In Review: Our Top Ten

Though narrowing a year’s adventure down to pick out our top ten experiences is a nearly impossible task, we tried to do it anyhow. After all, it seems to be what everyone most wants to know. So here it is, the ten experiences we most loved, ordered not by rank but in the order in which we did them.

1. Hiking Torres del Paine

Of all the landscapes we saw on our trip, I think the mountains of Torres del Paine were the most majestic. The sheer beauty of this place was breathtaking for each and every moment of the four days we spent hiking the W.

2. Traveling the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu itself is mindboggling and not just because of the altitude. The amazing architecture and well-preserved state of this city in the sky wowed us. But what made seeing it really special was the intense three days of hiking through the Andes that we had to do to reach it. We also got to enjoy the company of my brother Gregory on this part of the adventure.

3. Cruising the Galapagos

This was eight days of pure bliss. From swimming with sea lions, sharks, and penguins, to laughing at the antics of blue-footed boobies, to marveling at the beauty of the natural landscape, to watching the stars rise from the deck chairs of our catamaran, our experience in the Galapagos was top-notch. It was far and away the most budget blowing of our adventures, but it was worth every single penny.

4. Living it Up in Buenos Aires

An apartment in a nice neighborhood, big steak dinners, ice cream every day (at least once), and a visit from my parents…our stay in Buenos Aires was like a vacation within a vacation. The city is vibrant and easy to get around with great architecture and atmosphere and tons to do.

5. Going on Safari in southern Africa

We saw our first lion in Kruger, got up close and personal with rhinos in Hluhluwe Imfolozi, encountered more elephants than we could count in Addo, found a few new species at Mountain Zebra, and became king of cheetah spotting in Etosha. We did a lot of safari-ing and never once got tired of it. In fact, I’m ready to go again.

6. Seeing the Surreal Landscapes of Namibia

Namibia might not have many inhabitants but they sure do have impressive landscapes. At Fish River Canyon, in the Quiver Tree Forest, atop the red dunes of Sossusvlei, in the forests of Naukluft, or along the Caprivi Strip, we were pretty much constantly snapping photos.

7. Meeting the Lovely People of Likoma Island

Until we ended up there, Likoma Island was never even on our radar. Malawi was supposed to be more of a pitstop on our way up east Africa, but it turned into one of our favorite spots. There’s not a lot to do on Likoma Island besides lounge on the beach and enjoy the turquoise waters of Lake Malawi, but the people are among the most friendly, welcoming, and fun loving that we met on our journey. I think we wore a constant smile the entire week we were there.

8. Trekking with Uganda’s Mountain Gorillas

Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is not a misnomer as trekking through the dense forest is not easy, but every step is worth it for the opportunity to spend one hour in the presence of mountain gorillas. These magnificent creatures left us all awestruck. They are impressive in size, in expressiveness, in the way they reflect so much of us and we of them. Another pricey experience, but again worth every penny. Plus we had the good fortune to get to share the experience with Jeff’s parents and sister.

9. Learning to Scuba Dive

Experienced scuba divers claim that once you start, you can’t stop, and they know what they’re talking about. We’re already addicted and can’t stop thinking about when and where we can next dive. Take any of the underwater shows you’ve ever seen and multiply the magic quotient by 100. It’s that good.

10. Exploring Rajasthan

India was tough, but we did greatly enjoy our foray into Rajasthan. The forts, palaces, and heritage hotels preserved fantastic architecture and the feeling of glory days now gone. Though hassle was still present, it was low in comparison to other parts of the country, and we met some very friendly and interesting locals. This seemed to be the India of lore.

Water, water everywhere!

We arrived on in Puerto Iguazu after our 17 hour, overnight trip on the fully reclining “luxury” bus. Neither the movies nor the food was better than the regular bus. True to its jungle nature, it was hot and sticky, and we all were in a solid sweat by the time we made it the five or so blocks (yes, we made Terry and Mary Jane walk it … and many many more miles, just ask them) to our hotel. We dropped our things and were quickly informed by Sofie, the owner of Los Troncos (a fantastic place with incredible service! Seriously, we loved it.), that we would not, in fact, be allowed into Brazil without a visa just for the day as we had originally planned. And it turned out, this was kind of a good thing. After all, we only had 24 hours in two half days before we were back on the bus to Buenos Aires.

So we set off to the falls and no sooner had we left the hotel than a thoroughly impressive tropical thunderstorm ensued, leaving us drenched. We felt that no waterfall could compare to the soaking we just received, but we found our way to the bus terminal and we headed off through sheets of water to the park. While the storm had tapered off by the time we got to the park, another waited patiently for us to arrive to the train station before dropping buckets more water. While we began questioning the sanity of our quest, no one thought about turning around.

Our goal for the day was the Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s Throat), a massive bowl of a waterfall, akin to the Canadian Falls of Niagara Falls. The weather had calmed by the time we got off the train and we began our walk across the river (on a platform, there are no Jesus’s here), passing crocodiles, turtles, coatis, birds and fish large and small.

For such a large waterfall, it was oddly quiet. We couldn’t hear it until we were nearly on it, and the cloudy day made seeing the plume impossible (it was much clearer the next day). It was strange to all of a sudden be at such a massive waterfall without the ominous feeling of approaching it. And the experience of standing out on the platform was first, additional soaking, and second, incredible awe at the volume of water moving in front of us.

About then we were told it was time to leave to make it to the park entrance by closing time, and so we called it a day. The next day we returned as the park opened to glorious weather and  the upper and lower trails. As you may have guessed, one passes along the tops of the falls, while the other sees more or less the same falls from the bottom. But what you wouldn’t maybe guess is how many falls there are. I forget the all names, but there was water cascading in every direction almost as far as the eye can see. And the jungle trees and green mosses covering everything in sight only added to the ambiance.

My favorite view, if such a thing can be chosen here, was from Isla San Martin, feeling essentially under the largest falls (outside of the Garganta del Diablo) and looking toward the rest.


For those keeping score, Theresa’s favorite was the first overlook of the lower trail (Terry and Mary Jane, feel free to add you favorites!).


By 11 AM we were exhausted but satisfied with our Iguazu experience, and so headed back to make our bus. But here’s a few more photos to enjoy.

Playing Gaucho and Tourist in the Pampas

Just outside of the Buenos Aires megapolis, an area of 13 million inhabitants, the endless apartment buildings disappear. So does the Parisian architecture, the ice cream shops, the fancy stores. It’s all replaced with endless open space, the land of the gauchos. Or at least it used to be. Now it’s not, because as we learned on our “Dia del Campo,” or day trip to an estancia in the pampas, there are no more gauchos in the country. Apparently Argentinian president Sarmiento decided that all the gauchos were lazy good-for-nothings and pretty much killed them all off. Not a nice thing for him to do. But in the end maybe a good business move.

Because as we all know real cowboys don’t really care for city folk, aren’t very civilized, and don’t exactly consider themselves tourist attractions. If they were still roaming the pampas, rounding up (or stealing, depends on who you talk to) cattle and living their freestyling lives, there wouldn’t be a place for bus loads of tourists to go and pretend to be cowboys for a day. And that my friends would be a true shame.

On our BA Free Tour of Recoleta (just as excellent as the Center Tour), our guide Sol asked us what the most touristy thing we’d done in BA was, and I didn’t even have to think two seconds before responding “Dia del Campo.” It involved a tour bus, a guide that spoke into a microphone, a song and dance show, a 20-minute horse ride…

We had wanted to get out of the city and experience a bit of the country life, but we didn’t have the time to go too far from the city or to stay for an extended period on an estancia, so we did what millions of BA tourists do–a day trip to an estancia wehre they pretty much play cowboy. It was cheesy. It was silly. I wouldn’t particularly recommend it. But, you know what? I had fun anyways. The empanadas were delicious. The lunch was abundant. The horses were friendly. The riders were skilled. The other guests were friendly and fun. And watching Jeff and my parents dance (though not together) was just plain awesome.

Jeff Dancing Mom Dancing Dad Dancing

Budget Buenos Aires

Since the Argentinian economic collapse of 2001, Buenos Aires has had a reputation as a great bargain for travelers. Despite the fact that eight years have passed since the collapse, the reputation has remained, though the reality of the situation is that Buenos Aires is no longer the bargain basement of cities. The collapse, while sending large numbers of the country’s citizens plummetting into poverty, acted as a calling card for millions of tourists…and the money they brought with them. As a result, the low prices slowly began to climb as hotels and restaurants filled. Now, prices are no longer as jawdroppingly low as they once were. A double room at a hostel will set you back at least $20 a person and a double at a decent hotel is hard to find below $70. Dinner is likely to cost about $10. And tango shows can cost as much as a Las Vegas or Broadway show.

But before all you budget travelers cross Buenos Aires from the list, let me tell you that it’s really still quite the great deal. Dinner might be $10, but you’ll get a really amazing (and huge!) steak (or two!) for that bit of dinero. Hostels and hotels might not be cheap, but if you’re staying for at least a week, you can rent an entire apartment for two people for about $35 dollars per night. And as for things to do, many of the city’s highlights are free or inexpensive. In an earlier post, I highlighted the Free BA Tours, but that’s just the beginning.

You could also spend a day at the Hipodromo, as we did on our first Monday in town. As a Kentucky native, horse racing is in my blood, and with my parents in town, I couldn’t pass up a chance for us to see the ponies run in a different country. We found that admission to the track, which was conveniently located in the Palermo neighborhood (where our apartment was), was free, and bets could be placed for as little as one peso (about 28 U.S. cents). Though I’m not quite sure we ever figured out exactly how to read the board, and though the Hipodromo doesn’t hold a candle up to Churchill Downs, we still had a great time, cheering on our picks while standing so close to the track that we probably could have reached out and touched the horses. Only two things could have made it better: 1) A winning bet and 2) Racing hippos.

A fun and inexpensive way to fill another day is with a trip to Tigre, the delta town just 35 kilometers from Buenos Aires. It’s easily reached via commuter train, with a roundtrip ticket costing a whopping 2.70 pesos. Once there, you can check out the fruit market (though go early, because much of it shuts down before its posted closing time of 6 p.m.) and take a stroll along the river, past fancy rowing clubs, nice houses, and plenty of cafes and restaurants. Of course, to really experience the delta you need to hop abroad a boat. Don’t worry, you won’t be hurting for options. There’s everything from pricey lunch cruises aboard giant boats to the wooden boat public launches. A 17 peso ticket will take you half-hour down the river on the public launch to the island community of Tres Bocas. There’s not much to do there besides circumnavigate the small island on foot, but the boat ride itself is worth the trip, as it’s a very scenic environment.

What else? Well there’s the Museo Nacional Belles Artes, BA’s fine arts museum, which is completely free, as are the tours of the Congress and the Casa Rosa (the President’s office). There’s the Eco Reserve, another completely free site, that’s great for a stroll or a bike ride, with the chance of spotting birds, butterflies, lizards, and other wildlife while practically downtown.

And of course, there are the many fascinating neighborhoods each with their own highlights—the Sunday market in San Telmo, the many parks of Recoleta and Palermo, and the colorful Caminita area of La Boca, for starters.

Though there are plenty of things to spend your money on in Buenos Aires (and many of them well-worth it), you don’t have to empty your wallet to have a good time. It’s a city for all budgets, a city for all tastes, a city that you definitely ought to put on your list.

Two to Tango

Who could go to Buenos Aires and not take in a tango show? Well, we couldn’t. But we were hoping to avoid a big Vegas style show, after all, we don’t need to see horses on stage, as one of the shows advertised. We were hoping to find an intimate, authentic “feeling,” high caliber show to enjoy. Turns out that Cafe Tortoni, a Buenos Aires institution and on the must-do tourist circuit itself (though the locals would say its a bit too touristy for its own good), has tango shows that sounded about exactly what we were looking for, so we took the plunge. We found it to be exactly what we were looking for. Great dancers, great musicians, an intimate setting, and a bit of variety all added up to a fantastic evening. Since it all looked so cool, I was busy playing photographer (Theresa says I need to tell you to click to make it bigger, but I think you all are smart enough to figure that out … and let us know how the photos work out, we’re trying something a little different).

So if you’re in BA and somewhat daunted by the myriad of shows available, Cafe Tortoni is a great bet.

There May Not Be Free Lunches…

But there are free tours of Buenos Aires, and quality-wise they are about on par with the steak. In other words, they are pretty damn awesome.

I wasn’t expecting that. When Jeff, while surfing the Internet for things to do in Buenos Aires, announced that he’d found a free tour of the city, I scoffed. There had to be a catch. Free…but only if we stayed at a certain hotel. Free…but boring as sin. Free…but we had to listen to a two-hour presentation on kitchenware first. But no, Jeff assured me, there was no catch, and to top it off, there were all kinds of glowing reviews of the tours on the Internet. Hmmm.

Though I was still a bit skeptical, we (Jeff, my parents, and I) decided to go ahead and give the tour a shot, since, well, we had nothing to lose. If it wasn’t any good, we’d just wander away from the group and declare our trip over. So at 11 a.m., we made our way to Plaza del Congresso where we met our tour-leader Gaston, a young local with impecable English thanks to a few years in the U.S., and a big group of other English-speaking travelers (from the U.S., Canada, Ireland, England, Australia, and South Africa). Our tour was to be of the central downtown area of Buenos Aires and was scheduled to last 2.5 hours. As Jeff and I had already been in the city for four days, many of the sites were ones we’d already seen, but as my parents had just arrived the day before, it was all new to them.

In the end, we all had a great time. We saw the main sites of the city center—the Casa Rosada, the Congress, the Obelisk, and other buildings of interesting historical and/or architectural interest—and learned the requisite facts and figures about them.

But what made the tour really notable wasn’t the fact that it covered all the standard tour sites for free, but that it included all of them plus more. The highlight of the tour was the insight it gave into the culture of Buenos Aires. We learned things on our tour that we didn’t find in our guidebook and almost certainly wouldn’t have learned on an official tour that we paid for.

For instance:
*The reason coins are so darn hard to come by is that the bus companies, which only take coins, hoard them and then sell them on the black market.

*All the seemingly random lines you see throughout the city are lines of job applicants. Oddly enough the only other thing people line up for are buses.

*Private insurance covers one plastic surgery a year. No wonder people here are so attractive!

*Over 60% of Argentina’s population lives below the poverty line.

*While officials give the inflation rate as less than 1%, it’s actually over 10%.

*To become an Argentinian citizen, you must only live in the country for two years.

Any question, any curiosity, we had, Gaston answered. He was both incredibly knowledgeable and completely entertaining. And in the end, I’m pretty sure he made more money than he would have if the tour had had a price, as we all tipped well and then dispersed to explore the city closer on our own (with his tips on what was worth more time and what wasn’t, as well as with his phone number in hand in case, as he said, we wanted any advice on things to do or places to go). And now I feel obligated to spread the word…if you want a great tour of Buenos Aires check out BA Free Tours. You’ll definitely get your money’s worth.

(In addition to the city center tour, they also offer a tour of Recoleta, which we plan to take on Tuesday. I expect it to be just as good, but I’ll be sure to update to let you know.)

Alive and Well in Buenos Aires

So yes, we’ve been slow with the posting lately, but we have good reason: my parents have been visiting us since March 1. We’ve been hanging out in Buenos Aires for the past week, and tonight we’re headed up to Iguazu Falls for a short visit before returning to Buenos Aires for my birthday on the 10th. Then it’s less than a week until we leave South America for the great and unknown (to us) continent of Africa. Expect a load of posting next week as we catch you up with all the fun we’ve been having: amazing tango shows, great city tours, a fun (and funny) day of the gaucho, and plenty more. We’ve got lots of photos too so don’t forget to check back frequently in the next few days.

A Privileged Way of Thinking

As we made our way around the Valles Calchaquies, from Salta to Cachi, Cachi to Cafayate, Cafayate back to Salta, most of what we seemed to see was the vast emptiness of a difficult but stunning landscape. There were a few small established towns, places with a market and a restaurant, running water and electricity, and in the larger ones maybe even a bank and a gas station. As we explored these larger towns, I’d find myself wondering what brought people here, why anyone would choose to try to settle in such a place. I imagine the majority of the people that live there now live there because their parents lived there and their grandparents before them. It’s home. But what about the first settlers?

What really struck me, however, wasn’t the towns. They were livable, certainly. Many were beautiful in their own way. They were the perfect spot, in fact, for people who prefer their independence, their space. What struck me most were the places between towns where people seemed to live. More frequently that I could have imagined, where I could see nothing but cacti and towering rock formations, people would hop off the bus, their bags of goods from town in hand. I’d try to watch them to see where they were going, but our bus would always zoom on before I could even spot the faintest outline of something I’d consider a destination.

And as we bumped around the loop from Cachi to Cafayate on gravel roads hardly suitable for driving, I’d look out the window of the rental car we were riding in and see small houses near absolutely nothing. They were mainly straw and adobe huts, unfinished, absolutely basic. I’d marvel at them and then, without fail the first question my brain would form would be “What do these people do out here?”

As a resident of a highly developed nation, I have become practically programmed to expect that everyone “does” something. We are lawyers, accountants, doctors, writers, secretaries, bartenders, teachers, researchers, CEOs, plumbers, electricians, sales people. When travelers meet each other, within the early reaches of a conversation, the question of “What do you do?” almost always comes up. It is how we define ourselves and understand others.

But for many people in the world the luxury of “doing” something doesn’t exist. They don’t live in a world that tells them they can be anything they want to be, that they can do anything they put their mind to. Instead what they “do” is survive. They plant crops and tend crops and harvest crops, in the hopes that they have enough to feed their families. They maintain their homes, trying literally to keep a roof over their heads. They tend to livestock. They mind their children. They are often farmer, teacher, construction worker, doctor, and firefighter all in one. But if you asked them what they do, they’d look at you like you’re an alien. What do they do? They live, the best way they know how.

The American Southwest Meets Sonoma in Argentina

I’m not 100% sure what most people think when they think of Argentina—perhaps its the European style of Buenos Aires, the sizzle of tango, the melt-in-your-mouth taste of steak, the wilds of Patagonia, or the gauchos of the pampas—but I’m pretty sure it’s probably not cacti. In northern Argentina, however, that’s exactly what you’ll find: huge cacti and marvelous rock formations. And oh yeah, vineyards too.

Lying west and south of the major city of Salta, the Valles Calchaquies is a collection of towns (mainly tiny) at approximately the altitude of Denver in a landscape that looks like that of the American southwest. A road circuits through the towns, providing a splendid diversion for a couple of days.

We left Salta Tuesday morning on a bus that reminded us that as we move north we’re leaving behind the luxury of highly developed Chile and Argentina for the more basic offerings of the rest of South America. After stopping for about every single person on the side of the road as well as some bananas and a watermelon, we made it through the seemingly never ending suburbs of Salta and began to wind and wind and wind and climb and climb and climb our way through the Cuesta del Obsipo and the Parque Nacional Los Cardones. The narrow gravel road weaved through valleys surrounded by imposing scrubby cliffs.

Upon reaching altitude, the road leveled out and we revved our way through a sandy desertscape of giant cacti.

After 5.5 hours on this luxury liner, we pulled into the town of Cachi, which, though one of the largest towns in the Valles Calchaquies, is nothing more than a central plaza and about a block on each side. We set ourselves up in the hostel and then covered the town from side to side, end to end. This wasn’t our biggest accomplishment, however. No, our biggest accomplishment was securing a ride for the next day. Though we’d come on bus to Cachi, we weren’t going to be able to rely on the bus to get all the way around the loop. For some strange reason, 39 km of the loop isn’t accessible by public transportation. If you want to cover that stretch, you have two choices: walk or hitch. We chose hitch, but not the standing on the side of the road, thumb in the wind type of hitching. We chose instead the ask the other travelers if they have a car and want to give you a ride type of hitching. We got lucky and the first people we asked, a British couple, offered to take us not just the 39 km not covered by bus, but all the way around to the other main town, Cafayate. Great success!

Before hopping in the car with our new friends, we made a morning visit to the local church and then trekked up to the hilltop cemetery, which looked like something straight from the wild, wild west.

The spectacular scenery continued as we began our bumpy ride around the loop. Huge red rock formations jutted up from the ground, a couple of prairie dogs played roadside, and a few tiny, tiny towns existed seemingly in the middle of nowhere. We stopped time after time to take photos, never quite capturing the magnificence of it all.

A welcome stretch of paved road led us into Cafayate, which seemed like a big city thanks to the fact that it had a few blocks in each direction from the plaza. It’s also an important city, as it is, after Mendoza, the second largest wine producing region in Argentina. And so, after surviving a torrential nighttime rainstorm that turned the roads into rivers, we took advantage of the sunny day and the many nearby wineries to sample the local goods. The specialty of this area is not the malbecs and cabernet sauvignons that most people associate with Argentina, but a dry white wine called torrontes. It’s actually quite good, and that’s coming from a red wine devotee. Visits to three wineries plus a goat cheese farm (because what goes better with wine than cheese?) filled our day.

On our final day in the Valles Calchaquies, we hopped an afternoon bus, and then after 46 km asked the driver to drop us off in the seeming middle of nowhere. He obliged, and we spent the next five hours getting up close and personal with the wacky rock formations, including named ones such as the amphitheatre and the devil’s throat.

We managed to successfully hail down the evening bus and then spent the next few hours rocking and rolling back to Salta on a bus that seemed to have no shocks or struts. It was a treat I tell you, but not as much as the delicious steak dinner we had to cap off the night.

The Valles Calchaquies certainly might not be archetypical Argentina, but both Jeff and I agree that it currently holds the title for our favorite part of Argentina. Once we return in March for Buenos Aires, Iguazu Falls, and Mendoza—probably the most popular areas of this country—we’ll let you know if the title still holds.

Children of the Mountain

We’ve seen the mummies in Egypt. They’re in a small room at the Museum of Antiquities in Cairo, and as it costs extra, we found ourselves bribing the guard to allow use of our student cards to enter. Inside a small room are a world renouned collection of mummies in incredible condition, preserved for thousands of years.

Those mummies may as well have been skeletons compared to what is at the MAAM museum in Salta. The story goes back 500 years (yes, the Egyptian mummies are much much older), from the Inca’s just before the arrival of the Spaniards. They are the “Children given to the mountain” and as we understand it, are sacrifices to the Gods. The children were of very high social status and were honored to be chosen. They were found in ruins at about 6700 meters (about 20,000 feet), and due to this altitude there was no bacteria, little oxygen and such cold temperatures that they did not decompose. They were naturally mummified.

The one we saw (there’s only one on display in the museum at any time) was so exquisitely preserved that we found ourselves waiting for her eyes to open. She still had normal musculature beneath her dark skin and hair. Her clothing and adornments looked as if they had been bought out of the craft market a week ago. She looked like any one of us, and you couldn’t shake the eerie feeling that she might wake up at any time.

Now, as you may be imagining by this point, this is all quite controversial. I mean, in effect they’ve desecrated a Native American burial site, taken the bodies away to a city, studied in and displayed it for a fee. In one of the interviews we saw in the museum (who does an admirable job of presenting both sides of the controversy), an indigeous woman from the area said the children ‘are sleeping’ on the mountain as a gift to the mountain to protect them and provide them with good harvest, as if they are (or at least were) still doing their job.

You can read more about the museum, the mummies, the extraction and the controversy here, and make up your own mind. For myself, it’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about since going. I went in without too much knowledge of what was there, came out amazed and awestruck, but the more I think about it the more it bothers me. I’m glad I was able to see it because the children are truly amazing and the museum is very well done. But I wouldn’t support it if they meant to dig the site up now and don’t think it was worth disrupting in order to show the world. While they had lots of information about the expidition to study this site, what I never learned in the museum is why they decided to extract this site in the first place or whether they knew there were bodies there. Who decided they wanted to remove these? Why? What was the locals response at the time? I feel like there is much more to know.

These kinds of activities (pillaging and studying of ruins and historical sites) has gone on for millenia, but that certainly doesn’t make them right or respectful. But on the other hand, it appears to have been organized by the local government and for the local people, so at least the children haven’t ended up in the British Museum (just as one example). It’s always a particularly difficult question, how to preserve history. Especially when its not your own.