Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Back to Buenos Aires and Final Thoughts on our South America trip

We returned to Buenos Aires Friday afternoon. Saturday we ventured out to a part of Buenos Aires called Caminito, in the La Boca neighborhood. It is wildly colorful. Many years ago when Italian immigrants moved to Buenos Aires to work in the shipyards they lived in a poor section of the city. Many of the homes and buildings were made of tin. To spice up their living environment they brought home left over paint from their work at the shipyards and painted their homes and buildings with a real mish mash of bright vivid paints. Not only is the area colorful and vibrant, they also have numerous cartoonish looking figures on many of their balconies. There is a lot of activity with many places to eat and tango dancing is very present. We also went to San Telmo which is another section of Buenos Aires.

Two weeks previously when we first arrived in Buenos Aires we spent the afternoon at Cementerio de la Recoleta. This cemetery was built in 1882 and is quite ornate. It is similar to the famous Pere Lachaise in Paris which we have also visited.

Sunday, our final day in Buenos Aires we decided to take in a polo match. There are three sports the Argentineans seem to be passionate about - polo, soccer, and car racing, and they have some of the best polo players in the world. The match was a lot of fun even though we really did not have a clue about how the game is played or the rules.

Click below to view the final set of photos!

Buenos Aires

As we sat on the American Airlines 777 in 1st class on our flight back to Miami and Dallas we reflected back on our last three weeks.  (Have to love using reward miles for a trip!)   Peru was awesome, especially Machu Picchu and the small towns of the Sacred Valley. The people were warm, friendly, and helpful. The big surprise was the food. We had some really wonderful meals.

The mountains of Patagonia were truly beautiful. We were warned the weather could be volatile and that turned out to be true. I really think there is enough wind in Patagonia to light up the entire country of America. Nevertheless, the mountains in the Fitz Roy area and down in Torres del Paine in Chile are majestic.

Speaking of America, every time Sara and I go on a trip to another country it makes us realize what a wonderful country we live in. We often take for granted some of the small things like the quality of the water we get out of our faucets. We love and enjoy seeing different parts of the world and meeting people from other countries but we always look forward to returning home.

We hope you enjoyed our comments and pictures from our South American adventure.  What's next? Probably Thailand, Cambodia, and Burma.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Torres del Paine - Wild Patagonia

As I sit on the plane flying back from El Calafate I reflect back on our days in Torres del Paine.  We arrived there a bit on the nervous side, due to the lack of signage, gravel roads and horrendous weather.  After checking into the high dollar hotel everything smoothed out.

The next day (Tuesday 22nd) the weather was much better, but still very windy.  We spent the day driving through the park, and exploring the 62 kilometers of roads.  Torres del Paine is a very big Chilean National park.  It is very different than American National parks.  There are no services like gas stations or food stores and all the roads are gravel.  There are three or four hotels, campsites and a few hostels which are basic buildings for shelter, with no heat.  All electricity has to be generated, and all food and drinks brought in from the nearest town, about 100 miles away.  This is why it is called 'Wild Patagonia!'  The park is beautiful, with turquoise colored lanes and rugged mountains. 

There are a good number of llama looking animals called guanaco roaming wild in the park.  They have a face that reminded me of Jar Jar Binks from Star Wars.  There are also a number of interesting birds, and puma roam the park.  The puma is mostly nocturnal, and unfortunately we didn't see any.

The next morning Sara decided she would investigate a horse back ride.  So off we went to see the Cabarullos.  She had a delightful ride in the mountains with Alvaro her guide, who was full of information about the park and wildlife.

The rest of the day we spent exploring the park taking pictures and moving on Hosteria Pehoe, our last night  and hotel.  The hotel is the oldest hotel in the park and is actually on a small island on Pehoe lake, which is a beautiful turquoise color.  We walked across the 100 meter footbridge to get to the hotel, which has fantastic views of the spires of Torres del Paine.  We had a lovely meal that evening, and then off to bed since I had to get up at 5:15am for sunrise!

The next morning I got up and went to the spot I had picked shot my morning photos.  The sky to the east was red, which I was hoping would turn the light over Torres del Pain a pink color.  Unfortunately there were only small bits of pink, not the dramatic colors I had hoped for.

Patagonia - Torres del Paine

We spent the rest of the day crossing back into Argentina and driving back to El Calafate.  A long tiring drive of about 400 km, over 100 km on gravel.  Patagonia is very large and unpopulated, and we didn't  pass through any towns, and only saw the occasional house.  Luckily we had managed to buy a few gallons of gas at our first hotel, otherwise we would have been stranded in the middle of now where! 

To celebrate Thanksgiving we had a meal at a Parrilla in El Calafate, a traditional Patagonia grill.  We had massive amounts of lamb and beef, and left totally stuffed in normal Thanksgiving tradition.

Friday we flew to Buenos Aires, and now have just one more day to relax and explore before we fly home.


Monday, November 22, 2010

Patagonia - Where the Wind Never Stops Blowing

Now for the last phase of our trip. On Monday 15th we flew from Buenos Aires to El Calafate, Argentina, a small town where most people start their Patagonian adventures. We picked up our car and drove north about two hours to El Chalten a very small mountain town just below Mount Fitz Roy. The town is primarily full of backpackers, trekkers and climbers. We had a nice room at the Condor De Los Andes hostal and the next morning started our preparation for the trek to a camp at the base of Mount Fitz Roy.
We had brought all the backpacking equipment we needed from home for our four night, five day trek. The real problem started when we finished loading our packs and weighed them using our small digital travel scale. John had 50 pounds and Sara 40 pounds, with 20 pounds being camera gear – big mistake! Nevertheless, off we went and struggled through the three and a half hour hike to base camp. Fortunately the altitude was only a little over 3,000 feet, and the path wasn’t too steep. The weather was lovely, and the views magnificent.

The campsite was in a forested area which provided some protection from the wind, rain and snow; yes we got a little snow! The winds were relentless. They blew constantly, day and night, gusting up to 30-40 mph. It was very cold, low 40’s during the day, and 30’s at night, I’m not sure what the temperature was with the wind chill factor. Obviously the weather was less than ideal and Fitz Roy was often obscured by clouds. The only way to stay warm was in our sleeping bags, hence a lot of tent time! I don’t know how we could have slept at night without ear plugs. After five days of constant wind Sara and I both started to feel a little crazy from the constant roaring sound, and I swear my ears are still ringing.

Photography was less than ideal, but I did get some shots When the weather cleared Mt Fitz Roy and the surrounding mountains and glaciers were magnificent. Saturday morning we packed up and headed down the mountain, still in the relentless rain and wind! After a hot meal we drove back to El Calafate. We toyed with the idea of camping that night, but it was an easy decision to get a nice hotel room.

Click below to view the photos!
Patagonia - Fitz Roy Trek

Sunday morning we prepared for our drive to Chile and the Torres del Paine National Park. As we were getting gas we noticed one of the tires was low on air, and then Sara noticed a nail in the tire. Immediately I thought ‘Oh boy, here we go’, we are in a foreign country where we barely understand any conversation, and it is Sunday in a small town. The guy at the gas station gave us directions to a tire repair place, of which we understood about three words. By pure luck we found the shop, with a very helpful Argentinean customer who understood enough English to help us communicate our problem to the repair man. Forty-five minutes later and at a cost of 20 pesos (about five dollars), we were back on the road!

The journey to Torres Del Paine and Chile was about a six hour drive. We had expected such a large National park to be well sign posted, however that was not the case. By some miracle, and use of our global compass (purchased especially for the trip south of the equator) we made the correct turn on to the gravel road and crossed into Chile. I guess that GPS I thought about bringing would have been a good thing. Maybe this blog should be titled Gringos lost in Patagonia!

We drove about 80 km on the gravel roads and finally got close to the park. The mountain range was getting closer and more spectacular. We noticed the winds were extremely strong and it was very cold. Just outside the park was a Refugio, which is a very basic hostel. We stopped, thinking we would camp there. When we asked the girl about camping she looked at us like what fool would want to put up a tent in this wind and cold. She mentioned the option of staying in the unheated bunk rooms for 15,000 Chilean pesos per person or the individual heated rooms for 30,000 per person. (About 60 dollars each.) Easy decision! The food was good, the room basic but dry and warm, and we weren’t in the tent. Yahoo!

This morning, (Monday) we entered the park, along with several coach loads of backpackers, planning on hiking the five to ten day circuit around the park. The weather conditions had deteriorated to driving rain and gale force winds, and we were nervous because we had planned on camping two more nights before our next hotel reservation on Wednesday. We drove on more gravel roads to Las Torres Hotel which we had decided against during our original planning because it is about $300 a night. When we got to the hotel we sat in the car and debated if we should try to get one or two nights. As we got out of the car the wind and rain were so strong it almost knocked us over. We battled our way to the entrance, and at the front desk Sara looked at me and said “Do you think we should ask how much?”, without hesitation I immediately said ‘NO!” So thanks to the credit card we have two nights in a beautiful hotel with a fabulous view of the mountains. Well we think a fabulous view, because it is cloud covered and obscured at the moment.

So for the next few days we are warm, safe, dry and happy!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Last Few Days in Peru

We got up early Wednesday (4:30am) for our second visit to Machu Picchu.  We were really fortunate with the weather, beautiful clear skies and quite warm.  We spent another five hours taking photos and exploring and then took the bus back to town for lunch.  The ruins are amazingly well preserved and it is easy to imagine people living in the city.  They must have been very fit and nimble because it is a bit hazardous climbing the stone stairways!

Wednesday afternoon we took the train back to Ollataytamba and then a taxi to Pisac, a lovely little quaint town in the Sacred Valley. We stayed at Pisac Inn, which is right on tthe town square, excellent accomodation, and exceptional food. When we got up Thursday the entire town square had been converted into a huge market. We spent the rest of the morning perusing the market buying alpaca clothing, tapestries and some gorgeous silver jewelry. Everything was hand made by local Andean craft people in the surrounding mountains.

Thursday afternoon we took a taxi back to Cusco, a pretty big city at 3,400 meters (11,160 feet). Fortunately we had already been at 7-9,000 feet in the Sacred valley and Machu Picchu so the altitude was a little easier to handle. We had been given a tip from one of the girls at Pisac Inn to go to a restaurant called Chi Cha. It was started by the number one rated chef in Peru. We did find it and the food was superb. John selected a dish that was spicier and hotter than he normally eats, and is still paying the price! After dinner we wandered around the city square and dodged the many vendors trying to sell hats, sweaters and engraved gourds. (We had plenty of these already.) There were also many offers for massages which we also managed to avoid!

Friday we flew to Lima and after a quick rest decided to venture out. Sara likes Ceviche, and we had received a tip from a guest in Pisac for a restaurant. Sometimes these tips are the best; in this case we should have stayed in the hotel! Traffic in Lima is a disaster and after a death defying hour of dodging collisions, and being poisoned by car fumes we arrived at Punta Azul - Closed! A waiter there gave us a tip for another restaurant which was just fine, but probably not worth the assault on our nerves to get there! It took us about an hour and a half to get back, and John sitting in the front seat said it was far worse up close! Have to say Lima is not our favorite city, however we loved Peru!

We are currently in Buenos Aires, having spent a lovely day with a KPMG colleague of Sara´s. Pilar was kind enough to spend all afternoon showing us around the city, and helping us translate the food menus. We had a fabulous steak, which we would never have ordered correctly without help!

Click here for Photos!

Tomorrow we fly to El Calafante, and then drive to El Chaltan for the start of our two weeks in Patagonia. We will be hiking and camping for almost a week, and are really looking forward to being in the mountains.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Welcome to Peru

Well I have to say my wonderful wife Sara must have been a tour director in a former life.  The travel and accomodation arrangements she made are proving to be awesome.  We started out with a first class flight to Miami, then a business class flight to Peru, all on award miles.  The business class is the first time I've ever been able to make my seat go flat and sleep.

The next morning we flew to Cusco.  The view from the airplane showed lots of beautiful mountains, many with snow covered tops.  Getting of the airplane at Cusco we immediately noticed we were in a city over 11,000 feet, as it was hard to breath.

We were picked up by our driver who worked for our hotel in Ollantaytanba.  It was about a two hour drive to the hotel., which is in the Sacred valley.   We wanted to stay in Ollantaytanba  instead of Cusco because it is lower in altitude and an easier train ride the next day.

We roamed the town in the afternoon and I was able to photogrrahy some of the local people.  The hotel Sara selected was perfect.  The food was fantastic, and the Coca leaf tea and Pisco Sours finished the day off perfectly. 

Today we were up very early for the 7am train to Aguas Callientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu.  The hotel was right next to the train station, so we walked out of breakfast and onto the train.  By pure luck we had the best seats on the train, the only ones with a front view out of the train. 

We spent an amazing five hours at Machu Picchu, it is hard to describe the sights and the feelings they created.  It is an amazingly peaceful area, full of inspiring architecture and mountain backdrops.  Walking around is less peaceful as you are climbing up steep rock stairways at around 8,000 feet. 

Tomorrow we go back for sunrise, and another five hours of exploring.  Then back on train to Ollantaytambo, and a taxi to Pisac.  We love the little towns here, it reminds us a bit of Nepal.  Click on this link to view the photos:  Welcome to Peru

Remember to go to the blog to see all the posts:  http://johnandsarastanford.blogspot.com/

More in a few days, time for an early night!



Saturday, November 6, 2010

South America 2011

This years adventure is a three week trip to South America.  To celebrate our 15 year wedding anniversary we decided to head back to the mountains - the Andes.  We leave tomorrow (November 7th.)  We'll spend a week in Peru, visiting Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley, followed by two weeks in Patagonia, the southernmost region of South American covering both Argentina and Chile.

We'll be staying in hotels and hostels in Peru, and then mostly hiking and camping in Patagonia.  As usual there has been months of preparation and we shall be glad to get on the plane for a rest!

We're looking forward to some great experiences and photographic opportunities.

More later

Sara and John