Day 186: Goodbye South America

I’ll give you a minute to recover from realizing there is a new blog post. It’s been quite a while! 
As we put South America in our rearview mirror, it seemed like a good time to write out some thoughts and experiences on our travels so far. South America was… just awesome. I had some doubts, never having been there, about safety and cleanliness and the possibility of just being miserable or uncomfortable in a culture that seemed a little scary and a language of which I knew nada. And we had committed to a long time, 97 days down there. I had bad visions of us being scared and not being able to eat or something, and regretting committing to such a long time. And there were some uncomfortable times, yes, but my fears were way wrong – we loved it!
97 days of South America in a nutshell: Peru, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Argentina again, Chile again, Argentina again, Bolivia, Brazil. We tried to focus on natural wonders, hiking, and camping, but we also saw a lot of cities and towns and culture. Instead of just describing what we did, I’d like to hit some highs and lows:

Things we loved about South America:

1) Natural Wonders: we spent the summer seeing some of the most beautiful things the US has in 26 National Parks. I wasn’t sure how South America would compare. It turned out to be more of the same amazement we felt from the US. The mountains, lakes, rivers, waterfalls, volcanoes, glaciers, beaches… I have hundreds of great pictures to sort through and publish. This planet just has some mind-boggling natural things, and I think our amazement will continue as we fly west and continue seeking out natural wonders. If you follow us on Facebook or Instagram you might have seen these, but check out some views: 

2) People: we met so many great people. A lot were traveling like us, and a lot were locals also. For example, Cicilia, who owned the hostel where we stayed in Puerto Williams (“Beyond the end of the world”), welcomed us at midnight with hugs and kisses, got us a huge platter of king crab the next day, washed our clothes, and gave our kids parting gifts, expecting nothing in return. Of course, at times we were scammed by cab drivers and it seems everyone wants to try to overcharge you for whatever reason they can, but we had so many good interactions with people, and likely made some lifelong friends!

Gena is on this “World School” Facebook group, and came in contact with a family in Chile. They had a small bed-and-breakfast that they had recently started, and we decided to go stay there a couple of days. It was so cool, two families had bought an existing business and were working hard to make it even better, expanding capacity, developing a gastronomic repertoire, and improving the lands and surrounding areas. Louise, Ryan, Carla, and Donnie have such a cool place.  Our kids got to hang out with their kids, making boats, playing games, exploring, and generally having fun!  Their vision and goals echoed a lot of ours – having their own space, becoming self-sufficient as much as reasonably possible, interacting with their guests… it just seems so appealing! 

We met Ben, Brit, and Amy at a cool distillery in Puerto Natales “the southernmost distillery in the world” – Last Hope Distilling. The distillery was working with a travel channel show “Booze Traveller” and we got filmed – maybe we’ll be in an episode! Anyways, we met our new Aussie friends and got along great, and not only because the girls had great fun with our kids! We were on similar itineraries – they were planning to do the W a few days behind us, and heading south after, like us. We met up the next day, too. And then we ran into them like 2 weeks later in Tierra del Fuego National Park! And then again in Ushuaia! It was fun to hear how their hike was similar to ours, and how it was different. They were heading to Antarctica the next day. I hope we see them again some day!

We met a lot of other great people too. Instagram and Facebook make it pretty easy to keep in contact, thankfully. Now if we could only keep our stuff up to date!

3) Animals! So many different and beautiful birds. Llamas, alpacas, deer, guanacos, and vicuñas. Huge rabbits that were more like kangaroos. Squabbits. A bobcat. Lots of wild horses and cats. Crazy caterpillars. Monkeys! And so many dogs. 

At this point I’ve got to say something more about dogs. If you have been to South America, you might be familiar with the dogs. They are everywhere, almost. It sounds scary, wild dogs roaming the streets, but it’s really not. They know if they are bad to humans they won’t live long – a dog is more likely to get food by being nice. Not that you shouldn’t always be ready to punch them in the nose in case they turn bad on you, but it never happened to us.  Sometimes they even follow you around and become part of your pack. 

We took a small hike near a little fishing village in Chile called Tomé, and we found ourselves with a dog friend. He walked with us for a couple minutes and soon was joined by several more! For about 2 hours, we had a 6-dog escort. Of course the kids named them – Boss Dog, White Foot, Flower-Roller, etc. The dogs knew the trail, which was very helpful at times! Once we realized they weren’t going to gang up on us and attack, it was great fun to watch them interact. Between us and them, a pack of 10 is strong! When we got in our car and said our goodbyes, they walked off to presumably follow someone else around. We didn’t have any food to give, and they didn’t seem to mind. I thought maybe we had entered into an unspoken social contract where we would feed them or they would turn on us, but these guys were cool. 

In Calafate, we again found ourselves with 3-4 dogs in our pack. But this was a more urban environment – we soon found them to be a bit too protective of our posse – barking at people we were walking past, nipping the legs of a person biking by us, and being generally mean to people/cars/other dogs trying to penetrate our perimeter. We had to duck into a coffee shop and let the pack dissolve. As we walked through the town throughout the day, we would see our former pack-mates, and they would look at us like “man, where did you go? We could have taken over this town!”

We classified dogs as “made” or “not-made”. Made dogs have collars and usually a house and an owner (presumably). Not-made dogs are free agents, wild, homeless, and not as territorial. Made dogs can be mean, especially protecting their yards/houses. Not-made dogs are, we speculated, aspiring to earn a collar and home from a human impressed with their attributes, so they try to impress, usually. 

4) Food: With plenty of exceptions, we had amazing food these past 3 months. Most of it was meat. The best is Asado in Argentina. Everyone knows Argintinean meat is supposed to be really good, and immediately after arriving in Buenos Aires I was searching for steak reastaurants within walking distance (like, a dozen!). We picked the “best”, and it was pretty great. Certainly cheaper than the US as well. I was pretty happy, and then it got better. 

We stayed in a hostel that seemed to have some permanent residents. We made friends, we shared wine (so cheap there BTW), we tried to learn some Spanish. The second or third day, they told us they were going to do an Asado, do we want to join in? Yes! I think this was also happening the night we had arrived, but we were exhausted that night and walked by the party to try and sleep. They were crazy loud until maybe 3 or 4AM and made us question our choice in lodging, but it didn’t really happen again. 

Anyways, “the guys” and I went to the store to buy meat. The grill master (“asador”) was a rat-looking chain smoking guy who spoke zero English and seemed by his attitude to seriously dislike us. I think everyone else stood up for us, at least that’s what was happening in my head, I didn’t understand basically any of the conversations. So rat-guy talks to the butcher back and forth a few times, and the butcher starts packing up meat. A big flank steak. Some other large cut of beef. A dozen mixed sausages. Two whole chickens. I’m staring at this ribeye behind the glass, drooling, and when rat-guy seems done, I somehow convey to the butcher I want 3 of those ribeyes. So we had 6kg of meat (13lbs+), and my ribeyes. It seemed absurd, we were maybe 6 people plus my 2 kids. I didn’t know if they expected me to pay a third or what – at the register, rat-guy pulls out a wad of bills in denominations above which I’ve seen yet in Argentina, and pays for all the meat. I pay for my ribeyes. No one asks me for anything else. Also, no sides – no potatoes, no corn, no salad makings. Only meat. Let’s do this!

We wait a couple hours before cooking, letting the meat come to room temp and rat-guy liberally applies salt. As we drink wine and hang out, people playing with our kids, playing guitar and singing together, just generally having a good time, rat-guy starts the fire and one of the two guys who spoke some English tries to explain Asado to me. 

Sometimes they consult rat-guy, and as the details are translated rat-guy looks at me with an air of pride. Asado is meat – beef and/or pork (later I learn it can also be lamb, regionally). Coals are heaped on the side of the grill, in a little cage, and as needed they are pulled over the grill (parilla, made of brick) in a thin layer under the meat. The meat is on a rack which can be moved up and down, and the rack has V-channels to allow the melting fat to drain away from the coals – smoke from burning fat gives an undesirable taste. Also, the only seasoning for Asado is salt. “Solo sal” rat-guy croaks out in his raspy voice, and smiles like he’s telling me his kid was elected president or something. What about the chicken? I ask. Well, that’s not really Asado, but people like chicken, so whatever. 

The cooking goes on for hours. The coals are spread so thin and scattered, they heat is so low I can put my hand on the grill. Maybe we could just put the meat in the sun and it would cook faster. I’m getting impatient. The kids are hungry. We don’t eat until around midnight. Also, we learn the Asado is for someone’s birthday, and there are 12 people coming. Now the meat quantities make sense at least. 

Finally, the meat is done. We sit at a huge square made of tables, people we don’t know speaking a language we don’t understand. 
I take our ribeyes, and – I’m not sure how to convey this: it was amazing. Beyond amazing. Possibly the best meat I’ve had in my life. I felt the course of my life change in that moment. I was convinced rat-guy was an actual magician. How could it be so good?! Gena said it was the best thing she’s ever eaten, and she literally cried. There was more meat left from the other cuts, and our friends gave us bites. Each was better than the last. I was floored. I’m sure the whole experience was not overly influenced by the fact that it was past midnight and we had been drinking wine while hungry for the past couple hours. In fact the kids agreed, it was magical and amazing. The flavors! It was tender, it was salty but not too much, it had an amazing grill-smoke flavor. My mouth told me “this is what I’ve been asking for the whole time!”

We had other great food, but Asado has a special place in my heart. A hostel where we stayed in El Chaltèn had an outside grill we could use, and I took my first two shots at doing it myself. First one was good, but too salty and not the kind of cut we like best. It’s hard to buy meat in a different language. The second attempt was okay, but not quite there. I think I’m going to build a brick parilla in our backyard. More experimentation is needed!

Big degression there. Where was I? 

Things we didn’t like so much about South America:

Not being able to speak Spanish. 

We knew this would be a challenge. I knew, and I still didn’t get beyond lesson 3 in Coffee Talk Espanol. By the end of our time I could listen to what someone was saying and maybe get enough to understand the gist. But that depends on context clues, and I realized I was really just guessing at what I thought they should be saying. Like “are you ready to order?” or “I would like you to pay more for this”. When someone at a hotel spits a stream of words at you, and you catch “room” and “clean” with a question-like intonation, you might guess she’s saying “if you would like your room cleaned, we can do that but you need to leave us they key”. Or when the flight attendant with the drink cart says a couple gibberish phrases, it’s probably “what can I get you to drink?” Without those context clues, it becomes more difficult to understand/guess. 

Gena and I were standing outside our hotel in Cusco super early one morning (like 3:45!) waiting for our bus to pick us up and take us to our Rainbow Mountain hike (amazing BTW). Apparently a big tour group of school kids came in on a 4AM flight and was staying at the same place, because about 30 kids were also in the street, yelling and blaring horrible, terrible music (yeah – get off my lawn!). Eventually they woke someone up who worked at the hotel, and got let inside, leaving Gena and I by ourselves out on the street. It was finally quiet. Well, then an older gentlemen walked down the street, came up to us, and started yelling. I have no idea why. He pointed at the door, I guess he wanted us to go back inside the hotel. He didn’t seem angry, he seemed more concerned, but quite adamant. We were waiting for our bus, and needed to see it if it passed, so “no gracias,” we didn’t want to go back inside. He kept at it, seemingly insisting we needed to go in and staying outside was an obvious forfeiture of our safety and maybe our lives, he probably said. Nope, we are staying out. Finally he turned and left, giving the “aw, forget it” hand wave as he left us. In about 5 minutes, maybe exactly 4AM, we heard an unusual amount of barking. Then we realized – at 4AM is the daily dog cleansing, when the dogs run through the city and viciously kill and eat any humans dumb enough to not be inside their homes. Or hotels. The man was just trying to warn us, to save our lives in fact. Luckily our bus came soon after 4, and we survived. 

So not speaking (or understanding) Spanish was really a shame and we missed out on a lot of things, although maybe it helped with our imaginations a bit. 

Not drinking the water 

Amazingly, in some places where we hiked, we could drink water directly from streams and rivers and lakes. But in most South American countries, you can’t drink the tap water because of the risk of getting sick. Luckily, 1/4 of us didn’t get sick at all, and our illnesses weren’t too severe really. 

But buying water all the time is dumb. I bought a steripen before we left, on sale during our national park tour, which basically makes clear but contaminated water okay to drink. When I tried to test it a day or two before leaving, however, it turned out to be DOA. We have chemical tabs for backup/emergency, but no one likes that and it takes hours. So we were generally stuck buying a lot of water. 

We took a “cruise” for 34hrs between Puerto Arenas to Puerto Willams. It took us from southern Patagonia to the extreme southern Patagonia, the very end of the continent, through straits and fjords and next to glaciers and among swimming penguins and dolphins and strange birds. It was actually a cargo ship with a couple rooms that had nice seats that you could sleep in. The price wasn’t horrible, and they fed us. What no one told us, though, is that they wouldn’t give us water. And there was nowhere to buy anything. At meals we got maybe 8oz of a Tang-like beverage, and “tea service” (hot water) was usually available. If you know me, you might know that I’m a water fiend. I want to drink a lot of water all the time, and being stuck on a boat for 34 hours with none got me feeling claustrophobic and trapped. We resorted to drinking water from the sink in the bathroom. Yes, bathroom water, coming probably from a very old tank, on a boat. It tasted terrible. But we didn’t get sick and we didn’t die of dehydration. 

So many other times we woke up thirsty and desperate, unable to get water for hours. That’s my kind of hell! Lesson learned – test your steripen with plenty of time to get a replacement. Always take the opportunity to buy a bottle of water. 

The obvious collusion by hospitality businesses to keep prices high 

It was rampant everywhere, and often very obvious. 5 companies offer bus service from Calafate to Chaltén. Prices are identical, and double what they were a few years ago according to Lonely Planet. Brokers in tourism towns offer the same tours, operated by the same tour operators, for the same prices. Taxi drivers outside the airport quote rates that are double or triple what they “should be”, and they stick together. Uber helped a few times, and we got ripped off a few times. Another case where speaking the language would have helped. 

Lights-on required, no lights-on warnings on cars

In Chile in particular, they have a frustrating law that says your lights need to be on when driving. I get that, for safety reasons. The problem is the rental cars (or the cheapo one we had at least) doesn’t turn off the lights automatically when you turn the car off. It doesn’t even ding or give any kind of warning. I wasn’t used to this, my car at home being smarter than me and just taking care of this stuff by itself. 

The first time I left the lights on and came back to a dead battery, we were somewhere in the middle of Chile, with my mom, and just had a huge lunch right off the highway. It was an interesting place, in the middle of a very small community, but drawing a huge crowd of people driving by on the main Chilean auto-artery. And rightfully so, the portions were huge (and delicious), we could have ordered 2 meals for the 5 of us. Anyways, we come out and the car is totally dead. A guy directing the parking situation comes over and talks to us. “Hey did you gringoes leave your lights on like dummy tourists?” He probably said. “I’ll help you guys by pushing the car and you can pop the clutch!” we certainly thought he said, as he helped push the car out of the space and down the road heading away from the restaurant. Then, as we planned to pop-start the car, he stopped and turned around, walking back to the restaurant! He just wanted us out of the way so he could continue directing parking. Hahaha. 

The second time I left the lights on, we had just finished our dog-escorted hike. I looked up the words for “jumper cables” (probably was really “wires that hop around”), and started asking people to help. No cables, but you know you can pop-start the car? We even had a little downhill stretch to help. Alas, it was a no-go. I think I messed up the technique a couple times, and we ran out of of downhill road. People in Chile are so nice, one guy went with me door-to-door asking for cables. He had other things to do, but he walked around with me for like 20 minutes trying to help. “You know you can push the car and pop the clutch and it will start? You probably don’t know that do you gringo?” he probably said. Eventually he gave up, rightfully so, and I was left flagging down people on the street. As things usually happen, we had no help for about an hour and then suddenly too much help! The first guy who helped was determined to pop-start it, and he hooked it up to his truck and towed it around while his friend worked the clutch. As this technique was attempted, someone came by with jumper cables, too. Since the car was already attached to be towed, we kept that up until the engine eventually turned over and the car started. It was surprisingly difficult, a push never would have gotten it done!

So what kind of dummy leaves the car lights on twice? This guy, I guess. I should have learned from the first time. We decided to just not put on the lights at all, and risk getting in trouble for that, rather than another dead battery. 

The third time I left the lights on, we were in a city (Viña Del Mar which is super cool BTW), in a parallel parking space, and had no choice but to call a guy to jump it and pay him. I think I had turned on the lights because a toll-booth operator yelled at me, or we went through a long tunnel, or something. I’m a special kind of idiot!

In Uruguay we rented a car again, and got upgraded from stick-and-wheel class to a nice big Nissan. It dinged when I left the lights on! What a treat, although it got broken into at the beach. Not sure what happened but the back passenger window was broken and nothing was taken – maybe they were seen or something. A few younger guys at the beach who I thought suspicious (I was actually watching them on the beach to make sure they didn’t take our stuff), came and warned us our window was broken. “I’m sorry for my people” the one guy said. Not a huge deal: my camera and computer, Julien’s iPad, and some other things remained untouched in the car. We were very lucky. 
All-in-all we’ve had a great trip so far. The kids are getting along well, we’ve had no major issues, and we have had some amazing experiences. We are excited for the next phase, speaking English and continuing our hiking, camping, and cultural adventures! Stay tuned. We might not post much, but we miss all of our friends and family! 

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