Wednesday, February 27, 2008
Down here in Latin America, the Sony Entertainment Television channel has been doing a big push for the Ugly Betty show. The commercial is on non-stop.
The commercial features a scene where Betty and her date have to review a very trendy hotel restaurant. The date is fed up about being there and vents his frustration on the menu items. Especially the Air and Foam. He says something to the effect of, "Air and Foam, what kind of food is that!"
During our recent stay, my wife and I were fortunate to get a free meal at the Hotel Llao Llao's fancier restaurant, Los Cesares.
We showed up in blue jeans and t-shirts feeling a little out of place—just like Ugly Betty's date in the commercial. Only, we were the only ones in the pretentious, old-style dining room. It was completely empty.
We opened our menus and both started laughing at the same time. Our menu featured two dishes—one with Air and one with Foam. We both started cracking jokes about the Ugly Betty commercial and trying to figure out just what the difference between Air and Foam was.
We were still cracking Ugly Betty jokes when we looked up to see none other than Vanessa Williams walk in with her posse. (Well, it was more like a big group of girlfriends than a posse.)
My wife leans over after they sat down and asks, "You know who that is don't you?"
"Of Course!", I replied.
"No, do you know who she plays on TV?"
Not being a big fan of TV, especially the Sony Channel, I had to admit that I didn't know she was on TV. I just knew her from her from Penthouse...er, I mean Pocahontas.
My wife had to explain that she played the cruel boss on Ugly Betty.
What a coincidence. Here we were laughing about a show and in walks one of the main characters. In the remote reaches of Argentina no less.
They sat down in a big table adjacent ours and had a good time talking about things any other group of women talk about while having a girls night out. We left them alone and carried on with our diner. Although they were a little loud and the only other table in the restaurant so it was a little hard not overhearing each others conversations.
When we got up to leave, one of the woman in the group said something like, "Enjoy your long stay in Argentina. I hope you get to stay longer." I guess she heard our debate earlier about staying another year or not.
My wife replied, "We will. Only hearing you gals having such a good time together made me miss my girlfriends even more!"
Another woman in the group jumped in and said,"Well ditch your husband and join us tomorrow! We're doing the spa all day."
My wife thought about it a moment and looked at Vanessa who was silent during this whole exchange and said, "Thanks for the offer, but I have the whole day planned with him. It wouldn't be fair to dump him like that."
My wife must really love me if she passed up hanging out with Vanessa Williams' posse to spend the day with me.
What a wife.
Greetings from the end of the world. Sorry for not posting much lately. We have been on a world-wind tour down Patagonia for the last two weeks and are now in Ushuaia. Ushuaia is in Tierra del Fuego at the southern most tip of South America.
We've either been too busy or been stuck in some pretty remote areas without internet access. However, we will be back in Buenos Aires soon and I promise to update the blog with details of our Route 40 Patagonian adventure.
After we left Bariloche, we traveled the length of Ruta 40 and hit El Chaltén, El Calafate and finally Ushuaia. Now on to the Valdés Peninsula for a few days of resting and hopefully some late season whale watching.
I'll tease you with a few pics from the last two weeks.
Monday, February 18, 2008
If you ever visit the lake region of Argentina, we highly recommend you rent a car for two days and take the La Ruta de los Siete Logos or Drive of the Seven Lakes.
The route takes you through two picturesque towns north of Bariloche. And of course, past seven beautiful alpine lakes.
Villa la Angostura is at the start of the route on the north Shore of lake Nahuel Haupi (Bariloche is on the south shore). Villa la Angostura is the place for Argentina's upper crust to stay in the region. It is a fairly new and quaint village with plenty of nice quite Inns and small hotels.
We recommend Las Balsas both to stay an to eat. Especially to eat. Some of the best cuisine of the region is prepared there.
After your stay at Las Balsas, begin your trip up Route 234 through Lanín and Nahuel Huapi national parks. You'll pass seven magnificent lakes surrounded by mountains, natural forest and connected by numerous creeks and rivers.
The road is only partially paved, but is decent in the dirt sections. But, if you head out in the next year, be warned that they are in the process of paving the rest of it. Unfortunately, the construction makes the dirt section even more dusty. All the construction dust can obstruct and ruin what is clearly one of the most scenic drives in the world.
You end your drive in the town of San Martín de los Andes. San Martín de los Andes is a magical town squeezed between two mountains and the tip of a large lake. The drive into town is amazing with views of the marina and the town nestled below the road.
San Martín is known for its fly fishing and is a good base for any Patagonian fishing trip.
For those that like to mix a little romance with their fishing, we highly recommend Hotel Río Hermoso just off Route 234 on Route 63 south of San Martín de Los Andes. This small hotel is situated right on Río Hermoso and is a perfect place to escape form the world.
Thought I would share a view more pics from around Bariloche.
Our first week we did a Jeep tour with two other couples. One from Spain (pictured above) and one from Mexico. It was great to converse in Spanish with three different dialects.
The Jeep tour took us up to mountains of Cerro Otto and around Cerro Catedral before heading west of town towards Llao Llao (pronounced shou shou) where the hotel by the same name is. We completed the trip on the famous Circuito Chico drive.
Circuito Chico offers numerous breath-taking stops along its route. If you come to Bariloche, rent a car and drive the route yourself. You'll want the freedom to pull off and take pictures, hike or eat when you want.
Trust me, the organized tours of the area are for the blue-haired set and can be maddening. Avoid them altogether. The 4x4 jeep experience we took was more exciting than the typical tour and we we even had an Asado (BBQ) by the side of beautiful Lake Moreno.
Saturday, February 16, 2008
Through a mix up in scheduling, we arrived in Bariloche two days before we could move into our apartment. What do you do when you are stranded in Bariloche with nowhere to sleep?
Call one of the leading hotels in the world and see if by chance you can get a room without mortgaging the house. Normally, at the Hotel Llao Llao there is no chance in hell. However, thanks to American Express we got in for two nights for less than the family resorts we've stayed in back home.
Wow, what a stay! Take a look at the view from my room:
Hotel Llao Llao is 25km west of Bariloche and without a doubt is Argentina's finest hotel. Yes there are fine hotels in Buenos Aires, but none have the views that this hotel has. Also, the service was 5 stars. We were pampered all weekend like we have never been pampered before.
We have been fortunate to stay in some of the leading hotels of the world. I have to say that the Llao Llao is now my favorite. It is worth coming here just for the surrounding natural beauty.
If you're golfer, the views from this golf course make the views from Pebble Beach look boring.
Friday, February 15, 2008
We arrived in Bariloche a few weeks ago. I apologize for not keeping the blog updated with up-to-the-minute postings of what we have been up to. There is just too much to see and do here in Bariloche.
This part of Patagonia is absolutely one of the most beautiful place in the world. It is filled with the bluest glacier lakes, snow capped mountains, and lush green trees. Everyone should make it here once in their lifetimes. Only don't stay in Bariloche
The town itself is faded and showing her age. The town center is filled with graffiti—even on the beautiful church that is the center piece of the town. (Isn't there a special place in hell for those that deface a church?)
There are tourist everywhere. So many that it seems more like walking down the busiest streets of Buenos Aires than a remote mountain village.
We are wishing we would of stayed out of town to the west or south.
Argentines in the know opt to stay west of town near Lake Moreno or on the north shore of Lake Nahuel Haupi (Bariloche is on the south shore) in the quaint Villa La Angostura.
That said, there are endless number of mountain and lake adventures organized right outside our door making Bariloche the most convenient place to camp for a few weeks. The special buses or minivans even come straight to our apartment to pick us up. Plus the car rental agencies are within two blocks from here.
Speaking of which, I have to go, they just delivered my rent car and are waiting for me downstairs.
How convenient is that?
Tuesday, February 12, 2008
On our recent trip outside of Mendoza to the high Andes, we thought we would spend a few hours and cross over into Chile for a look around and to get our passports stamped with another country.
Wrong! We ended up being broke and too poor for Chile and were stuck in no-mans land for over 3 1/2 hours. Not a great ending to our trip to the high Andes.
Our problems started the night before when we couldn't find a place to stay in Uspallata. I read that there were hotels and hostels at the base of the ski resort in Penitentes much closer to the Chilean border. So, we drove on and found a spot in the one and only hotel open in the summer. However, the wind had knocked out phone and internet access so we had to pay with cash for the room.
We were in the middle of nowhere up in the mountains and there were no ATMs for over 100 kilometers and no one took credit cards. We had to use cash for breakfast, lunch and even to use the restrooms!
By the time we paid for our lunch in Las Cuevas, just before the border, we only had $4 pesos to our name. No problem we thought. We would just get cash when we reached the first town in Chile. The same with the gas which was just over the 1/4 tank mark.
Crossing The Border
We went through the tunnel underneath a large mountain and reached the other side in Chile where we found a long line of cars at the border crossing. There was also a large amount of paperwork for us.
We arrived at the first of a series of booths after a 40 minute wait. They helped us with the myriad of forms and stamped our passports as exiting Argentina and sent us on to the next booth where we filled out more paperwork for entering into Chile.
Gas check: just under 1/4 tank.
At the next booth we were instructed to pay a $3,000 CH Peso tariff to enter the country. Not knowing the exchange rate, we tried handing over our 4 measly AR pesos. The woman behind the counter barked, "NO Argentine Pesos! Only Chilean Pesos!"
"No Tengo" I replied. She rolled her eyes and pointed us to a shack of a building on the side of the road to exchange our money. I parked the car and walked over to the building to find it deserted and more like a bad scene in a Quentin Tarantino movie than a money exchange booth.
I walked back and asked someone else where the money exchange was and they pointed me in the opposite direction to the booth right adjacent to the surly woman's. Clearly, the first woman was playing games with us "stupid gringos".
I exchanged my $4AR pesos and discovered I was way short. $4 AR Pesos was just over $500 CH Pesos. Nowhere close to the $3,000 needed. I slowly walked back over the the tariff booth and tried to give them what little money we had.
Stuck in Customs
No, dice. We were too poor to enter Chile and they refused to let us pass. Now we were stuck in no-mans land with nowhere to go. We couldn't backup into oncoming traffic and they would not let us go forward to turnaround.
Surely this had happened before and someone could direct us where to go to get back into Argentina. But no. We were stuck there for an eternity it seemed as several border guards debated what to do with us.
We were left idling with precious little gas. Finally, we pleaded with an Argentina border agent to let us drive the wrong way on in the dirt beside the road and cut across traffic to get back to the tunnel and into Argentina.
The only problem was we were already stamped as exiting Argentina and therefore our tourist visas were now canceled. Halfway through the tunnel, I realized that we were now entering the country illegally with invalid visas. We had to find an Argentina customs office to straighten things out. Fortunately, my wife remembered the Argentina customs checkpoint was further up the road on the Argentina side.
Stuck in Customs Round II
We came to the Argentina customs checkpoint and pulled in to find 100s of other cars in line ahead of us. We sat idling away what little gas had for 5 minutes before realizing we were not moving anywhere fast. We cut the engine to save gas and pushed our car through the line for 2 hours.
We finally got up to customs and the first agent freaked out on the state of our passports but no one else seemed to know what do to about it. Having been stamped as leaving Argentina, but not stamped entering and then leaving Chile just wasn't right.
We pleaded at one post and were then sent to another post to be sent to yet another post. My wife finally rolled down her window and bashed a few eyelashes at an older gentleman who heard our tale and understood our plight. A few stamps of our passports and we were good for another 90 days.
We had just wasted 3 1/2 hours and didn't even get a Chile stamp in our passports! What a waste of an afternoon.
Running on Empty
Now to get to Uspallata get cash and gas. It was over 100Kms and we had less than 1/4 tank of gas. Over an hour and half later, we pulled in with plenty of gas to spare, although I was almost arrested in Uspallata (thanks to a cell phone call at exactly the wrong time), we fueled up and made sure we had plenty of cash.
We headed down Route 7 to Mendoza and arrived home around 10:00 exhausted, but glad we were good for another 90 days in Argentina.
This post is part of the two day Alta Montaña trip we took out of Mendoza. Read the post here for an overview of the trip.
High above the the tunnel to the Chilean border on Route 7 is a statue of Christ the Redeemer of the Andes. And I am talking way high above the road below—3,832 meters (12,572 feet) to be exact.
My guidebook made it sound like it was just a statue placed above the tunnel that you could visit before committing to the border crossing. I was thinking 5 minutes tops for the stop and was even thinking of skipping it altogether. After all, we had customs to navigate and paperwork to fill out.
Boy was I wrong. When you get to the border village of Las Cuevas, There is a turnoff from the main road with a sign leading you towards a building with a dirt road going right through the middle of it.
There is a volunteer there to greet you and make you get out of your car and spend 5 minutes to adjust to the altitude. We recommend more. You'll need it because you are going to climb a long series of switchbacks to the top of a high mountain.
In fact, we recommend you go into the building with the road through it and have the lunch buffet. It was our first experience with regional Andean food—and man was it good.
We had a regional beef stew, a local lentil like soup, and a chicken dish. They also had a tripe stew we all passed on. Everything we tried was excellent and cheap.
After lunch we started up the dirt road to the switchbacks. Once up above the town, the view was magnificent. The drive was a little scary as giant tour buses were going up the same narrow mountain road with the same breakneck pace as if they were on the streets of Buenos Aires. Scary enough for those that had to dodge them. I can't imagine what it was like for those on the bus.
Once on top, we were blown away by how far up we were. There were views of Aconcagua and down into Chile and Argentina. In fact, you could step across the border from up there and have one foot in Chile and one in Argentina.
By the way, that is a Clilean flag and not a Texas flag. It still made me a little homesick.
The statue itself is a was unveiled on 13 March 1904 as a celebration of the peaceful resolution of the border dispute between the two countries. Kind of ironic given the disdain the two people have for one another.
This post is part of the two day Alta Montaña trip we took out of Mendoza. Read the post here for an overview of the trip.
Not far from the Chilean border is a curious sight worth stopping for. Puente del Inca is a natural bridge over a rushing tributary to the Río Mendoza. Below the natural bridge are the remains of a spa that was washed away in a flood.
The area is covered with orange and green mineral deposits giving the sight an "other-world" like a appearance.
Miraculously, the flood spared the church several yards away from where the spa once stood.
I found this legend on the web on how Puente del Inca received its name:
Although the bridge was used as a path across the river by Inca travelers between Chile and Peru in pre-Columbian time, legend has it that many years before the arrival of the Spaniards, a great Inca chief had an ailing son suffering from paralysis.
After failure at every turn, he heard that in the south there was a place where healing water could put an end to his disgrace and cure his son. Without delay, he assembled a group of his best warriors and set for the high peaks.
When they first set eyes on the spot, the Chief was astonished that the healing mineral waters bubbling out of the earth were blocked by a torrential river in front of them.
Without haste, his brave warriors built a human bridge that reached the other side. The Inca chief walked on their backs with his son and reached the thermal source where he was relieved to find the remedy he had been looking for. When he looked back to thank his warriors, they had been turned into stone, creating the famous "Puente del Inca".
Sunday, February 3, 2008
You see them everywhere in Mendoza around January. They descend from every corner of the world with one goal in mind—to scale the highest mountain in both the western and southern hemispheres. Aconcagua draws mountains climbers of all stripes to Mendoza.
Despite being one of the highest mountains at 6,962 metres (22,841 ft), it is one of the least challenging technically. The main challenge is the altitude. Therefore, you see climbers of every skill level and age on the streets of Mendoza in January when the weather offers the best hopes of making it to the top.
My first introduction to Aconcagua came our first weekend in Mendoza. Sitting on the patio of the Park Hyatt we overheard a guide prepping a group of climbers from England. They ranged in age from 60 down to 40.
Later that week, I had to help two young guys from New Zealand no more than 19 navigate the ins and outs of the local supermarket as they loaded up on supplies for their climb.
Everyday at our hotel apartment saw new arrivals loaded down with mountain climbing gear. I never knew that Mendoza was a popular base for mountain climbers.
Aconcagua is one of the Seven Summits with each being the highest peaks on the seven continents. Kilimanjaro in Africa is one of the others that does not require technical skill or equipment.
A close friend of mine tried to talk me into climbing Kili with him. He ended up going with a another friend of his. I wish I would have tried it. Although, spending time in Mendoza prepping for the climb and drinking the best red wine in the world seems a lot more appealing than a third world hotel in Africa.
Sounds like I need to start training for next January.
In the village of Villavicencio is an old abandoned hotel whos image adorns the labels of millions of water bottles served up in Argentina. Villavicencio is by far the most popular mineral water in Argentina.
This place was our first stop on our 2 day Alta Montaña drive out of the city of Mendoza. (check out this earlier post for the complete route.)
According to the New York Times, a french company purchased the rights to land surrounding the hotel and its mineral water. The company is working hard to preserve the integrity of the springs and so has chosen to keep the Hotel Termas Villavicencio closed.
At one time the Hotel and spa were frequented by Argentina's high society until its closing in 1980, when it shut its doors for good. However, you can still tour the lush grounds by foot. And there is a lot to see.
The extensive gardens are beautiful even if the hotel looks well faded and in ruins. There is even a small chapel built in 1941 behind the hotel.
Finally, there is a small restaurant and gift shop at the bottom of the road up to the hotel. It is a great place to get a quick snack, though we wouldn't recommend eating lunch there. I actually recommend driving a couple of hours up over the top of the mountains here and having lunch at a a parilla attached to an old silver mine.
The road above the hotel turns to a dirt road and starts to snake and wind through a series of large switchbacks. There are frequent overlooks with beautiful views of the hotel and the Villavicencio valley below.
The locals call this part of the road the Caracoles de Villavicencio, or "the snails of Villavicencio." I is a fitting name because you will be stopping every few 100 meters to appreciate the view. Also, the steep dropoffs and blind curves will have you slowing way down.
Saturday, February 2, 2008
If you ever find yourself in Mendoza and get tired of touring bodegas, rent a car and head north and west of town to the mountains!
We took two days last weekend and headed up into the Andes west of Mendoza. Outside of wine tours, this should be the highlight to any visit to Mendoza.
We really recommend splitting it up into two days.
Highlights of our trip included:
- Villavicencio and a trip to the abandoned spa that graces the front of all those mineral water bottles people drink in Argentina
- The pictographs near Uspallata
- A wonderful parrilla (grill) at an old abandoned silver mine
- Puente del Inca – a bizarre looking natural bridge formed by sediment from sulphurous hot springs
- Aconcagua: at 6,959m, the highest peak in both the western and southern hemispheres
- Christ Redeemer of the Andes - A mountian top view overlooked by a tall statue of Christ. Worth the long trek up a dirt road to the top of the mountian on the Chilean border
This post would be way too long if I went into detail on each one. Instead I'll post several mini-posts on each. Below is just the basic route and suggested itinerary.
Day 1: Hit the road early!
There is a lot to see and do, you need to head out no later than 9:00 to pack it all in.
We recommend heading out Ave. San Martín north of town. This will turn into Route 52 and will turn towards the foothills and the village of Villavicencio.
When you see the familiar logo of the mineral water, skip the first stop and head further up the road the the abandoned hotel for a look around.
After the hotel of Villavicencio, the road will turn into a dirt road and start its climb through a long series of switchbacks providing wonderful views of the hotel and the valley below.
Once on top, you will see numerous Guanacos, an orange llama like mountain animal found all over this part of the Andes. You'll probably spot several horses and cattle too.
Further, down the road you will find a split in the road with a turnoff to the balcony overlooking an impressive gorge. It is worth the slight detour.
Several kilometers more you will be rewarded with an impressive view of Mt. Aconcauga, the highest peak in this part of the world. Next too the Aconcagua overlook is a road of wooded crosses recently installed to honor the Jesuit priest who settled here and worked the silver mines.
A few kilometers more you will see a sign for a tour of an old abandoned silver mine. Skip the mine tour and have the lunch they offer there. It was one of the best parrillas (BBQ mixed grill) we have had in Argentina since arriving six months ago. This place is also popular we tour groups.
As you get closer to Uspallata, the road will turn back into a paved road. Near here is a turnoff for some ancient pictographs painted on rocks atop a small hill. The view alone is worth the climb.
Further up, you will start to see the the town of Uspallata stretch out below you. We recommend staying the night here. The only decent option is the Gran Hotel Uspallata. During busy season, book in advance. They had no room when we showed up.
If you want, you can turn onto Route 7 and drive west to stay the night in Penitentes. There is only one hotel and hostel open during summer and the rooms are very rough. The plus side is you will be surrounded by mountain climbers from all over the world who have just climbed Aconcagua. An interesting bunch to say the least.
Day 2: Up the Andes to Chile
Head west on Route 7 out of Uspallata around 10:00 after a nice breakfast at the hotel. Your first stop will be just after the ski village of Pentitentes.
Just past Penitentes, there will be a pulloff on the side of the road to view Mount Aconcagua. There is a trail that leads from the road and will take you to some awesome viewpoints of the mountain. The trail ends at a small mountain lake.
Next stop down the road is Puente del Inca a cool natural bridge with an abandoned spa underneath. You just have to see this thing in person. Words are hard to describe it.
Just before the tunnel that heads into Chile, you will see a turnoff to the village of Las Cuevas and the road to Christ the Redeemer. Someone will be there to recommend you stop for 5 minutes to get acclimated to the altitude.
We recommend stopping for much more. Mainly because there is a great place for lunch on the second floor of the building you drive through to get to the mountaintop statue of Christ the Redeemer.
The lunch is served cafeteria style from a small serving setup, but it is some of the best regional fare you will taste. You'll need the energy for hiking around on top the mountain.
After lunch, take the dirt road way, way on up to the top the mountain to see the Christ the Reedemer statue. You will be rewarded with great views down into Argentina on one side, and Chile on the other. You will also have a great view of Aconcagua. You can even step foot into Chile from up there and take your picture in front of the a Chilean Flag.
Next stop is Chile. Once you drive down the mountain and return to Route 7, you will cross under the mountain you were just on and into a long tunnel. Once on the other side, you will be in Chile and will notice the streams and creeks are now flowing towards the pacific.
It is $3,000 Chilean pesos to enter and there is a lot of paper work. On top of that, you will have to get restamped to enter Argentina again. If it is a weekend, that could mean about 1 hour on the Chilean side of customs and over 2 hours on the Argentine side. Don't think you can pop over to Chile for a quick peek. It is just not worth it.
If you have decided against the long lines at the border, turn around and take a nice drive down the Andes and enjoy the view with several stops for pictures. You should be back to the city of Mendoza in time for 5 o'clock tea.