Category Archives: Argentina

Alive and Well in Sao Paulo, Brazil

Sao Paulo, Latin America's biggest and most cosmopolitan city

The last week has been an absolute whirlwind of traveling efficiency.  But I’m happy to say that I’m alive in well in Sao Paulo, just a little bit out of breath from crossing overland through four international borders in the last three days.

On Friday, I bid farewell to Bariloche, and the morning of my last day of work was followed with an overnight bus to Buenos Aires.  I had spent more than four months in Argentina, and a visit to the elegant capital was long overdue.  On the plate for my short visit in Buenos Aires was a Brazilian visa application, a football game, and some tango.

Claimed to be the widest avenue in the world, Avenida 9 de Julio, Buenos Aires

My experience in Buenos Aires was a bit humdrum.  I wasn’t exactly inspired by the tango scene, nor the architecture of the city.  I’m not saying I don’t like the capital; I was there for too short of a time to critique it.  Experiences are what I appreciate in my travels, not the places.  And with no friends or warm welcomes, and a potentially 2-week wait for a Brazilian visa, I was ready to move on.

Feeling lonely in Colonia, Uruguay...the mouth of La Plata River

I made a quick visit to see Uruguay and its beautiful colonial center, Colonia.  With just a few days I wanted to seek out the subtle differences between Uruguay and Argentina.  My barber told me not many, and that perhaps Uruguayans drink more mate (how could that be possible I thought?) and their women are a bit less beautiful, but only a bit.  Good enough for me.  I guess I just needed a few days in Uruguay then and I hopped on the next high-speed 30-knot commuter boat 28 miles across the mouth of the La Plata River, and back to Argentina.

Iguazu Falls, Argentina

Next up, Iguazu Falls!  I bought a first-class “full cama” bus (champagne-included) and 16 hours later I was face to face with the most beautiful waterfalls I had ever seen.  I could understand where Eleanor Roosevelt was coming from, when upon her arrival to Iguazu, she proclaimed “Poor Niagra!”  While enjoying the falls, a Brazilian consulate processed my visa, and I was good to cross the border.

Iguazu Falls, Brazil

The Brazilian side of Iguazu proved to be just as beautiful, and during my visit I also crossed the border to see Ciudade Del Este, Paraguay.  This was the easiest border crossing I had done in years.  I negotiated a moto-taxi for 3 bucks (so good to be on one of those again), and we weaved through traffic and blew by customs.  I spent a few illegal hours in seldom-visited Paraguay and was back in Brazil again to catch yet another overnight bus, this time to Sao Paulo.

Moto-taxi into Ciudad del Este. These guys know how to cruise.

So after three overnight buses, and four countries in 48 overland hours of travel, I was in the Latin America’s biggest, most cosmopolitan city.  For the first time in six months of travel, I was greeted by a familiar face…Julia!  Julia is the girlfriend of my great college bud Rob and now a great friend of mine too.  She and her family took me in for a week of fun and relaxation in Sao Paulo, and now I’m off to spend the Easter weekend at their beach house.  I can’t do it justice enough to write what a wonderful family has hosted me here, so open-minded, thoughtful, and community-oriented.  Every family should be like this one.  Akin to my time in Buenos Aires, I was reminded that it’s not the places that make a trip, but the experiences you have.  Had I come to Sao Paulo solo, I would have departed within a few hours.  But because of the wonderful people I have shared time with here, I’m not ready to leave!

I audited a Race and Equity Law class. Enjoying pizza with the crew in Sao Paulo, home of the best pizza in South America.

El Superclasico – A Buenos Aires Football Classic

Utter chaos in a rainy Bombonero Stadium

On par with the greatest rivalries in sports, including Army-Navy, the Celtics-Lakers, and Real Madrid-Barcelona, there exists an inter-city clash of football clubs in Buenos Aires that causes more feuds than any other.  The Superclasico, an annual match between the Boca Juniors and River Plate is so intense that it tops the English newspaper The Observer’s list of the “50 sporting things you must do before you die.” (click here)

I had wanted to see just one football game before I left Argentina, and by chance I arrived to Buenos Aires 26 hours before the start of the Clasico.  Que suerte!  Signs in the tourism office and hostels were advertising tickets for 150 – 250 dollars, which included transport, pizza, and a guide.  Pizza and a transport would be nice, but what the hell does one need a guide for at a football match?  “To take care of you,” they said.  “I would never recommend a foreigner go to this barrio or inside the stadium by himself.”   What a joke.

I was told not to go because it was too dangerous, which for ten-year-old stubborn me, made it pretty much mandatory.  General tickets were sold out months ago, so I figured I’d test out my scalping skills outside of La Bombonero, the home stadium of Boca Juniors.  I arrived five minutes before the game started, in an all-out downpour and what seemed to be a good market for a buyer.  Within minutes I found a dealer.  He wanted sixty dollars for nosebleed seats.  I moved on and soon found a guy who was selling for twelve.  The only hitch was that it was on the visitor’s side.  I was told to root for the home squad, Boca Juniors, but a cheaper ticket would easily sway me in favor of River.

The Bombonero was in absolute chaos.  You could hear chants and classic Argentine songs modified to cheer on Maradona’s old squad from more than a kilometer away.  The rain was pouring down, and I was going in.  Because I had a visitor’s ticket, security told me I had to enter the stadium some ten blocks away.  As I walked through a gated corridor for ten blocks, I realized I had made a major mistake.  I was wearing my blue Boston Marathon shirt under my yellow raingear.  These were the Boca colors, and I was sitting in the River section.  Bad news.  I had made this same mistake at a UCLA – Oregon State Football game, but this was a whole new level of risk.  I had no other clothes to change into, so I devised a new strategy.  I ran to the nearest bakery, and bought a dozen brownies. Brownies!  These were the first brownies I had seen in South America.  I figured I could ease any potential hostility of the River fans surrounding me by sharing my pastries.

I walked up to the fourth level of the stadium to see the start of the match.  Truthfully, I didn’t care much to watch football.  It was the ambiance I was there for.  In fact, amid the downpour and puddles, the match was more a comedy act than it was a display of skilled footwork.  The players slipped, slid, and collided on a drench field, and it looked more like a youth rec match than a battle between two of the world’s most storied clubs.

But as for the fans, they weren’t about to let the weather nor the poor play deprive them of their standard mischievous activity.  Across the stadium, tens of thousands of Boca fans were covered in an enormous team banner, singing their chants when the home team took the field.  When River came out, there was harassment unlike any I had ever seen.  A fifteen-meter high fence stood between the field and the fans, as to keep the players protected from these caged animals.  The Boca fans climbed the fence, and shook it like monkeys, screaming obscenities at their rivals across the stadium.  The River fans surrounding me retaliated by pissing into water balloons, and dropping hundreds of urine bombs on the Boca fan section below.  The stadium is nicknamed The Bombonero, or “Chocolate Box” because it has several spectator areas that are boxed off from the rest of the stadium.  It was no coincidence that we were in one of these boxes, isolated from the rest of the rival spectators.

Boca has the reputation of a working-class fan base while River, dubbed “Los Millonarios” was once a more “elitist’s” squad.  But as I gazed at the 50,000 spectators across the stadium, they all appeared to be just a bunch of football punks to me.  In the “elite” River section, I was sandwiched between hordes of drunk, disrespecting, street kids, and across the way it was just the same.  By the match’s start it was no matter that I was wearing the wrong colors because I was helplessly enveloped in the madness off it all.  There were no seats, just cement steps, and the the section was so dense with River fans, that just to see the field I had to forcefully create a tunnel of vision with my arms.

Within eleven minutes the match was called on account of the wet conditions.  This was followed by unsurprising amount of boos and trash thrown on the field.  I rode the masses out of the stadium.  Drunk river fans harassed the police officers outside, as if it was their fault that the field was drenched.  As visitors, we had a ten block guarded escort out of the stadium.  As I munched on crushed brownies, a die-hard River fan and his daughter chatted me up.  “This is such a shitty organization,” he said, “and a shitty field.  If this game were at River’s stadium, none of this mess would have ever happened.  And what a shitty neighborhood we are in here!”

The gate corridor emptied out to a fleet of buses that took us all back north, minimizing any contact between rival fans.  Full-on riots between fans had taken place here in the past, and security knew much better now.  As we rode out, kids threw rocks at the bus, threats were exchanged out the windows, and I was enveloped by a scent of marijuana.

I got off somewhere downtown, oriented my map, and walked through the puddles of Avenida Corrientes to my hostel.  In my room, I stripped off my soaking clothes, and exhausted, I fell asleep within minutes.  Eleven minutes of El Superclasico was plenty enough for me.

To be continued…The Superclasico will now be played this Thursday, March 25 at 15:00 local time.

Outward Bound Patagonia

Eleven years and two university degrees later, I’m back to the same job I had acquired during my sophomore year of college.  Outward Bound is my employer once again.  Not that I’m complaining.  It’s exactly where I want to be.  The last Outward Bound course I instructed was almost five years ago, canoeing on an alpine lake in Washington.  Today I find myself in a remarkable similar setting on the opposite side of the Earth – Patagonia, only this time I’m working alongside warm Argentines, sipping mate, crossing Andean borders, and lesson-planning in Spanish.

Outward Bound, started by Kurt Hahn in Aberdovy, Wales, 1941 was intended as a school to take students out of their normal environments, usually into the wilderness and marine domain, and impel value-forming experiences, confidence, perseverance, and leadership skills.  Today, with some 40 schools spread out all over the world and 200,000 students annually, Outward Bound continues to maintain these objectives.

Instructing for Outward Bound means that you are a teacher, not a guide.  You provide challenges, not summits.  You have a curriculum to deliver, but no chalkboard.  It means that the content you teach is dictated by your course area, whether that be geological, cultural, historical, or technical.  It means that you are fully engaged in your job 24 hours a day for up to 72 days at a time.  It means that you surround yourself with inspiring co-workers, and work for students who are at a mental crossroads, and wondering what next?  It means that with time, you will have the opportunity to work in places like Colorado, backwoods Maine, Costa Rica, Brazil, Spain, Indonesia, South Africa, and India.

Instructing Outward Bound courses is a fabulous way of living, but for many of us, it is simply not sustainable.  When I checked in for staff training this year, I realized I was one of the oldest staff in the group.  By age thirty, most people are ready move on to things that don’t jive with the OB lifestyle…to settle down, buy a home, start a family.  Fortunately for my Outward Bound career, that isn’t me right now.  In fact, working for Outward Bound is a great complement to my travel bug, and I think I might pursue a few more seasons in places I’ve never worked.  Next up, the wildest course area of them all – New York City.

And some photos from the trips….

El Glaciar Torre

The complex Glacier Torre with Cerro Torre above

If you haven’t yet had the chance, make a point of exploring a glacier.  Go in the summer and find a “dry glacier,” one that is bare ice with all the previous year’s snow melted away.  Explore crevasses, drink from an “ice luge,” photograph the remarkable shades of blue.  In my view, a day out on a glacier can be even more aesthetic than a view from a high peak.  Find a place like this in the Pacific Northwest of the U.S., the European Alps, and the Patagonian Ice Fields, where rock-hard glacier-ice is just a stone’s throw from a trailhead parking lot.

Like the popular Glaciar Perito Moreno to the North, El Glaciar Torre terminates in a glacier lake (minus the hordes of tourists)
Like Glaciar Perito Moreno, its popular neighbor to the south, Glaciar Torre calves into a glacier lake (minus the hordes of tourists)

I came to El Chalten in Patagonia, not to explore ice, but to see two of the world’s most inspiring peaks, Cerro Torre and Mount Fitzroy.  According to the first climbers, they were “mountains worth dying for,” and although I was not in climbing shape to attempt either one, I would be satisfied if that the Patagonian storms would halt for a moment and I could catch a glimpse of the climbing world’s most famous stone towers.  So on the last day of January, I left base camp, where climber’s had been waiting several weeks for a good weather window, and traversed El Glaciar Torre to the base of Cerro Torre.  I figured I could boulder around at the mountain’s base so that I could claim “I climbed on Cerro Torre.”  I never made it.  The glacier was a destination in itself, and as I lost myself in its mazes of crevasses I soon forgot about the infamous peaks above.

A maze of crevasses and seracs makes for some complicated walking

El Glaciar Torre has it all: a snout that cliffs out into a freshwater lake, a nearly impassable ice fall, surface-ice streams, deep crevasses, and subglacial tunnels.  Akin to the canyon country of the Desert Southwest, much of the glacier’s topography is carved by summer meltwater, streams running above, below and inside the deep moving ice.  As I gazed down at the debris-covered low-elevation ice, I noticed a remarkable ice bridge.  Glaciers typically have snow bridges that span crevasses and form over the course of a winter and melt out in the summer.  But this was something different.  Upon closer inspection, I realized that this bridge was the remnants of relict ice conduit, an extinct tunnel created by running water.  Measuring some three meters in diameter, one could only imagine the discharge that once poured through this tube on a late-summer day.

Remnants of a glacier conduit
A stream feeding a glacier!

I walked to the base of the tunnel and along the edge of the glacier itself.  As I descended down an adjacent gulley, I saw a phenomenon that I had never witnessed in all my time working and climbing on glaciers.  A stream came down from the mountains and disappeared into the glacier.  Usually glaciers contribute to streams, not the other way around!  I looked a little closer at this interface between solid and liquid, and crawled into an ice cave below.  Wow!  I was now inside the glacier.  The stream created a crawlable entrance and I was soon surrounded by ice walls.  On one side was sheer bedrock, the rest of the tunnel was pure ice.  As I penetrated with my headlamp deeper inside, it soon became evident that I was in a mote, a crack in a glacier that separates ice from the surrounding earth.  The white light above made me realize that I was already more than 100 feet deep.  I walked and crawled for another 100 meters to the cave’s terminus and found some of the most stunning displays of glacier hydrology.  This is what I studied for two years at Oregon St., and never before had I seen so vividly the dynamics of water inside a glacier.  Inside the cave, pipes of water exploded out the side walls of ice, like springs on a roadcut.  The pressurized flow converged to form a high-discharge subglacial stream which soon disappeared under the ice, probably forming yet another conduit below.  Spectacular!  If only I had the proper camera to shoot it in the darkness.

This is a system of glacier pluming that regulates the outflow of glacier.

I photographed and explored smaller crevasses and tunnels until the moon came up and it was time to return to basecamp.  I jugged back, skipped over blue crevasses in my tennis shoes, and by my fatigued headlamp, I tied a sling around my hip so that I could zipline across the river to my campsite.  As I traversed the line I pondered the future of the sport of sub-glacier exploration.  Would it retain its sense of awe in the same way of that of caving and canyoneering?   One thing I knew for sure.  This had been of my most spectacular days out in the mountains, and it came at a small price.  I didn’t climb a single pitch.

A supraglacial stream

Highway 40 Revisited: Hitching North on the Che Trail

The infamous Cerro Torre

Strapped for cash after my trip to Antarctica, I was stuck in Ushuaia.  While the rest of the passengers departed on flights and prepaid first class bus tickets, I had to improvise a way out.  I had spent a year getting to this point, and I hadn’t really considered (nor budgeted for) how I was going to get back north.  What I did have was camping gear, a willingness to hitch, and some ten days to get to Bariloche before I had to start work on another expedition.  Traveling by thumb back north would save me $150 and if the movie The Motorcycle Diaries was any indication of how fun route 40 could be, I was in a for a helluva time.

After an hour of hiking out of town, I acquired a sense of freedom, unmatched by any other feeling on the trip.  Hitching would compel flexibility, to go with the flow of other travelers, and the ability to travel to and explore places where buses don’t venture.  As I reflected on this mode of travel, a silver 2-door van with only one working headlight pulled over to see how I was doing.  Inside was Walter, an Argentine father and manager of a plastics dispensary, a man would be my best friend for the next thirty hours.  With Walter, I traveled out of Tierra del Fuego and across the Magellan Straits.  We shared salami sandwiches, stood together in line for 3 hours at the Chilean border, and spent hours discussing the best road trips in Argentina.  And then in an instant, we came across an intersection which split our intended routes, and I hopped out of the car, embraced him with a thank you, and said goodbye to Walter forever.  Welcome to the life of a hitchhiker!

Walking down a lovely road in Tierra del Fuego

After a second night sleeping behind a gas station, and then a night in a family campground in Calafate, I arrived on a Monday morning to El Chalten, the most important place in all of Patagonia.  It is here that is the starting point for climbing expeditions on Cerro Torre and Fitzroy, mountains so inspiring and challenging that the first climbers claimed that they had finally found a mountain “worth dying for.”  As a climber, this is one of the must-dos.  And for me, an out-of-shape ex-climber passerby, it was a must-see.  Now, it’s just a matter of whether or not the weather cooperates.

As I approached the base camp for Cerro Torre, I came across an all-too-familiar, even gut-wrenching site…climbers waiting.  You see, climbing in Patagonia is all about patience.  Climbers come to this very point, from all over the world and spend months here, just to give a shot at Cerro Torre or her neighbors.  Yet despite this investment in time and money, they know that given the unfavorable weather in Patagonia, they could sit out the entire summer without a single weather window in which to climb.  With El Nino in full force, this was bound to be another one of those years.

I spent the evening with a group from Buenos Aires, huddled under a tarp, playing cards, and sipping wine.  They had been doing this for two straight weeks.  The next day, they threw in the towel to the weather gods, and walked the three hours back to town, hoping to salvage their trip with a little bit of roadside rock climbing.  Despite the cloudy skies, I trekked out to the glacier (see “El Glaciar Torre”), shot the fantastic landscape, and returned to the road, happy just to get a glimpse of the historical routes that climb Cerro Torre.  Seeing the abandoned climber campsites evoked bad memories of tent-bound storm days in British Colombia, and did little to inspire a return to these infamous towers.

The endless wait for a good weather window in Camp

Crossing the climber's tyrolean to gain access to the glaciers of Cerro Torre

After a lovely German couple dropped me off at a remote and gusty Patagonia crossroads, I waited.  The wind picked up and I ducked behind a culvert.  Following a few chapters of Bob Dylan’s autobiography, a generous group of Israelis picked me up.  Upon finishing their mandatory military service, many Israelis venture to South America to let off steam.  Like many of the other groups, these folks were traveling in large packs.  Three in the front pick-up and four in the pick-up that followed behind, they had divided themselves into two groups: those who were kosher and those who were not.  I jumped into the front “kosher” vehicle.  My new friends joked to me that they were the good ones, and those behind were the sinners, the ones going to hell.  I think I was in the wrong truck.

I spent a great time with six new Israeli friends, and I’m absolutely convinced that I want to visit their country one day.  They took me on a mini trip through Jerusalem, we ate kosher together, and they introduced me to their favorite Borat tune, “Throw the Jew down the Well.”  24 hours later, when they took a left toward Chile, I got off once more.

Getting the truck stuck on Route 40

Four rides from truckers, and I found myself truly in the middle of desert.  Wind and darkness were rapidly embracing me, and I prepared myself for a cold night camping out.    An hour later, as I was pondering how my tarp tent would handle the high winds, I was picked up by yet another pick-up.  This time it was four men from the south, aged 18 to 45, on a 4-day road trip to find some a good joda (party).  It was a match made in heaven, at least I figured at that point in time.

We arrived in a small town south of Esquel where we negotiated a couple of hotel rooms.  The rodeo was in town that weekend, which meant that rooms had to be improvised.  We then moved on to a tasty small-town asado and I got to know these shady characters a little better.  They talked of their lives down south in Rio Gallegos, and of the beautiful prostitutes from the Domincan Republic who reside there.  One of the men claimed that in addition to his wife, he had himself a Caribbean beauty.  Figuring that the wine was getting to these fellows, and that Rio Gallegos was simply too frigid for a Dominican, I called them on their tall tales.  Besides, I reasoned that the last thing Argentina would need to import was beautiful women.

On the next stop, it turned out the boys were intent on proving me wrong.  I thought we were walking into just another shady small-town bar.  When I was instantly groped by a voluptuous Dominican, I soon realized that I was in just another shady small-town whorehouse.  I mean nothing against prostitutes, but this was not the place where I wanted to be.  I felt dirty.  In fact, I was dirty.  Not having showered in a week, I felt just as dirty as the other fellows in the saloon.  I told the woman who was all over me that I couldn’t cheat on my wife, bought her a cerveza, and escaped to the pool table for the evening.  When I left the joint I discovered that her drink cost four times that of ours.  Stupid gringo.

Flying by in the back of semi!

I spent the night on the floor of their hotel room, and the boys generously gave me a two hour ride to El Bolson.  That night, after some eight days of thumbing and walking up route 40, I stumbled into base camp, exhausted and filthy.  About to embark on another 39 structured days of work in the Patagonia wilderness, I was relieved that I had an extended period of wandering along the infamous Route 40.

Ode to Argentine Campgrounds (Ushuaia, AR)

I’ve been converted.  Campgrounds are going to be my new mode of accommodations in my travels across South America.  Not only am I saving a bundle by pitching my borrowed Black Diamond Megamid each night at the local campground, I’m also embracing the most friendly hosts and guests I have encountered in all of my travels.  Say goodbye five-dollar hotel rooms, gringo hostels, and couchsurfing….campgrounds are back in style.

Perhaps there’s a reason that commercial campgrounds have such a sour taste in my mouth.  I have memories of overpriced KOA’s, getting chased out of the Green River Campground  in Utah with Danny O’Brien, and an unsuccessful search for babes in a mega-campground on the Northern California coast with Josh Broder, only to come back to our tent to a half-bottle of whiskey and a headache from screaming moms.  But here, as I gaze out the Ushuaia campground restaurant window to the midnight dusk view of the famed Beagle Channel below, I have a much different feeling.  I’m sitting here in a rustic cabin, sipping from a carton of wine, for which they charged me a dollar-fifty.  There’s a backpacker from Wales sipping a beer on my right, and just finishing dinner on my left there are three business folk from Buenos Aires stationed here on a ten-day holiday.  This place has found the perfect balance between festive and tranquilo.

Getting here wasn’t a simple task.  Last night I arrived in Ushuaia, exhausted after two overnight buses and a ferry across the Magellan Strait.  I arrived to find every bed under $15 full so I followed signs three kilometers outside of town toward La Pista Andina Campground. Despite the late hour, I was greeted by a friendly host who gave me a midnight tour of the facilities.  For five dollars, I had wi-fi, hot showers, my own tent site, and gregarious Argentine neighbors.  While a good ways outside of the city center, I was welcomed with awesome views of Tierra del Fuego outside my tent door the next morning.  Couple that with 5 peso wine and Bob Marley jamming at the campground cantina, and you’ve found paradise in the world’s most southern city.