Sunday, May 31, 2015

Ushuaia, Argentina

I'm going to back-post from our travels around Tierra del Fuego and Patagonia in January-February 2015.  This first posting is from Ushuaia.  We flew overnight on a very long flight from Madrid to Buenos Aires.  We dropped off luggage with one of Mike's colleagues and spent the night in a hotel near Jorge Newberry, the national airport.  An interesting note, in our less than 12 hours in BsAs, we learned about Remis (pre-pay taxes), Mike went to a cueva to change money, and while eating dinner in a diner, we learned our first Argentinaism - for strawberry icecream, instead of being "fresa" in Argentina, it's "frutilla."  Then we were off to Ushuaia, the southernmost town in the world.
This is a lovely photo of ground-dwelling Tierra del Fuego Orchids.  There are several kinds that grow there, but we only saw this one.   It also shows rotting wood, very unlike our Pacific NW forests with lush nurse logs.  Dead wood can hang around for years, rotting very very slowly.  The cap of dirt is also very thin, because of the slow rate of decomposition in the cold climate.  This was on a 9k hike we did in the Tierra del Fuego National Park, about 10k outside of Ushuaia.  We got taken there & picked up by taxi, on a day that multiple cruise boats were coming into port.  We figured it was a good day to be in the woods, and it was.  Another ?? we first saw in TdF was this:  pan de indio.  We had no idea what it was, but we saw it everywhere hanging on trees - which it turns out were all Notofagus or Southern Beech.  Pan de Indio is an edible fungus and very protein-rich.  After we figured out what it was, we ate some (about a week after this).  It's spongey and crunchy and pretty flavor-less.  It was a staple in the diet of the canoe-dwelling Native Americans before the Europeans came. 

 The path we took through the park paralleled the Beagle Channel.  This was about half-way in, at a lovely stopping spot, where a very nice Argentinan couple took our photo and shared their Mate with us.  Mate is a tea made from Hierbamate which is drunk everywhere in Argentina in special cups with straws that strain the tea leaves.  It's common to see folks carrying around thermoses full of hot water and mate cups, and they share.  In our 6 weeks of travel, someone must have offered us to try their mate at least once a week.  Mate with sugar, bitter mate, cold water mate, you name it.  Mike, Maeve and I all tried it.  It was bitter.
You can see the Beagle Channel and Chile.  The other side of the chanel is Chile, and at that latitude, the snow line was at 600 M.  These mountains are the tail end of the Andes as they dip into the sea.  You can see that we're wearing jackets and caps, even though it's July 11, high summer.

Another day we did a hike up a ski slope towards Glaciar Martial, which you can see behind Maeve.  It's a great hike to the glaciar, but we didn't go all the way up, stopping to play on a snow field well below the glaciar, where we also got snowed on a little bit. Another lovely summer day. We also saw skiiers making their way up a snow field to later ski down.   This glacier provides Ushuaia with drinking water.  

One day, we took a boat trip to Estancia Haberton.  This is a view of Ushuaia, with the mountains and glaciars in the background.  It had snowed at higher elevations (over 600M) overnight and you can see the snow line.  Estancias are plantations, and Haberton was one of the first ones in the Ushuaia area, founded by an English family who had a long history of studying the Canoerers who lived there. The Estancia is no longer active in sheep farming or other agricultural activity, and is run as a museum.  The trip out was through the Beagle Chanel to the East, where we saw islands with rock cormerants and this colony of sea lions.

Part of Haberton is an island that's now a private nature preserve with lots of penguins.  In our trip, we saw the island from our big catamaran, then took zodiacs from Haberton to beach on the island and walk around.  This was AMAZING!  There were over 10,000 Magellanic penguins in the colony.  They were everywhere on the beach, in their burrows, and their babies were molting into adult swim plumage.  There were also 2 Emperor penguins on the island - our guide wasn't sure, because it's only the second year Emperors have been there and it's far north for their range, but it's possible they're checking it out to build a larger colony in the future.  They were huge comparted to the little Magellanic penguins.  There was also a small colony (about 100) Gentu penguins on the island.
On the bus ride back to Ushuaia, we saw some special Patagonian trees, nicely shaped by the wind, as well as lots of beaver damage.  Someone had the great idea to release Canadian beavers in Tierra del Fuego as a commerial venture.  It didn't work well, because although it's cold there, it's not as cold as Canada in winter, so the beavers' pelts weren't lush.  There were not natural predadors, and now they're a menace.  We saw beaver damage in both Chilean and Argentinian Tierra del Fuego, and there are fears they're moving into the mainland.

From Ushaia, we took a boat around Cape Horn to Chile.  In the port, we saw this wonderful mural, which is a comment on the Falkland Islands War.   Note:  Mike thinks this sign is a comment on Francis Drake, when he went pirating along the Beagle Channel.  But, there were various other signs about the Falklands.  The sign says:  "The mooring of English pirate boats is prohibited." Argentinian maps all include both part of Antartica, which Argentina claims and the Islas Malvinas, or Falkland Islands. 

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Iguazu Falls, April 1-6, 2015

I'm catching up on blogging.  I now have consistent Internet and a computer that doesn't crash, so I'm going to post going backwards for a bit, starting with our Iguazu trip a month ago and then posting from our travels in Tierra del Fuego and Patagonia in January and February.

Over Easter Break we went to Iguazu Falls with our friends from Seattle, Mark and Vanessa.  It's on the must-see list for Argentina and Brazil, and was totally amazing.
Here we all are at the Garganta del Diablo (Devil's Throat) on the Argentinean side.  This is the biggest fall of the many on the Rio Iguazu.  The spray was amazing.  There were tons of rainbows, and swallows diving behind the falls to their nests.   This is where we went first, and it was mighty impressive.  We were there on a holiday weekend, and the park was packed: the walkways right near the viewpoints were pretty busy, and the Brazil side was a crush to get to the falls walkway.  Other than than, we didn't find it too crowded.  It helped that we visited the parks for 3 days (2 Argentina, 1 Brazil).

Every day, we saw tons of these cute little critters, called Coatis.   This one was next to the rail road track, part of a group we saw while waiting at the train station for Garganta del Diablo.  They've got a long snout, racoon-like tail, and are adorable.  I took tons of photos the first day.  Later, we were trying to eat a snack, and the coatis came running.  Neither the coatis nor we got a snack there.  At a snack bar, there was a park employee with a net running around netting and scaring coatis to keep them from the tourists.  Argentina had coati-proof trash cans.  Brazil didn't, and the coatis climbed up and in the trash.  They were a total menace.  There's a nice short story by Horacio Quiroga about coatis that's also worth reading (English, Spanish). 

This is in front of Garganta del Diablo, looking downstream.  Lots of spray.

In addition to coatis, we saw other wildlife.  There are big cats in the park, but they stay far from the hordes of tourists.  We saw some birds, and a band of capuchin monkeys the last day which was amazing, but what there was lots of was butterflies.  The kids became experts at having them land on them, and at one point both Maeve and Silas had 3 or 4 on their arms.  Many were white, black and orange, and there is a very large blue one, but it was shy.  There are also swarms of yellow butterflies that apparently live only 1 day in butterfly form, mate, lay eggs, and they're done.   

Another view of some of the falls, Argentina side.  The rainbows were amazing.  Really, the falls just go on and on along 3km of river, and there are several walkways on the Argentina side to see parts of them.

Silas didn't much like getting wet.  We put on jackets before getting close on the walkways, but there was a lot of spray and a lot of wind.  This was on the Brazil side, where you're at the foot of Garganta de Diablo.

On the Brazil side, we did a boat excursion/walk on the upper Iguazu.  This is the river between the dam and the falls. The boat ride was awesome, and the short walk through the woods to a lake was hot.  We were glad we weren't there in summer.  Silas napped in the boat on the way back while we checked out the scenery.

Our second day on the Argentina side, we walked the Sendero Macuco to this waterfall, with a pool at the bottom where you can swim.  We went swimming and Mark and Vanessa took pictures.  We got there early and it was deserted, but by the time we left there were several other groups.   The water was chilly.

At the end of the day, we did another boat ride on the Argentina side in the eddies and side streams, to the side of Garganta del Diablo but before the other really big falls.  The boat ride was nothing special, but on the way back to the train station, we saw a group of Capuchin monkeys playing by the side of the trail.  They were just hanging out, checking out the tourists.  We watched them for at least 15 minutes.  That was a highlight!

Just as a side note, we also visited the bird sanctuary outside the park on the Brazil side, full of colorful tropical birds.  We also went to the Hito Tres Fronteras, which is a small obelisk where the Rio Iguazu meets the Rio Parana, and you can see matching obelisks in Paraguay and Brazil (painted in their national colors) from Argentina. And we went to the Aripuca, a tourist complex built around a massive replica of a Guarani animal trap.  But about the best thing for the kids was the hotel pool...  always a joy to swim.

Tuesday, May 05, 2015


On the fast Buquebus ferry from BsAs to Montevideo.  We did a package, ferry + hotel, and ended up in business class.  This was way cool - lots of space and on the way back, free ice water, champagne, and cookies!  The kids enjoyed their first first-class experience.  This was one of the 2 coolest things about the trip.
Plaza Independencia, with a statue of Artigas, the Uruguayan national hero.  His mausoleum is below the statue, and was open on May Day, complete with 2 soldiers in traditional uniform that changed on the hour - very cool.  The tall building is Palacio Salvo, which was the tallest building in South America when it was built.  The old and new presidential buildings are also on this plaza, as is one gate, the lone remnant from Montevideo's walled colonial past.

Our first day in Montevideo was May Day, an international holiday and about everything was closed.  So we walked around downtown and on the river front promenade.  The old town is on a peninsula in the Rio de la Plata, so there's a very nice river-side walk, with many playgrounds, going kilometers out of town to the good beaches.  We didn't walk quite that far, as there was an indoor pool waiting in our hotel and we needed to get back to swim.

On day 2, it was supposed to rain all day, so in the earlyAM we went swimming, and then took a tour of the Teatro Solis, built in the early 20th century for a private company but now the home of the national orchestra & theater, with very cheap tickets, about $6USD.  The tour was neat, especially the acting interludes, when students from the national theater school interrupted the tour with drama, loosely based on the life of Delfina Agustini, an Uruguayan poet to who was tragically murdered by her ex-husband.  I kid you not about the melodrama, both in her life and by the actors.   Silas was rapt.

The theater itself was an Italianate U and came with more acting.  The actress was in love with her balcony and spouted doggerel.  It was hilarious, but for some reason, none of the folks in the English-language tour were laughing.  Silas enjoyed her rhymes. 

 Silas got tired of listening and started taking pictures, including this selfie.
After the theater, we got very very wet walking to a market and the carnival museum. Then we went swimming again at the hotel (the second best thing about Montevideo), and out for dinner at another market, the MAM (Montevideo Agriculture Market), in a restored old market building near the national Legislature.  The last morning before taking our boat back, we went to the huge Sunday morning street market.  It was gigantic and full of fish, fruits and vegetables, tourist stuff, antiques, you name it.  It was very interesting until I realized my wallet was stolen.   That put a damper on things as we needed to call in about my credit cards, which Mike did while waiting for the ferry.

In sum, Montevideo has some sights, nothing earth-shattering and it's generally just a normal small capital city for a country of around 2 million people.  I wouldn't recommend going there on a holiday when everyone leaves town, or carrying your wallet in your backpack.  We went to Colonia del Sacramento last week with my mom, also in Uruguay, and I'd recommend that day trip/weekend first.  It was a small town that still retained a lot of its interesting colonial center.