El Chaltén and the Circuito Huémul

Friends, it is getting harder and harder to read the news, especially in a place so far from home. People here keep asking me who I voted for and laughing about Donald Trump, which is a little like being rubbed with sand paper over and over again in the same spot. I’d rather have a real conversation with someone else who also reads the news or take a mental break and enjoy some glaciers. Meanwhile, I’m trying to enjoy glaciers while the glaciers are still around, and read the news, and I am looking forward to coming home and being able to call my senators.

Before I delve into adventures, I want to give a serious shoutout to my sister Sophie, who is actually the one posting my emails to this blog, since my iPod and the WordPress app got in a fight. Thank you!

Speaking of glaciers,
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Eli and I are in El Calafate, Argentina, and we went to see the Glaciar Perito Moreno yesterday.

We spent the last ten days in and around El Chaltén, Argentina, which was spectacular. For starters, the view from town is this:

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Monte Fitz Roy

We got into town on a Friday afternoon, found camping, ate food, checked out the Glacier National Park headquarters, wrote some postcards, and generally farted around for hours before we checked the weather around 7pm and realized that next four days were going to be the only time we could realistically do the four-day trek we had come to do. After that was more than a week of consistent 30-60 knot wind. Forget about a rest day. The trek in question, the Huémul circuit, requires some gear (harnesses and carabiners) for a Tyrolean traverse (kind of like a zip line) of two rivers, and so we sprang into action and ran all around town several times until we had tracked down all the gear in two different rental places. At 9:30 pm we had a plan and some carabiners and it was still light out and we went to pack our packs and cook dinner.

So on Saturday morning we pieced together the rest of our gear, bought a map, stored our auxiliary backpacks at the bus station, and started hiking. It was a gentle hike, with meadows and lenga forests and a glimpse of a glacier.

I was glad for a relatively easy day, since I was feeling quite tired after our sprint out of Chile and several late nights of hitchhiking and then trek planning. The campground was sheltered in a forest and someone had built a whole series of walls out of tree branches to provide some wind protection.image3

The second day of the hike was much wilder. It started nearly straight away with the first Tyrolean.

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Here is Eli hauling himself over a river on a Tyrolean traverse.

From there we hiked a short distance toward the distant Paso del Viento, or Windy Pass, which seemed to be high up on a scree slope and past a glacier and a lake. The “trail,” which was more like a series of cairns playing Where’s Waldo on a backdrop of endless other cairn-sized rocks and stacks of rocks, led us to walk across part of the glacier, which was awesome. It was a non-technical crossing and mostly felt like walking on flat ice and sand, and there were periodically deep blue holes (or deep blue deep holes) in the ice that you could sink a trekking pole into and not feel the bottom. Which to me meant they probably led all the way to China. We didn’t know how long to stay on the glacier, and the alternative was traversing the moraine above it, which is the part of the scree slope that still has ice under it. I could hear the water running under the rocks, and occasionally a rock would slide down as the water and ice shifted beneath it. When it seemed like we had been on the glacier long enough, we saw some other people transitioning to the scree, and so we did too.

It was nerve racking to walk across so many loose rocks. I found out quickly that stepping on small rocks would cause them to come loose and slide downhill, taking other rocks and maybe your foot with it. Stepping and scrambling on the biggest rocks we could find, Eli and I picked our way all afternoon up and up across scree until the trail finally firmed up and started behaving like solid ground. We kept walking up and up toward the pass.

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Eli at the Paso del Viento. The glacier in the midground is the one we walked across, and the valley below the furthest visible lake is where we had camped.

As we descended from the pass, my mind was occupied by three things. First, the southern ice cap was coming into view and it was spectacular.

Second, it was really really windy and starting to sprinkle. Third, the lower we dropped into the valley, the more difficult it was to keep track of the trail. We knew our campsite was somewhere in the valley on the far side of the pass, and we knew there was a sort of trail somewhere, so we took turns standing still at the last visible cairn while the other went wandering around looking for the next cairn. Between calculated wanderings and some serious study of the topo lines on the map, we slowly and surely made it to camp with plenty of daylight to spare. There were already several parties camped, and so we chatted with people in English and Spanish in the cooking shelter. There was a group of three Israelis, a pair of Argentines, a group of six Argentines, and a pair from the US, recent Stanford grads.

The wind blew hard enough that night to push one wall of the tent all the way to the other wall inside, and blew some rain in under the vestibules, so we woke up in a small puddle but with the tent entirely intact. I have to say, despite my many frustrations with my recently and rapidly deteriorating tent (all the zippers have since stopped working reliably and there’s some structural Gorilla tape on the ridge pole sleeve), it has always and continues to hold up admirably in strong wind.

Eli and I were the only ones to get an early start on day three, and we didn’t see anyone else on the trail all day. The rain cleared up by 10 and there was snow on the surrounding peaks and a rainbow over the ice cap.

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We continued through the valley all morning and started climbing after lunch. We had another pass, Paso Huémul, to cross that day. It was lower but much windier and I felt like I was being blown straight uphill for most of the climb. At least it was a tail wind! The view from the top showed all the swooping streaks of sediment on the ice.

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On the descent, I hit my trekking pole on a lenga trunk and it bounced up and whacked my left eye pretty hard. Luckily, my eye and my vision were okay, and I came out with a nasty purple eyelid and a scrape on the bridge of my nose, and nothing worse.

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Purple Eye

The experience of hurting myself in a place so remote – a two-day walk from the nearest road – was pretty intense. Looking back on it, the injury was not a result of any particular mistake or poor judgement, just a moment of looking forward on the trail instead of down toward my feet, which means it would have been hard to avoid. As I sat on the trail and held a cold compress to my face, I realized that I could have hurt myself in any number of more serious ways, and I felt my mortality pretty strongly.

The rest of the day was sunny and warm and we were in the lee of the mountain, protected from wind. I picked my way slowly and carefully down the rest of the near-vertical descent toward Lago Viedma and eventually a bay full of icebergs appeared below us.

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We reached camp around 5pm, and it was on a protected beach on that very bay, Bahía Témpanos, which literally means “Iceberg Bay.” We could see the mouth of Glaciar Viedma hiding behinds the ‘bergs.

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We hung the tent up to dry, made dinner, and were nearly asleep around 9pm (despite it being fully light out still) when the other groups of hikers started rolling in.

The last day of the trek was long and flattish and exposed to the sun, and ended with a successful hitchhike about ten miles back to town. The highlights for me were a view of the glacier in the morning

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and the view of Fitz Roy on the way back to town in the evening.

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The rest of our time in Chaltén we spent at the lovely Camping La Torcida in town, and at various free campgrounds in the forest around town. At La Torcida, the manager Paulo noticed that we seemed a bit too focused on the details of itinerary and making sure we did everything right, and he told me, “Nora, you have to do what you want. These are your vacations. This is not the military.” It was those words that inspired Eli and me to bail on camping in the snow one night, and to spend more time eating pastries and empanadas in town instead.

On Tuesday we hitched a ride on an empty tour bus to El Calafate, where we met Lizzie and resupplied our store of dulce de leche (in the latest news on that front, it turns out that salted peanuts and dulce de leche are the most delicious combination of food possible).

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Yesterday we all hitched out and saw that beautiful glacier Perito Moreno up close and personal.

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Lizzie juggled while we waited for a ride.

We got a ride back to town with none other than the pair of Stanford grads we had met over dinner at the Paso del Viento shelter on our trek! They had just purchased a car so they could give rides instead of wait for them for their next three months of travel. I can’t say that I blame them. They recommended a bakery and Lizzie and Eli and I figured we might as well eat a pastry or three.*

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*a pastry or three each…

And that brings us to the present. If you have any questions or need dulce de leche serving suggestions, feel free to shoot me an email.

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Dulce de Leche with Salted Peanuts

 

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The Carretera Austral

Eli and I spent five days on the Carretera Austral, which means “southern highway” and is the road that the Chilean dictator Pinochet built in the 80s to make Chile more infrastructurally independent from Argentina, as Chile was supporting Great Britain in their war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands, or las Islas Malvinas, as they call them here. Previously the only terrestrial access to much of southern Chile was through Argentina. While this is technically still true, the Carretera extended a road within Chilean borders for hundreds of miles and has both given rural southern Chileans access to the rest of their country and brought many many tourists to the national parks of the region. It was really interesting to hear the perspectives of the Chileans who gave us rides, who all agreed that the road was generally a good thing in the end, and who also grieved that it had been implemented by such a cruel government and had caused the deaths of so many of the soldiers assigned to construct it.

Our original plan was to ride the Carretera to its southern terminus in Villa O’Higgins and to spend three days walking across the border there to El Chaltén, Argentina. We found that given the difficulty of finding rides, our itinerary and eventual deadline were pretty stressful. We opted to cross early at Chile Chico, which made the rest of the ride much more enjoyable.

From Cochamó, we headed south and found ourselves that very day (January 14) on a five-hour ferry crossing, and camped in Parque Nacional Pumalín that night.

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The ferry ride

The next day it took hours to get a ride because the next ferry didn’t sock until the afternoon, which was the beginning of the ride stress for me. For the next two days we moved slowly and did a lot of standing still and walking through long construction zones.

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At least the construction zone had a nice view!

In a town called Chaiten, we had seen a photo in a book of a hanging glacier called el Ventisquero Colgante, and eventually a pickup truck picked us up and we rode in the bed because there was another hitchhiker-backpacker in the cab with the driver. This traveler’s name was Jordan and all of his clothing and both his backpacks were green. He invited us to get out with him at Parque Nacional Queulat, which is exactly where the Ventisquero Colgante was located, and so we did.

The Ventisquero was a day hike, and very beautiful. It was a glacier on the edge of a cliff with two waterfalls shooting down from it into a river far below.

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It was magical in the mist.

Jordan had hiked up much earlier than we did, and we saw him coming down as we walked up. At the viewing area at the top, we met a Chilean and a Spaniard who had met in Australia years ago and who had kind of randomly decided to meet up in Chile and rent a car to explore a while. They offered to drive us a ways, and we passed Jordan as he was trying to hitch a ride on our way out of the park.

We spent hours with our new friends, as there was a road block for construction that turned out to be more than two hours long. Parked on the road, we shared stories and snacks and even prepared a thermos of tea. There were people out in the road skipping rocks into a nearby stream, and wandering from car to car, meeting everyone. It was pretty funny.

When we had gotten in and out of several cars that afternoon,  we were walking through the town of Mañihuales to try our luck one more time, and spotted Jordan setting up camp in a camp ground. It was about 7pm, and since it doesn’t get dark here until after 10, we decided to keep moving. We made it to Coyhaique that night, hours away, and the last person to pick us up, Renato, invited to stay at his house.

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A view from the road.

In Coyhaique the next day, we bought enough groceries for more than a week, a liter of fuel for the stove, a bunch of postcards and stamps, some fresh cherries – apparently cherries grow really well in soil after the ground has been covered with volcanic ash! – and donuts. Then, with bases covered, we walked slowly out of town. I hope my backpack never weighs that much ever again.

David picked us up and drove us down to another ferry dock, where he hoped against hope that his car would fit on board and save him the nine-hour drive around Lago General Carreras. He was a miner heading home to see his kids after a week of work. They mine gold, silver, and zinc and miners work one week on and one week off, often hours away from home. We ran into Jordan again at the dock.

David’s car did fit, and no sooner were we aboard than we were chugging along. The ride lasted over two hours and Jordan told us about his career as a violin teacher and adventurer. His band is called Cuarto Aguacero and apparently they are on YouTube, if anyone wants to check them out. I still haven’t because of internets.

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The lake was really windy!

Arriving in Chile Chico around 9:45 pm, David drove us to the best campground around, and we feasted and slept without an alarm clock for the first time since we started traveling.

Crossing the border the next day was a simple affair, and we snagged a ride to the small town of Perito Moreno. We waited a couple of hours there, and noticed another person on the road ahead of us trying to get a ride. That’s right, it was Jordan, who was hard to recognize because he had changed his clothes and was wearing brown instead of green. We waited downstream of him on the highway since he had gotten there first, but a truck passed him and stopped for us anyway. Waving regretfully, we hopped in. This guy told us he would bring us to the town of Río Olnies, which we located on the map. When we got there at 9pm, the driver shooed is out of his truck and disappeared down a dirt road into the pampa. It turns out that the “town” is just a single abandoned house by the road. A little freaked out, we tried to decide if it was worth waiting for another ride, or better to make camp. Just as we decided to make camp, another car picked us up. The driver, Julio, was absolutely furious that anyone had left us in the middle of a desert an hour before nightfall, and I was pretty upset myself. He drove us into the night and to the gates of the municipal campground in Gregores, Argentina.

The next day we got a ride to El Chaltén, where we are now.

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Fitz Roy, looming above Chaltén.

 

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photos from week 2

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Eli looking for the trail, day 2.

 

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Totally legit bridge to Alberto and Alejandra’s house!

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The house where we stayed after a day in the rain.

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We walked eleven kilometer along this lake on day three.

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Until we got here!

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German-style stove and Nina the cat.

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Eli narrowly avoids a falling tree (just kidding!) on day five, hiking down from the Lago Grande pass.

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An alerce! This redwood was not so tall, just enormously wide and old.

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A granite arch in the middle of the woods, day 5!

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The stinky adventurers.

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In the Cochamó valley, day six.

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Rest day: water, coffee, tea, dice, journals, maps…

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Eli and Timón.

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Hiking out, finally.

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Behold: the entire town of Cochamó. Cathedral, estuary, volcano Yates.

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Volcano Yates from the camp ground. 

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walking for a week

The internet here is confusing and I can’t post photos right now. Sorry!

On January 6, Eli and I left our campsite at noon, bought fuel at the ferretería, took at city bus to kilometer 9, and started walking out of Bariloche, Argentina a little before 2pm. We got three car rides, the last of which had a puppy that crawled into Eli´s lap and immediately fell asleep, and got out at a tiny intersection with a dirt road in Río Vallegas, south of Bariloche. We couldn’t tell from the map how long the road was, but the last marked site said it was at 33 km, so we started walking. A car picked us up, carried us 15 minutes or so, and then we walked another hour. It was already late afternoon, and since we didn’t see much traffic, we started making plans to camp by the road if we needed to. Eventually, a pickup truck stopped for us and we sat in the back for another 20 minutes or so. I kept my buff over my face because of the enormous clouds of dust, and watched the mountains go by.

When we got out of that truck, there was a gaggle of Chilean backpackers on the side of the road headed the other way. They had just completed our route in the opposite direction, and they gave us their map and wished us luck. We walked for another hour and started looking more seriously for roadside camping. Around 6, two young men stopped for us in a car that looked like they had put it together from junkyard parts and some scotch tape. They didn’t ask where we were going or even talk, but seemed friendly enough and dropped us off a miraculous ten kilometers from the Argentinian border station. We started walking again, sure that we would have to camp, since it was about 6:30, and the border was open to foot traffic only, so there wouldn’t be cars. We even poked around in the bushes to see what the options were, and on our last walking burst, a car came zooming up. They stopped for us, and I asked if they were headed to the border. Seeming flustered, they explained something about a lost dog, and I didn’t really understand what was going on but they dropped us off at the border station at 7pm and we were shocked to have made it so far. I watched the couple take a small dog out of the arms of one of the border people and drive away the same way they had come. We crossed the Argentinian border and started walking toward Chile.

An hour and one boat ride across a river later, we we at the Chilean border station, which was on a little cleared plot of land in absolutely the middle of nothing in a forest up in the Andes. There were kids playing in the yard, and I figured the border guards must just live there and hang out until someone comes along needing a stamp. The guard on duty seemed excited for a break from whatever he was doing in the office at 8pm, and asked us about our trip and what we did back in the states and when I mentioned rock climbing, he jumped up and ran over to the corner where he had a rope and some gear and he told us how he takes his kids climbing on his days off, and asked to friend us on Facebook so he could see our travel pictures later. Bemused, we accepted. He stamped our passports and told us we should pitch our tent in a little clearing by a stream, just outside the border station fence. The day seemed like an entire lifetime in terms of the unlikely distance we had traveled.

The next day poured rain all day long. We were fooled by half an hour of sunshine and steep uphill into thinking we didn’t want our raingear on, which turned out to be an epic mistake. We had a fairly miserable day, slogging through mud and soaked to the skin and cold whenever we stopped to eat. We passed an abandoned homestead and seriously considered camping there, but heeded to the “prohibido acampar” signs and kept walking. Around 6, we crossed a footbridge and were greeted with a “camping” sign, pointing across a different bridge that only had floor boards about half way across and beams on the other half. A helpful sign explained that it was a work in progress and to please go one at a time. We dropped our packs and ever-so-carefully picked our way one at a time across the bridge, noticing that the river below was flooded from all the rain and rushing fast. Alberto greeted us on the other side and asked if we wanted to camp. I mentioned that somewhere with a roof might be nice, and he showed us a little shed with a fire pit and ceiling vents where he had saddles and horse blankets drying, and said we could pay 2000 pesos (roughly $3.50)  each and stay there. We gratefully accepted and went back across the bridge for our backpacks. By the time we had returned, Alberto and his wife Alejandra had cleared out the shed and had started a roaring fire for us. They instructed us to hang up our wet clothes, get dry, and come inside for tea. Which we did. We hung out with them and talked, and they said we could bring our food in and cook dinner on their stove, which we also did. As we were cooking and Alberto was playing with the cat that kept trying to curl up inside his coat, Alejandra mentioned that we should probably just sleep inside the house, since the floor of the shed was muddy. And so we stayed warm and dry, on mattresses inside, and wondered how on earth people could be so kind.

The next day was sunny and we walked along a very long lake and stayed at Manuel and Sonia’s spare room, with our own little German-style stove for cooking.

The next day was also sunny and beautiful. We started the day with a shoes-off river crossing, which may have been a mistake. We followed the trail for about half an hour, until suddenly there was no more trail to follow. Confused, we search and searched and determined that the way we had come in had definitely looked like a trail. The locals had told us that fewer hikers had come through this year than last, and so we figured perhaps the trail had faded some, and decided to push in the direction we needed to go. This was another mistake. Several hours later, up a steep hill and fairly alarmed, we stopped, had a few bites of food, and meticulously backtracked through the dense bamboo stalks until somehow we ended up where our first trail had ended. We traced it back to the river crossing, saw that it was trail, and hiked back out into the woods. This time when the trail ended we decided to walk back to our last camp site and ask for clearer directions. On the way, just past our first river crossing, we noticed a bridge leading to a muddy and well-worn horse track that was obviously the trail we should have taken the first time. Relieved and elated, we started off again, six hours later, and approached the mountain pass we were hoping to cross that day.

At the lake before the pass, the trail disappeared again. Our directions said that the trail followed the beach , but the beach was surrounded by dense forest on all the sides that weren’t the water itself. I felt like I was going insane. We decided to just camp and figure out the route in the morning. It had been a very long day.

We had just eaten dinner when Alonso came by, hiking very fast, and I flagged him down. He explained that the beach was under water from the unusually heavy rain, and proceeded to wade for several hundred meters before returning to describe the trail out of the lake, so we could find it in the morning. I gave him the last of my Christmas Toblerone. He disappeared through the water and back into the forest.

We put in an extra long day the next day to make up for lost distance, and found our way to La Junta without mishap. On the trail that day were alerce trees, of the redwood family. We spent some time marveling over those and over the enormous cliff faces emerging in front of us as we hiked down from the pass. We crossed several more rivers and streams, changed in and out of our boots many times, ate nearly the last of our food, and could not have been happier to make it to a camp ground. We set up, bought some eggs, ate dinner, and crashed.

The next day poured rain and we bought bread and eggs and made them up with some of the instant soups, drank a lot of coffee and tea, and hung out in the camp shelter all day playing Blisters and Farkle and playing with the resident kitten, Timón. We had heard that it was supposed to keep raining for another day or two and that the day hike we had wanted to do was closed because of rain damage to the trail, so we planned to hike out the next day.

On January 13, we hiked five hours out of La Junta through more mud, and took a shuttle five kilometers into the town of Cochamó. There we found a sunny campground, washed all our clothes in a huge sink and hung them out with the tent to dry, took hot showers with soap, walked along the shore of the estuary and admired the volcano Yates across the water. We used the internet, bought groceries and wine, charged our mobile devices, and generally felt relieved to be out of the mud and the rain.

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The First Week

After approximately 33 hours of airports, vending machine pop tarts, gourmet airplane dinners (including wine!) after midnight, layover naps, and seats and tray tables in their upright and locked position, Eli and I landed in Santiago de Chile in the early afternoon of New Year’s Day and navigated an ATM and a public bus and many city blocks with our enormous backpacks on before arriving at the apartment of our couchsurfing host, Gabriela. Luckily she was as tired out by 2017 as we were and we were able to crash immediately. We stayed in Santiago for another full day, in which a friend of mine from my last adventure found us and took us hiking for an afternoon, and we ate ice cream and tomato salad and made mango juice and saw a little bit of the city.
Early the next morning, still exhausted, we walked to the metro, took the metro to the wrong bus station, walked to the correct one, caught a city bus just out of town, and commenced hitchhiking. We got three rides that day and spent a couple of hours walking in the sun, but the second car to pick us up dropped us off at a truck stop/diner where an enthusiastic truck driver pulling two grain trailers scooped us up and chatted our ears off for eight hours while Eli and I took turns napping in the back seat. He eventually asked us if we had a place to stay the night and invited us to stay with the family he was going to visit. We accepted, and soon we were winding through a forest and into the hills. When we arrived, the truck driver (we never caught his name) greeted his friends and asked us to help him unload his gifts – several watermelons, crates of nectarines and avocados, and huge braids of garlic. We got a warm welcome by the family in question and by their puppies, ate dinner around 10 pm with the couple we were visiting, got teased a little for being vegetarian, and again slept as soon as we could.
Our friendly truck driver dropped us at the highway the next morning, and we had a series of haphazard rides, including a broken-down pickup truck that we helped push along the highway for a bit, and the back of a minivan full of boxes of sneakers. 

Eventually Gaspar picked us up and drove us several hours to the city of Osorno. He spoke English and told us about his career with John Deere and his life in Germany, where he lives and works most of the year. When we got to Osorno, he insisted on showing us around, and before we knew it we were on a hunt for some local food, asking at restaurant after restaurant if they had what Gaspar was looking for. He gave up and took us to the food court at the mall and bought a feast of every single vegetarian dish he could find. I was overwhelmed with his generosity and very excited to eat veggies. 

After salad and algae and roasted potatoes and eggs there was milk pudding and then espresso and finally, at 5 pm, he drove us all the way to our next highway, headed toward the Argentinian border. 
We had hoped to cross the border that day, and got a ride most of the way there, but we had spent too much time feasting and asked a family if we could pitch a tent on their lawn, and camped by the road. We set up our kitchen in a bus stop:


The next morning a tour bus picked us up and gave us a free ride for a short distance, and then a pickup truck brought us to the Chilean border station. We waited a few hours after crossing, and ate a fair share of leftover Christmas chocolate, before a Chilean mother and son duo picked us up (at the suggestion of the Danish hitchhiker they were already carrying) and drove us through the Argentinian border station and into Bariloche. The pass between the two countries was dry and parts were covered in ash from volcanoes in years past.
It was late afternoon when we got to Bariloche and poached some wifi at the tourist welcome center. An Outward Bound friend who lives in Bariloche recommended a campsite, and so we went and changed our money, found the right bus stop, and took a city bus out toward camp, where we set up and took advantage of hot water and showers and a little bit of internet.
The same friend met us the next morning and took us on her favorite local hike, up to Cerro Bella Vista, and the view over the lakes was spectacular. Lago Nahuel Huapi extends out of view on both ends, and cliffs and mountains surround it. It was wonderful to ditch my big pack for a day, and to have a guide (and especially a friend!) show us where to go without having to guess and navigate and speculate. That night we ate an entire pizza and went grocery shopping and made a sort-of plan for the week to follow, which would involve hitching south and west back to the border to start a trek into Chile.
On the morning of January 6, we packed up and got some travel advice and leftover instant soup packets from a different Outward Bound friend, and we left Bariloche at noon. 

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On the road again

Once again, I find myself boarding a plane to South America. My backpack is full of my tent and stove, sleeping bag and rain gear, my toothbrush, and yes, all the chocolate from my Christmas stocking. In nine hours my dad will drive me to the airport and on New Year’s Day, I will land in Santiago de Chile.

Accompanying me is my boyfriend Eli, and we plan to spend the next two months running around among glaciers and redwoods and maybe some volcanoes. If you choose to read along, I’ll be posting stories and photos every couple of weeks or so. Here is a rough map of our trajectory:

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Now, I might go finish packing. See you soon!

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Going Home

My last month of travel passed like a race to the finish line. In northern Argentina I saw some incredible rocks, more Incan ruins, vineyards, cacti, and the lunar eclipse. I shared days and kilometers with generous people, I danced tango in Tucumán, and I spent 17 hours on a train drinking mate and trading stories between Córdoba and Buenos Aires. I unpacked, repacked, and rearranged my backpack over and over again. I finally bought a mate gourd of my very own, and searched every market to find the right bombilla, or metal straw. 

Then finally I arrived on the doorstep of my much-missed tango school, dropped my backpack, and tumbled into the waiting arms of my friends. 

Sometimes, studying tango, I feel a bit like a Chemex coffee pot, where the bottom glass bulb is my body trying to dance, and the top funnel part is my brain full of aromatic tango technique coffee granules, and then up above are my teachers pouring hot water and more ground coffee into my filter. Somewhere in the middle, hidden behind that tasteful wooden collar, the hot water is making its oh-so-slowly way through all the coffee bits and the narrow glass neck of the pot and dripping transformed into my body, pooling up until there’s enough to drink. When I left Buenos Aires in July, there were a few teaspoons of coffee ready and a lot of ground coffee and hot water swimming around in my brain. When I came back in October, there was a whole pot of nice warm coffee to drink and plenty of space up top to brew a fresh batch. When I started studying in May, I had more body parts than I could even try to think about all at once, not to mention coordinate in all their separate specific actions. When I took my last class before flying home last week, I realized that I only really had four left to focus on, (for now) and that I shouldn’t even try to think about them – thinking would be counterproductive. I just needed to remember to feel them and let them do their jobs while I danced.

As I tried to say goodbye, my teachers just laughed at me. “We know your type,” they said. “You’ll be back by next May, you’ll see. June at the latest.” And maybe I will. We’ll see. For now, I’m breathing in fall, slowly unpacking, and trying to find anyone who will drink mate with me in Massachusetts. 

Thank you all for your love and support throughout my travels, and thank you for reading along. This will be the last chapter for now, but we all know I’ll be back on the road again before too long! If you want to hear more stories, audition for a part in the off-Broadway production of Norma Crosses the Line: A Play, travel with me, offer me a job, or just catch up, you can always comment, email, call, send a pigeon, etc. Hasta la pasta!

   Ruins at Quilmes

 Church in Córdoba
   Train ride to Buenos Aires

 Home, sweet home!

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Pictures of salt

   
 
Salt salt salt

   
 
Flamingos forever

   
Laguna colorada

 
Boiling volcanic mud

   
Cool rocks

 
I’M BACK.

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Norma Crosses the Line: A Play

Translated from its original Spanish by its original author.

Disclaimer: This, as will become obvious, is a work of ART, and not a true story. It even takes place in an alternate universe. Any resemblance to true, historical, hypothetical, hysterical, or future events is purely coincidental and does not reflect the views of the author, whoever she even is. 

Note: Some names of places and the protagonist have been modified. They have been reformatted from their original size to fit your screen.

ACT 1

Scene 1. Terminal Terrestre de Puno, Peru. It is 1:34 pm.

Norma: Good afternoons! I would like to buy a passage on the 2:00 bus to Copacabana, Oblivia, please. 

Nice Bus Ticket Lady: That bus just left! Two minutes ago!

Norma: But it’s only 1:34!

NBTL: Yes. They changed the schedule for no apparent reason and didn’t tell anyone. You can go tomorrow.

Norma: Oh no! I have to go today. My kingdom for a horse!

NBTL: In that case, no problem. Just take a funny little three-legged taxi to the other terminal and hop on a combi to the Oblivian border. From there you can take another combi to Copacabana. Or find a horse, if you want. 

Scene 2. Norma does just that, and arrives at the Oblivian border for half the price of that silly old bus. Better yet, the Oblivian border is hosting a party, right in the middle of the road! With bulls!

Norma: Good afternoons. Where is the border, please?

Extra #3: Right here, underneath this party.

Norma: And can I cross?

Extra #3: Obviously not. Did you notice this party?

Norma: I insist on arriving to Oblivia.

Extra #3: In that case, no problem. Just walk around that pile of trash and rocks. 

Scene 3. The Oblivian border.

Norma walks around that pile of trash and rocks and arrives in Oblivia.

Taxista: Taxi, taxi

Norma: Good afternoons.

Taxista: Taxi, taxi!

Norma: Shouldn’t I go through customs first?

Taxista: Whatever you want.

Norma: What country am I even in?

Scene 4. Oblivian customs

Norma: Good afternoons. Where is the place for the Peruvian exit stamp?

Customs Official 1: That stamp is on the other side of the party. How did you arrive to Oblivia?

Norma: With my feet, sir.

Customs Official 1: How strange. 

Scene 5: Norma walks back around that pile of trash and rocks and through the party once more, to the Peruvian customs office.

Peruvian Customs Official: Good afternoons! Advance to the window.

Norma: Good afternoons. Here is my passport. I must arrive to Oblivia. 
Peruvian Customs Official: (stamps passport) Safe travels!
Scene 6: Norma is an expert at walking around that pile of trash and rocks by now. She practically skips back to Oblivia.

Customs Official 1: Do you have all your documents?

Norma: Of course I do.

CO1: Photocopy of your passport, please. And your hotel reservation in Oblivia.

Norma: I do not have those things. 

CO1: Next door is the Internet. The Internet has all the things.

Norma uses the powers of the Internet and the printers to print her reservation, which she made for free that morning with no intention to actually stay at such an expensive hotel, and to copy her passport.

CO1: Here is this visa application.
Norma fills out the visa application.

CO1: And where is your proof of yellow fever vaccination?

Norma had read that morning on the Internets that the yellow fever vaccination is a federal requirement for entering Oblivia. However, the Internets also said that there was no yellow fever in the mountains, plus the vaccine was expensive and might hurt.

Norma: That vaccination was not recommended to me. I am not going to the jungle.

CO1: That does not matter. The vaccine is a federal requirement for entering Oblivia.

Norma: That vaccination was not recommended to me. I am not going to the jungle. 

CO1: In that case, no problem. As a border official, federal requirements for entering my country are not important to me. Do you have a copy of your flight reservation for your return to the United States?

Norma: I will be leaving your country by bus, not by airplane.

CO1: That does not matter. The flight reservation is a federal requirement for entering Oblivia.

Norma does not seem to hear this statement. Perhaps the wax in her ears momentarily thickened. This is a common phenomenon at the Oblivian border, according to Internet Travel Blogs. Unlike for yellow fever, there is not yet a vaccine to prevent this condition.

CO1: Proceed to the next window to pay your visa fee.

CO2: $160 US dollars, please.
Norma hands over $160.

CO2: And also 50 oblivianos.

Norma senses something rotten in the state of Denmark, but hands over 50 oblivianos. After all, while there is no vaccine to prevent the non-hearing of federal requirements for entering Oblivia, the condition can occasionally be treated by the immediate application of 50 oblivianos for a full recovery.

CO2 sticks the Oblivian visa onto a full page of Norma’s passport.

CO3: I would like to put the Oblivian entrance stamp next to the Peruvian exit stamp. Where is the exit stamp?

Norma: Customs Official 2 just stuck a visa on top of it.

CO3: Darn.

CO3 spends five minutes unsticking and resticking the visa. In the end, it is not legible, but still apparently valid for ten years. 

Customs Officials 1, 2, and 3 (in chorus): Welcome to Oblivia.

Norma: Thanks, I guess.

ACT 2

Scene 1. Oblivia. The sun is shining and the pit orchestra is playing “Copacabana” and drinking fruity cocktails. 

Taxista: Taxi, taxi!

Some French people appear.

Norma: Hey French people, good afternoons. Would you like to share a taxi with me?

French People: Yes.

Norma and the French People split a taxi to Copacabana. They find cheap lodging and all live happily ever after.

Scene 2: Copacabana, still.

Norma has just spent all day gliding about Lake Titcaca and listening to French People and also some German People. Walking back from the shore to her cheap lodging, she meets an Argentinian Person.

Argentinian Person: Good afternoons! I have an Argentinian accent! Also please come to my free concert at this bar later.

Norma: Sure thing!

Scene 3: Norma drags the French People to the free concert, and then after the concert they go to another free concert at another bar, full of other Argentinian People. 

Argentinian People: Good evenings! Listen to our accents! Here is some birthday cake because it is our birthday. 

Norma: Thanks, I guess. Nice accents. 

Scene 4: Cochabamba, Oblivia. Norma visits a Friend from College.

Norma: Hello, College Friend! How do you like Cochabamba?

College Friend: The people driving their cars like to try to hit me, and there is a lot of smoke in the air. Also, I am not allowed to eat any of the delicious fruit in the market because my Study Abroad director says it might make me sick. But at least there are lots of parades! 

Norma: I will eat double fruit for you. 

She does. It is double delicious. They watch some parades and eat ice cream and go to a free contemporary dance performance and a concert.

Norma: Goodbye, College Friend. 

Scene 5: Potosí, Oblivia.

Norma: Hello again, College Friend. You are also in Potosí.

College Friend: Yes. Field trip. Want to go to a museum?

Norma crashes the field trip and goes to the museum. She learns about silver mining and coin minting. 

College Friend: I know you were planning on staying another day here in Potosí, but there’s a strike starting tomorrow and lasting an indeterminate length of time, so you should probably get out of here immediately. Bye.

Norma: Bye.

At the terminal, Norma runs into a German Person she saw earlier at the museum. He is also going to Uyuni on a different bus and recommends the Piedra Blanca hostel. 

Scene 6: Uyuni, Oblivia.

Norma arrives at midnight and asks the bus driver where the Piedra Blanca hostel is. She goes the the hostel, sleeps, and in the morning goes searching the town for a tour of the salt flats.

German Person: Hello! I could not find the Piedra Blanca hostel. Alas. Let’s go to the salt flats.

Norma: Yes, let’s.

Scene 7: The Salt Flats.

The tour consists of the German Person, four Belgian People, Emilio the driver, and Norma. 

German Person: What amazing salt! It is very flat!

Norma: What amazing flamingos! 

Belgian People: Let’s play cards.

Emilio: Here is a volcano. And Chile. 

German Person: What amazing llamas! 

Norma: What amazing geysers! And check out those pits of boiling mud.

Belgian People: Let’s play cards.

Emilio: Here is a hot spring. 

ACT 3

Scene 1: Norma takes a bus to the Argentinian border. It is 10 pm.

Oblivian Customs Official: Good nights. Tomorrow the border is closed for Oblivian elections. Leave now, probably.

Norma: Sure thing. 

Argentinian Customs Official: Good nights. Welcome to Argentina. 

Scene 2: Norma is excited to be back in Argentina. She meets a group of four travelers – Brazilian, Colombian, and two from Japan, both named Yu – and they all walk to the bus terminal. 

Norma: I don’t feel like taking any more buses.

Colombian Person: I’m broke. Let’s hitch hike. 

Yu: Well, we’re taking a bus. See you later.

Yu: Good luck!

Brazilian Person: Hasta la pasta.

Scene 3: Norma and her new companion triumphantly sleep on their backpacks in the bus terminal until morning, or at least for two hours. They wake up surrounded by people and dogs, all watching them. 

People: Good days. Where are you going?

Norma and Colombian Person: Jujuy.

People: On which bus?

Colombian Person: Buses are lame!

Norma: Bye.

Dogs: Bye.

Scene 4: Jujuy, Argentina.

Norma and her new friend have arrived in the back of a pickup truck. The scenery was exquisite and now they are exhausted and wondering how to possibly find Yu, Yu, and the Brazilian. 

Yu: Good afternoons!

Yu: Good afternoons!

Brazilian: How fortuitous that we are all wandering around the same street. We already found cheap lodging. Let’s go make dinner.

Yu: I will cook for everyone.

Norma joins the group, takes a hot shower, eats the hot dinner, and immediately falls asleep for 11 hours. 

THE END

P.S. Jujuy was okay, Yu cooked great food even if it was spicy, Yu did circus tricks with fire, and then Norma hitched a ride to Salta with another French couple. Now she is there, basking in the Internets and sniffing around for some tango dancing.

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Pieces of Peru

Some last notes on Peru, in no particular order:
If you don’t like the price of something, you can always change it. There is a general feeling that nothing should ever cost more than five dollars – not a meal, not a hotel room, not an alpaca scarf, nothing. Everything is cheap.

Yes, there are lots of short women in skirts, leggings, aprons, long braids, and felt hats carrying babies or other burdens wrapped in bright scarves on their backs. A lot of people, including these women, speak Quechua as their first language, not Spanish.

Adults in informal conversation call each other (and sometimes their children) “mami” and “papi.” 

Here is a newspaper article on Yuber’s trek to Choquequirao, if anyone feels like practicing reading in Spanish.  

Water in Peru is generally not potable. It was a new experience for me to think about how much water I used, in liters, per day, as I would boil it the night before to fill my bottles. What a privilege, to have potable tap water.

I feel like I only saw a tiny portion of the country, and it was spectacularly beautiful at every turn. Visit Peru, everyone.

Nerd moment: People in Peru, especially older people, pronounce the “ll” like “ly,” with just a hint of the “l” before the “y” sound. So, the verb “llegar,” “to arrive,” in Peruvian Spanish sounds like “lyegar” (though a young person might pronounce the “l” so minimally that I don’t even notice it), whereas a Chilean would pronounce it “yegar,” a Spaniard would pronounce it “jhegar” with a very soft “j,” almost as soft as the second “g” in “garage,” and an Argentinian would pronounce it “shegar.” The “ly” pronunciation comes from Spain Spanish from the era of the conquista. Spanish in Spain has since evolved away from that pronunciation, and has evolved differently in different parts of the former Spanish empire. Cool, right?

Cusco and Puno were overwhelmingly touristic after the trek from Choquequirao. However, it was lovely to spend a few days in Cusco in a real house with real adults and running water and a bed. Octavio biked over from Abancay and we found some really cool free ruins to visit instead of the more popular, expensive ones. 

   
 Huchuyqosqo 

Also, in Cusco I ran into the Germans from Huancavelica, Sonja and Frank (still in his black corduroy bell bottoms), and a couple of other people I had seen in other tourist spots. 

  
Cusco main plaza

In Puno I took a boat out onto Lake Titicaca to visit the Islas de los Uros, which are islands made of blocks of rooty earth and reeds. I learned that “titi” means “puma” and “caca” means “gray like stone,” and that if you look at a map of the lake upside down (the map can be upside down, or you can be, either way), part of it apparently looks like the shape of a puma. Maybe this works better if you are upside down rather than the map.

  
From Puno I crossed the border to Copacabana, Bolivia. I think the story of the crossing is best related as a short dramatic piece, which I am currently drafting. 

  
Here I am with the Argentinians at our campsite below Machu Picchu.

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