Sunday, December 20, 2009

Day 68-72: Buenos Aires

We made it. Our final destination in South America. The city that everyone has raved on and told us to go to our entire trip...Buenos Aires! Well its huge to say the least. The metro system is very efficient though so it doesn´t cost much or take a lot of time to get from one place to the other. When we first arrived we took a taxi to a hostel we found on the internet that looked great but when we got there we didn´t want to stay. We made use of the metro to get from that nasty hostel to the one we are staying at now. This one is really nice with a big open kitchen and a rooftop terrace. Our rooms get ridiculously hot at night which makes it hard to sleep and it smells a little but it could be worse.

Our first day, after getting a couple of empanadas and taking a nap, we went to the grocery store and bought some groceries for the next couple of days, the norm. Everyone else in the hostel seemed to have the same idea. The kitchen was busy with so many people. There were about 7 people working on their own three course dinners. Luckily we just decided to make a salad and were able to avoid the caos in the kitchen. That night we went to bed early. We needed a break from all the wine in Mendoza.

The next day we made plans to explore the city and to go to the Recoleta. The Recoleta is a very famous cemetery. Its very old and lots and lots of important and/or famous Argentinians are buried here. Its actually the most expensive pieces of real estate you can buy in Buenos Aires if you buy a pot there. At first when we heard about it from other travelers and they had recommended it we didn´t really understand why so many people would want to visit a cemetery. Once we got there though, you could see why. The place could be its own little neighborhood. Buried in the traditional catholic manner, it was full of mausoleums. Many were so huge and so elaborate it was difficult to believe what its real purpose was for. I personally had never seen anything like it. Others were simpler, some were really old and some were really really old. There were so many tombs it was incredible, like I said, its own little neighborhood. One person we did know and who we went to their grave specifically was Evi ta- an important Argentinian female political figure. You could find her easily by the crowd surrounding her tomb. After walking around for a little bit, and toying with the idea of vampires being inside some of the surrounding buildings, we left and went for a walk. We walked around town for several hours and got to see a good portion of Buenos Aires. Its really like any city. It has its ritzy area, it has bums, it has hot dog vendors, it has its young lovers, it has buisness people, it has pollution, it has parks, and it had us-for the day. It was another quite evening in for us again tonight. The hostel offered yoga classes for free that night so we went and enjoyed that. The kitchen wasn´t nearly as busy tonight and we were able to make a nice pulled chicken dish.

The next day we had wanted to take a day trip from Buenos Aires to Uruguay. They are very close if you look on a map and you can take a ferry from port to port. The cost of the ferry was going to be rediculous and way out of our budget range considering its the tail end of our trip so we settled on shopping and going out for a nice dinner. We shopped all day long. I got a new outfit for another night out and dana bought some killer new leather sandals and some pretty earrings. That night we went out for steak at this well recommended resturant. It was in our books as well as two of our friends we´d met along the way had raved on it. Apparently we ordered the wrong dish because we were definitely not impressed. We were kind of bummed but we were going out that night and not going to let it get us down. After coming back to the hostel and having dessert, some amazing cupcakes from the cafe next door that Dana surprised me with, we went out to this club called Rey Castro. We waited forever to get in because there was a list but since we´d waited a long time at that point we were going in. The place was packed inside and there was a transvestite hosting the tail end of a show. The shim was hilarious. She was huge both up and down and sideways. She had long, black curly hair and make up that would make Mimi jealous. Her last number she walked around and lip sang an Aretha Franklin song and flirted with the audience members. After the show they cleared the floor and it became a dance club. Everyone, girls and boys, was very excited to talk to us. We danced and laughed and had a good time. We tried our hardest to stay up (people don´t even go to the clubs until 2:30 in the morning here) but we were home by 3:30.

The next day there came a storm like you wouldn´t believe. The rain was blowing sideways and the wind was howling. It was good day to stay indoors. We even watched a little Law and Order from the 90´s. That night we wanted to give the steak another try at a different resturant. We chose well this time because we completely enjoyed our meal and wine. P.S. something we learned at our wine tasting course is that you should pair a red wine with a steak or red meat, red with red. It cleans your palate very well in between each bite so that you can taste the steak anew every time. Afterwards we went to an Irish pub and had some hot chocolate and a coffee licour drink. Most clubs don´t take credit cards and we didn´t want to get out any cash. We came back shortly after, happy with our less eventful, tranny-less night and spent another sweaty night in the last hostel we´ll be staying in for a while.

Today we woke up and had breakfast, took a shower and packed our bags. There was a fun antique market going on today and we walked through it. Right now, during the afternoon we are killing time before we go to a dinner and show tonight. (This is what the new outfit, shoes, and earrings are for!) We booked a Tango lesson, dinner, and show for tonight our last night out in Buenos Aires and the final night of our trip. It looks like a really nice place and we are really looking forward to it. After the show we have to come back to the hostel, change clothes, and get a taxi to the airport because we are flying back early tomorrow morning. We´ve heard of the delays that the airports are having but we should be coming home soon!

We want to take this time to thank everyone who has followed along on our blog. We have really enjoyed our trip and really learned a lot about other people, cultures, and ourselves these last couple of months. Thank you to everyone for being so supportive and for all your comments and suggestions and we hope you have enjoyed reading about our adventures.

Lots of love,
Allison and Dana

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Day 68: Mendoza, Argentina

Ahhh chaos and confusion... either it finds us or it´s a normal occurance here. We woke up and were ready for our bike tour to pick us up at 9:30am. We saw a car with bikes on the back pull up so we headed downstairs but two other girls got in and the car left. We waited for 40 minutes before another car for a bike and wine tour pulled up. Figuring this must be ours, we got into the the car full of people and drove to the outskirts of town where the wineries are. When we sat down at the tour agency we realized that this was the wrong company, with the wrong signs, and the wrong itinerary. This tour was a self-guided wine and bike tour and what we reserved was organized and had a guide. That is when we realized those two girls took our ride with the tour we reserved. At that point all we could do was get on the bikes and give it a go with the map, bottle of water, and voucher for lunch.

No matter what style you get around in Mendoza (for us it was fairly cheap bikes), the scenery is absolutely breathtaking. There are wine fields everywhere and if you look beyond the beautiful fields, you can see the snow-topped mountains in the background. The sky is the brightest blue and the sun was shining pretty hard. Its a good thing we were on bikes because the breeze passing was essential. It took us about 15 minutes to ride to the first winery.

Winery #1: Carmelo Patti Winery
The first winery on our wine and bike tour was included in the package. It was off the main road and the winery didn´t have a sign or anything indicating what it was. This was the only winery they gave us a street number for, which was incredibly helpful. We didn´t get a tour, just a tasting of 3 of their wines. Allison and I used our new skills from the tasting course and evaluated each wine. Our favorite turns out to be a blend of 4 different reds. Apparently people who are classic wine drinkers used to not appreciate a blend, but now people are changing and they are becoming more popular. This visit was brief so we hopped back on our bike for a short ride to the next winery.
Winery #2: Bodega Lagarde

Our second stop possessed a bit more class. Lagarde is an old winery producing some of the oldest white wines in South America. The property was really pretty, decorated with old wooden wheels and large oak barrels. Due to our confusion in the beginning we were a bit behind schedule and only caught the last bit of the winery tour. We have been on several already at this point, and for the most part, the wineries are similar when it comes to equipment. Anyway we tasted 5 wines: a white, a sparking, a cabernet savignon, a malbec, and a blend. All were great of course, but like before we really enjoyed the blend. The guide did a wonderful job of explaining each wine as you tasted it and told us what food to pair it with. The other people in the group spit out the wine and poured the rest of the glass into a bucket. Allison and I just couldn´t bear to throw out the wine we paid to taste. So we enjoyed the tasting and hopped back on the bike to make it to the third winery where we would be served lunch.

Winery #3: Bodega Cavas de Weirnet

Getting to this third winery proved to be a bit of a challenge. The map we were given was not to scale and there weren´t street numbers for the wineries. So we got on our bikes and went what we thought was about far enough and after 30 minutes we could not find the winery. We asked someone for directions and she told us we were mountains away (that sounds better in Spanish). We remembered how awful people are at giving directions so we got a second opinion. Apparently we had gone a mile out of the way and had to turn around. At this point we were going uphill a little bit and it was about 2pm, really hot. We finally found the winery and sat down for lunch. The lunch included two glasses of wine, either white or red, and a pizza. Luckily for us the pizza was massive and quite tasty. After lunch we went on a tour of the winery. One thing noticealby different about this winery is they used the same fermentation tanks as they did when the winery opened over a hundred years ago. The tanks were all the same size and made of concrete. Next we went into the caves, hence the name of the winery, where we saw all the large oak barrels with their aging wine. The caves are significantly cooler than the rest of the winery and are quite humid, creating the best atmosphere to age wine. The oldest wine aging in the barrels was harvested in 1994. Wines this old can then age in the bottle for up to 20 years, therefore they are really expensive. Then we tasted 3 of their wines, including a port or fortified wine. The ports are nice as a desert and we really liked this particular one. We finished up the tour of the winery with a walk through the bottling and packaging area, where we saw all the wine getting ready to be shipped off.

Winery #4: Bodega Altavista

Thankfully our ride to this winery wasn´t very long, maybe only 15 minutes. At this point of our bike adventures, my butt was killing me because I haven´t been on a bike in such a long time. Altavista winery by far had the best property and landscape we had seen so far. With the sun lowered a bit in the sky and the mountains glistening in the background, the vineyards were spectacular. We arrived a little late and they were getting ready to close, so we just went to the wine tasting. Here we tasted a white and then 3 great reds. Yet again we liked the blend and I asked to taste one of their cabernets. Finally after tasting wine all day, I finally bought a bottle. This trip was cut short because I think they all wanted to go home.

Winery #5: Bodega Cavas de Besares
On our way to the last winery of our bike tour at about 6pm, I was getting tired really fast and realized that my tire went flat. There wasn´t much I could do besides get a look leg workout by peddling my butt off. At the last winery, instead of paying to taste different wines, we decided to just have a glass of something we knew we liked, a blend. They gave us a nice platter of nuts, cheese and crackers, and we sat and relaxed. After 8 hours of biking and tasting wine, we returned to the tour company for our ride back to town.
We decided to get dropped off at the park in Mendoza city. This park is absolutely massive. 500 species of plants were introduced into this park when it was constructed; therefore they had to build a large lake in the middle for proper irrigation. It seemed as though the whole town was in the park exercising and socializing. They even had a gym, where there was a volleyball match going on. Some days they have yoga and kick boxing in the park as well. Unfortunately we missed the kickboxing class, but after all the wine we wouldn´t have been very good at it. So we walked to a restaurant for a lovely steak dinner. Little did we know we were about to have the best steak of our lives. The rumors about Argentina are true, the steak and wine are unbelievable. Although the day involved a decent amount of confusion, all I can say is two points for Argentina: one for the concept of a bike and wine tour and one for the best steak ever!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Day 65 &67: Mendoza, Argentina

We arrived into Mendoza on a Sunday afternoon. It was only a 6 hour bus ride from Santiago, our last bus ride (thank goodness), and the scenery was very pretty as we winded up and then back down the Andes. Mendoza is the cutest little town. Everyday we were there the sun was shining and the weather was nice and hot. Tall and green trees lined the streets as well as cafes and Mr. Dog resturants, apparently a very popular hot dog resturant here.

On Sunday there was hardly anyone in town. For the most part, in South America, everyone stays inside with the family on Sundays. The grocery store was open though so after exploring our hostel we went and bought groceries. That night we made dinner, correction Dana made dinner. I´m the onion chopper and salad preparer. Although I think I´ve perfected the onion petal cut. After dinner we sat outside on the patio underneath a grapevine and talked with some other guests of the hostel over our free glass of wine. The hostel offered a free glass of wine for all their guest every night. This may or may not have been a deciding factor in our choosing it.

Mendoza is wine country. They produce over 70% of the country´s wine. Surrounding the town that we were staying, in there were over 100 winieres and vineyards. We only had about two and half days here so we got started right away. The next day we woke up and had a nice breakfast that was provided, also a deciding factor in choosing the hostel-free cereal and coffee. The day before we called a booked a wine tasting course at the winery Familia Zuccardi. We rushed from one bus stop to the next and made it to the main terminal right in time to catch the bus that would take us into the countryside. We arrived at a bus stop in the middle of no where and asked a local if there were taxis that drove by because the winery was still about 5 miles away. Luckily there was a gentleman who worked for the bus company that helped us flag down a ¨taxi¨ to take us the the winery. The taxi was a pickup truck with a large wooden box on the back. He said that in the country people need to haul things with them so they all used this kind of public transportation. Anyway, we made it.

We could see the vineyard and the property was beautiful as we drove up. The vines spread out for acres and were all in neat rows. The staff was very nice and welcoming as we approached. The hostess showed us around their main entrance and entertaining room and the shop. Upon arrival they gave us a sample, also know as two full glasses, of their sparkeling Rosé. It was the best champagne I´ve ever had. Afterward we were greeted by our guide and teacher. We first did a tour of the winery. They had several wineries on the property and the one we were at in paticular was their Santa Julia winery named after the founder´s granddaughter. This wine, we learned, is a young wine and is the most popular among Argentinians. Young wine just means that it doesn´t take long to make so its not aged in oak barrels at all, and that once you buy it you should drink it then. Young wines are popular because they are cheaper and are easy to drink. Now for the good part.

After the tour we went back to the main hall upstairs to the tasting room. Inside there was a bar on one side and long dining room table on the other. The table was set for three, two place mats on one side and one on the other. In the middle of the table, inbetween the place settings were about 20 - 30 wine glasses, all full of fun stuff. On one end, the glasses were full of fruit like pineapple, apple, lemon, and plum. Other glasses were filled with a range of different things like flowery tea, yeast, cinnomen, milk chocolate, white chocolate, olives, raisens, and coffee. She sat up 6 glasses in from of us. We were going to sample one sparkling, one white, three reds, and one port. One by one she poured the different wine and we discussed in depth the color, the smell and the taste. The glasses that were set up before us were all there for us to pick out the different aromas in each wine. The younger wines are much more fruity and less layered. The older, much more expensive, wines could have as many as 7 different aromas and several different tastes, and this is why they are so expensive. Everything she gave us to try was amazing, of course. We ended with port, which is a dessert wine that is very sweet and more alcoholic than the rest. We drank this with some chocolate from one of the glasses in the middle. We were so incredibly pleased with our tasting and we learned a lot as well.

That night we went out to dinner at a restaruant that our teacher had suggested. She had worked there when she was in high school. Now I don´t know if you know or not,but Argentina is not only known for its wine but also for its steak. We had a mushroom covered steak with potatos and it was very nice. We probably plan on having at least 3 more steaks while we are here, and you´ll here later Dana´s account of the steak we had the next night.

Day 62-63: Santiago, Chile

Today we organized a wine tour of Cousiño Macul Winery on the outskirts of Santiago. According to the websites directions, we had to take two different lines then walk 30 minutes east. Who do you know carries a compass on them every day? We walked 10 minues then asked someone for directions. The lady told us that we needed to continue on in the same direction a bit further. 20 minutes later we asked another woman and she said we were right next to it, so of course we thought, "Wonderful, we are hot and tired." We walked around the block and didn´t see a sign or even one grape, so we asked another person who said we were really really far away and pointed in the other direction.

That is when we came to realization #3: Chileans can NOT give sufficient directions.

So we took a taxi to the winery and in the end it was worth all the hassle. As we walked into the winery, we passed horses and vineyards and beyond that we could see the snow-topped Andies Mountains. At reception we recieved a Cousiño Macul wine glass and met our tour guide. He brought us into the old fermentaion tank room first. The room was filled with massive oak barrels that they once used for the first step after crushing the grapes, fermentation. The room still smelt of wine. Then we stepped into the rooms with the metal casks where they make their premium $100 bottle of wine today. Unfortunately it was after their harvest, so we couldn´t see the process of making wine. The next stop was the old bottling room, where they kept all their original equipment. They still had all the old stencils for exporting cases of wine all over the world, including the US. The coolest part was walk into the candle lit cellar, which looked like an old movie. The first thing we could feel was the cold draft from the Andies, which was such a difference from the Santiago summer air. The wine cellar had hundreds of oak barrels filling the room; however they were all empty. The company doesn´t hold their wine in Santiago because of the pollution. In the back of the cellar there was a room that held the families collection of wine dating back to the 1800´s. I believe most of it is vinegar now, really good vinegar.

After the tour we tasted two wines: a pinot noir rose and a cabernet savignon. The rose was really refreshing and we enjoyed learning the process of how a rose is made by leaving the skin of the red grapes in the juice for 20 minutes or so. We finished our wine while chatting to the other two Americans in our group. They seemed to know their wine and that is when Allison and I made it our mission to learn about and taste all the wines we could in South America. That night we made some comfort food (mac and cheese) and watched a movie.

The next day we really explored the city. First we checked out Pablo Neruda´s house, a famous Chilean author. The graffiti was amazing around the house and the neighborhood. All of it is tasteful art and some are political. We continued on through the historic district and walked around the Plaza de Armas. There is a Plaza de Armas in every city, but this one was quite the hotspot. There were art vendors all over the place and people singing and dancin. The children were even playing in the fountain in their undies. I don´t think they would appreciate it if we joined, so we just watched. The icing on the cake was a man pushing a barrel painted in all gold. No one else seemed to think this was odd, which made it even more entertaining.

Later that day we visited the local clinic to get some medicine for my face, and I was entirely impressed by the whole place. Everything looked clean and new, and we were in and out of the clinic in 30 minutes. Afterwards we ate our last dinner in Chile. I must say it was bittersweet having our last delicious salmon and our last pisco sour.

Day 61: Santiago, Chile

After yet another 12 hour, overnight bus, we landed in Barrio Bellavista, Santiago. We immediately knew in the taxi ride, that we chose the right suburb when we passed a sign for the zoo. Although we never actually went to the zoo, it was comforting knowing it was there. The neighborhood had a bohemian feel with impressive graffiti on many of the walls. The streets are lined with cute restaurants that all have outdoor seating (no one eats inside) and the trees shade the entire block. In such a large city it was easy to feel at home.
The hostel fit perfectly into this trendy neighborhood with an interesting combination of funky, classic yet modern decor. We were pleased with the large and fully equiped kitchen and the comfy beds. Therefore, the first thing we did upon arrival is take a nap.

Since Chile is quite expensive, we found it best to cook 2 out of the 3 nights in Santiago. We then headed out to the supermercado, checking out the town on our way. We discovered two very important thing as we walked: (1) people enjoy plastic, pleather outfits, and (2) the mullet is socially acceptable in Chile. It was astonishing. When we got back I had to stay inside due to my nasty burn/rash on my face from the volcano. Allison however went for a lovely stroll (actually it was more of a hike) through the park bordering the hostel. Up at the top of the hill, you can see the whole city. Later that night we whipped up an excellent dinner and chatted with two Irish guys we met on Death Road.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Day 60: Volcan Villarrica

I woke up this morning at 6am and prepared for my hike up Villarrica Volcano. Honestly I had no idea what was in store for me as I made oatmeal for breakfast and a lunch to take with me. I arrived at the tour office at 7am to meet the four other people hiking with me, two younger Chilean girls, 17 and 20 years old, and a Brazilian couple about my age (they had no idea what they were getting into either). Everyone spoke spanish, therefore I had to do my best communicating without Allison there with me. After gathering all our gear including an ice pick, a helmet and snow suits, we headed to the base of the volcano.

The entire hike was 3 miles, ascending 1,400 meters (4,593 feet). The first part was partially on some dirt where the the ski lifts start for the winter season. Followed by the lifts were 4km straight up the volcano with snow packed under our feet that was meters thick. I haven´t seen snow like that for years. The boots the company gave us were the least bit flexible, making it even more challenging. However, I figured out that if I followed in someone else´s footprints, it was much easier. For the first two hours, we were walking through the cloud cover and I felt as though I was in a movie trying to escape a storm. But it wasn´t a scene from a movie and I indeed paid to be in the those conditions. Once we were on top of the clouds, the sky was completely clear overhead and the clouds looked like a carpet of cotton balls. For the next three hours we walked, stopping every now and then as our guide shouted at us ¨¡Camina más rápido!¨meaning ¨walk faster!¨. I didn´t appreciate his tone, so I responded with, ¨Listen I´m walking¨in spanish. It sounds a bit better in spanish, but you get the idea. I was quite proud of myself for that.

I thought we had reached the top several times as we approached the top of a hill, but was very disappointed when I could still see the smoke spilling out of the volcano hundreds of feet ahead. After 5 hours of walking, we reached the peek of the volcano. The wind was blowing fiercely, nearly knocking me down. Then I peaked inside the volcano, a desire that I had for days. Unfortunately I didn´t see any lava, just tons of smoke. The smoke is toxic, so we had to make sure we were on the side the wind was coming from. After I took my victory picture, I was ready to descend immediately. I have not been that cold in many years, and being cold is one thing I have trouble coping with. The guide then strapped on our butts and the back of our legs a canvas material covered in duck tape. This was to be our ride down the mountain. We mostly slid and walked a little bit down the mountain for 1.5 hours. I realized that is why we needed the helmets, and we used the ice picks as a brake. It was a whole lot of fun, even more so if we got a train of people slidding down together to pick up speed. I wasn´t able to take pictures because my camera was deep in the layers of clothes I was wearing.

Once we reached the bottom, we had a victory hug and got into the van for the ride back. That is when I realized I got a serious wind/sunburn on my nose and a rash under my nose from the canvas glove. As I am finishing writting this now (3 days later), I am still recovering from the burn on my face which has developed into a beautiful scab. Super attractive.

Later that day Allison and I had some Salmon at a local restaurant. A football (soccer) game was on the TV in the bar of the restaurant, and I believe 80% of the town was watching it. Shortly after we arrived, the game was over and the people went completely crazy over the winning team, running in the streets screaming and cheering. Kids had flags and every car honked their horn as they drove down the street. Absolutely insane; people love thier soccer here. Anyway we are here in Santiago and will share storied with you all about it soon.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Day 58 -60: Pucon, Chile

We´re here in Pucon, Chile. Its a little town nestled right in between a beautiful lake and the most active volcano in South America. From our hostel you can actually see the top of the Volcano and see that it is smoking all the time. We like to sit outside in the afternoons and have tea or wine and look at the Volcano. Its called Volcán Villarrica if you want to look it up.

Dana and I have really enjoyed Pucon just because its so quaint. All the buildings and houses give you that small town feel but if you go inside the shops you can tell the prices are set for a town that is run on tourism. Pucon is actually an adventure traveler´s destination, as our book calls it. There is a lot to do, if you have the money. There are hikes through the National Forest, hot springs, horseback riding, rafting, repeling, rock climbing, and the main attraction climbing the active volcano that is also right next to the town. Dana is actually climbing the Volcano today. They suit you up with all the needed equipment including snow shoes with the spikes coming out the bottom. When you get to the top you can actually peek into the crater and if its clear, see lava! I had to pass on this adventure because my ankle that I hurt doing Machu Picchu has been giving me problems. I´m excited for her and I´m sure she´ll let you know how it was, with pictures of course. We both went to the hot springs the other night. If was about a 45 minute drive out of town and then right beside the river were 5 pools. The pools had been fixed up with rocks all around but the bottoms were still natural sand and rock bottom. We spent about 2 and half hours relaxing in the hot springs and gazing up at the southern hemisphere´s night sky. It was beautiful. We also really like our hostel here. Dana loved the kitchen and we have made dinner together every night. Tonight we are getting back on a bus for an 11 hour ride up to Santiago where we will spend the next 3 days. After that, we´ll say goodbye to Chile and head to Mendoza for some wine country and spend our last week in Argentina.