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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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To A Friend in Minneapolis: Let Me Tell You About Peru

Cusco: Chocolate Cookies and Kitties

I’ts time to catch you up on my recent wanderings!

Cusco, Peru, was a lovely place to exist for the past three weeks. A tourist-soaked city, yes, but full of Incan and Spanish architecture, a wonderfully warm culture, delicious food and drinks, and plenty to do in terms of tours to the Sacred Valley (Machu Picchu, of course, but there’s so much more than that). 

I stayed in a lovely apartment through Airbnb in the historic San Blas neighborhood, cohabitating with two lovely white cats who adopted me quickly. Their owner, a fashion designer, is on vacation in Europe for a few weeks, and so I lived as if I had my own home with cats in Cusco.

All this has been a respite for me, a solo woman traveler who has experienced quite a bit of unwanted attention, mostly obnoxious and tiresome, always uncomfortable, in the past weeks in Ecuador and now here in Peru.

But Cusco’s different: a snug place where it’s easy to find other travel companions, there were ample, comfortable opportunities to be myself, dining alone and reading a book in restaurants and cafes around the main plaza, without looking like an invitation for a conversation and solicitation of personal information by male employees. In short, I’ve caught my breath, made new friends, and enjoyed taking Spanish lessons again.

And the food! I’ve indulged in vegan chocolate chip cookies and vegan pizzas; and enjoyed trying chicha morada (made from maize) and pisco sours (liquor with lemon and whipped egg whites). I’ve tried grilled alpaca (delicious and rich, reminiscent of elk), roast cuey, (guinea pig) numerous Andean soups, potato dishes (hundreds of edible potatoes here, so nourishing!) quinoa dishes, and fresh fruits from San Pedro Mercado.

Bakery in San Blas, Cusco.

The Sacred Valley: Ollantaytambo and Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu, obviously. 

I thought of you when I visited the magnificent ruins of Machu Picchu. I almost skipped them; the thought of how many tourists pour through the place unsettled me. (I’m not a crowd person). But visiting the clouded mountaintop citadel was as fascinating and awe-inducing as I expected, and due to the time of year, November—it was pretty chill at the citadel when I went.

Even still, I couldn’t help but feel a bit sad while walking amid the massive stones that sit so well together; I’d been planning on hiking in on the Camino Inca with a friend to the ruins, but both my foot and that friendship suffered, and I had to change my plans entirely.

Condor flying over Ollantaytambo, in the Sacred Valley.

The day before I rode the train to Machu Picchu (or more accurately, Aguas Calientes–you have to then hike or take a bus up the mountain to the ruins), I signed up for a “horsehike” out of Ollantaytambo, one of the pretty Inca villages in the Sacred Valley. (You can also catch the train to Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu, from Ollantaytambo).

Visiting a tomb in the Sacred Valley. 

I went out with a guide named Richard, nicknamed “Condor”, and his friend David. The two showed me the Canteras de Cachiccata, where the Inca mined the rocks used for their dwellings, as well as a tomb still used today.

“Piedras cansadas”, those stones left in transit when the Spanish arrived, lay scattered all around the mountainside. Massive-cut stones taller than me, it’s easy to get caught staring at them in amazement, wondering how the heck anyone could have moved those, much less cut them, on a regular basis. At one point, while sitting on one of these stones, snacking on a banana, I noticed my guide and David had snuck off to smoke an apple. Between puffs, they conversed in a veil of chuckles. 

“Y cómo fue la manzana de marijuana?” I asked them with an easy smile when they returned. They thought they were being sneaky; but I recognized their fruity pipe from the beginning, and could smell the marijuana smoke.

Richard, my horseback riding guide, and I both have injured feet–but we’re both positive we will heal. 

I happened to be puffing away on my tobacco pipe when I asked this. We laughed, got the horses and headed back down the mountain, talking about Quechua food and traditions and the local religious tradition of Choquekillka, a patron deity of the town. Condor also pointed out the single house perched high on the side of the mountain opposite us cumbia music inundating the valley with cumbia music (ubiquitous in Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia), a surprise soundtrack for my horsehike day. 

Maras, Rainbow Mountain, and Ayahuasca Ceremonies

Maras Salt Pools, or Salineras de Maras.
Rainbow Mountain: A difficult climb, due to the altitude. (17,100 feet!)

The gorgeous Maras salt pools, in operation since pre-Inca times, managed by local families, were delightful to visit one afternoon. You can wander the pools and watch locals pick up salt in large bowls. 

The day after visiting the salt pools, I hiked up Rainbow Mountain with a friend. The climb is literally breathtaking at 17,000 feet. The last 30 minutes I inched my feet upward while using a breathing technique I learned from my long distance running days in order to get the oxygen swiftly into my lungs. The summit offered a cold gray cloud instead of a rainbow, but that was all right; the scenery along the way was worth the effort.

Did I mention that I participated in an ayahuasca retreat in the Sacred Valley? I, along with eleven other participants from around the world, were led in two ceremonies conducted in the traditional way by a Shipibo shaman. A controversial choice for a gal like me from Minnesota, indeed. However, many travelers explore ayahuasca while visiting Peru, and last year while planning I had ample opportunity to learn about it and consider its possible side effects. Michael Pollan’s book, “How to Change your Mind” influenced my choice.

At the retreat.

Though I confess I don’t plan to take a drug like that ever again, or at least not for a long time, ayahuasca did calm my mind. The best analogy? It was as if I hired someone to come take out, dust, clean, and re-prioritize all the contents of my mind—when I say all, I mean all; the insecurities, the desires, the heartbreaks, the shortcomings, all the good and bad that comprise who I am. In truth, it was uncomfortable reviewing a number of those things within a sparking, colorful psychedelic film taking place in my head. But afterward, a recent heartbreak suddenly seemed distant and in the past, shelved as it should be; the decisions I need to make for the future seemed manageable but also shelved in their proper place. Also, the pressing priority after I left the retreat was to connect with family and close friends, just because, and because it was Thanksgiving weekend. 

While there, I asked staff (which includes: a nurse, a psychologist, a general practitioner doctor, among others) how long the effects would last, they claimed at least two weeks, but longer—hopefully a lifetime—if I cultivated techniques such as meditation in order to maintain the changes induced by ayahuasca. Time will tell how long-lasting the results are. (If you are interested in learning more, please contact me–there are a number of “sham” ayahuasca retreats in South America, so it’s important to do your research.)

Right now I’m sitting in La Paz, Bolivia, just returned from climbing Huayna Potosi–the most physically demanding event of my life. I’m enjoying Bolivia so far, and will be writing about it soon!

Hope all is well in the land of ice and snow, my friend.

~Cici

Rainbow Mountain–the only rainbow I saw was on this Cusco flag someone brought up.