into café shops and talking to no one.

Both situations warranted Whatsapp calls with close friends back in Minnesota. These friends did the wonderful job of reminding me why I was traveling, and asked me if there were ways I could better my situation. Basically, how can I solve this? Would it actually be better to be in Minnesota, and give up this dream of backpacking South America, just because I felt stressed in the moment?

Andrea, a long-term traveler I met in Quito when recovering. She spent a lovely weekend with me in Mindo, Ecuador, and helped me start fresh.

I’m so happy I didn’t give up. So, very very happy. Traveling forces you to be assertive, kind, and firm in your needs. It’s truly a microcosm of the real world.

Meeting locals helps ground you in a new city and culture

One afternoon while I was sitting alone in my bunk bed at La Princesa Insolente, my first hostel home in Santiago, trying to figure out the best way to explore Chilean wine country, my friends started group texting about Tinder dates in Argentina. I joked: “How is it you have any time to do Tinder? To date? I’m sitting here trying to find a bus!” Travel planning fries your brain sometimes. They kept joking and sharing details of their dates and hookups with various people in their hostels. After pondering all this, I decided to sign up for Tinder and try it out, at least so I could get coffee and practice Spanish with someone from the city.

Although I liked the vibe of Santiago, and felt comfortable with just about every interaction I’d had with people there—I’d say I even felt at home, as if in Minneapolis—I never guessed I’d meet someone to date. In fact, some of my interactions with men in Peru and Ecuador left me completely cold and mistrustful of dating in Latin America in general (a hefty prejudice, I know). But it happened. I perused the Tinder profiles and paused on a young man’s profile who had written “seeking people who are intellectual and feminist, and like going out into nature on the weekends”. He had an easygoing smile and two adorable monkeys perched on his head. That seemed about right to me. After a swipe right, Sebastian and I matched, chatted on and off for the evening, and then met for dinner the next day. Our evening began at five with a beer, and ended with a stroll and a shared slice of hazelnut cake.

Seba wasn’t sure this was the right kind of pic for Tinder. Um, he’s wrong! Adorable monkeys? Yes please.

My time in Santiago was lighthearted and thoughtful after that. Sebastian invited me to hang out with his friends for an evening at the lake in Pucon, where we chatted and played cards for hours; he invited me to the beach, where we walked and ate seafood; we went out to trendy bars and restaurants. We even danced and sang karaoke one night—he sang Queen; I was going to sing Bob Dylan but they cut me from the list. Toward the end of time together, while we were sitting in a park listening to duos of teenagers perform rap competitions, Sebastian asked me, “Is this the longest relationship you’ve had since you got divorced?” He was laying on his side, smoking a cigarette he’d rolled himself.

Yes, actually, I laughed in response. And two weeks was about all I could afford to spend in Santiago, Chile, unfortunately, before moving on.

Surprise! Friends, all over the place

I met Najet, a radio and TV journalist, in Medellín, Colombia last August.
We met again in Buenos Aires, five months later.

I’ve been traveling through South America for five months now, and have two more packed months before I fly back to Minneapolis, MN. What have I learned? This: the longer you travel, the more friends you collect, no matter where you go. So have no fear, solo traveler! You will not be alone.

Peter, a long-term traveler I met in Quito, dragged me up a gorgeous mountain in Bolivia.
I will be forever grateful to him.

I’ve repeatedly bumped into friends I’ve met in hostels or tours in a different city or country. Last night I got to catch up with Paul, a firefighter from Ireland on sabbatical for the year. He’s traveling the world, and happens to be traveling in the same direction as me: toward Rio de Janeiro for Carnaval. We initially met in La Paz at another hostel. While lunching in Valparaiso, Paul recognized me and came over to say hello.

Enjoying a bus ride with Priya, who I met in Bolivia. We spent Christmas together in Santiago.

In Buenos Aires, two girlfriends contacted me via Instagram because they saw I was in the city, and we all met for a steak dinner, which was fabulous. Feasting on succulent, tender char-grilled Argentinean steaks with fellow female travelers was a such treat. Such an occasion felt celebratory for me, and the result of me sticking to my seven-month long journey, and maintaining connections with people.

Michele and I met in Cusco, and bumped into each other in Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina.

At the beginning of my journey, I had no idea where and with whom Christmas would be spent. As it turned out, both my friends Peter and Priya would be in Santiago for the holidays. The two of them bought food and cooked so that we could all enjoy a meal together on Christmas Day in the hostel. To Priya’s annoyance and the delight of me and Peter, Harry Potter played nonstop in Spanish for the day.

The fruits of my friends’ cooking: a scrumptious Christmas Day meal.

For New Year’s, Peter rented an Airbnb in Valparaiso—a splendid occasion, as the city puts on one of the best fireworks shows in all of Latin America. The whole city was alive for the evening; there were empanadas, papas fritas, and churros everywhere, people playing music and dancing, and of course, a lot of pisco!

Traveling for a long time takes some practice

There is a knack to traveling long-term. Just like moving abroad, it takes some time to adjust. Once you do, you get the most out of the experience. For example, you get used to hearing different languages and accents; you get used to (though you may not like it) wearing earplugs and sharing a sometimes hot and stuffy room with five other traveler strangers; you learn to accept your changing body as you realize it’s been a month since you’ve done any kind of meaningful exercise besides walking; you accept the strange welts on your body from insects you’ll never see; you understand that getting a crush on a man you’re having drinks with from the hostel will likely manifest in Instagram texting for a few weeks and then taper off, as real romantic relationships while traveling are nonexistent and I’d say mostly impossible, mainly because you are both there for the same reason, to wander and eventually settle in the place best for you, as a single person right now, not as a unit—

Moreover, traveling is not the same as being an explorer. One can explore via traveling, it’s true, and I do try to do this. This kind of exploration is more about a cultural learning and exchange. I am visiting other people’s homes, their cultures, and I must pay attention to that. How do I sound and appear to them? Am I rude? Am I attempting to understand their way of life?  Am I learning something about them, and about myself that can make me a better, and wiser person? Finally, what can I give back, whether in something tangible in the moment, or in the future, through my behavior and profession? Those are the questions I grapple with as I travel through cities, towns, and countries.

I’ve alternated between longer stays (a month in Mindo, three weeks in Medellin, for example) and “superficial” stays, for just a few nights, in various cities where in that time frame the only thing to do is a city tour and eating out before moving on. The latter is hard for me; what is the point of breezing through a place and seeing it only from a hostel’s point of view? It led me to create this list, upon reflection:

Backpack traveling today is…

  • Having an Instagram account on which to post wanderlust-inducing images, and to stay connected with other travelers
  • Seeking Wifi at all costs
  • Staying in hostels for on average, 10 USD/ night.
  • Drinking a lot; going to clubs
  • Tours: city tours, museums, adrenaline tours like bungee jumping, cultural tours like visiting ruins
  • Spending loads of time on cell phones texting folks and scrolling Instagram pictures and booking the next flight and/or hostel
  • Tinder: Most everyone I’ve met traveling uses Tinder to meet locals, either for dating, hooking up or making friends

Of course, traveling can be more than this, especially when you stay in one place for a while and do volunteer work. It’s my opinion that doing at least one homestay or volunteer work exchange is a good idea as it gives you a deeper link to the community you are visiting.

What are your thoughts on traveling solo, and on traveling in general?

Marco and I testing out a very large dinosaur slide in Bolivia.

Hugs to Peter, Priya, Marco, Michele, Najet, and Seba, for being a part of, and enriching my journey these past five months.

~Cici