January 18, 2004

Ushuia, Argentina

I've spent the last week in Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego. Patagonia is a cold, barren stretch of forever with incredible skies at least that big. It's kind of hard to explain just what it that's so beautiful about this place, but I've always wanted to see it and it's been worth the trip. The highlight was definitely the Moreno Glacier - a moving icefield of compact Andean snow that veeeeeery slowly makes its way down from the mountains toward Lake Argentina. It reaches the lake as a wall of ice 60 meters high and 5km wide. As the water melts out the glacier's support from underneath, enormous slabs of ice shear off and crash in slow motion to the water below. The sound is deafening (I remember hearing Star Wars' sound designer Ben Burtt say he used the sound of a glacier shearing for the landing effect of Queen Amidala's ship - wonder if this was it). The low point was the yogurt I picked up for breakfast in El Calafate. It must have sat on a warm truck somewhere, because about half an hour after going down, it wanted back up again in a big way. I spent the rest of the day doing just that. Really glamorous on a glacier. Couldn't keep anything down for a few days afterward.

I'm in Ushuaia now - the world's southernmost city. This week, statistically the southern hemisphere's warmest (and the northern hemisphere's coldest - take heart up there, it'll get better), it's been hitting 11 degrees, but even a light breeze out of the Antarctic makes it feel much, much colder. Don't think I'd want to be here in six months. The surrounding fjords and glacier-capped mountains are stunning - especially at sunset which happens at about 10pm here, even now a month after the solstice.

Well, that's it. End of the road. Literally. The world's southernmost highway is Argentina's #3 which continues southwest from Ushuaia into Tierra del Fuego National Park, then ends abruptly on the shore of Lapatia Bay off the Straight of Magellan. Earlier today I ambled on down that road and stood at the shore looking over the bottom of the world.

That's it. Lest I head to Antartica, I've come as far as I can go. Nowhere to go but back.

Posted by dhuska at 02:35 PM | Comments (0)

January 13, 2004

Buenos Aires, Argentina

I don't know what I can say about Buenos Aires that hasn't already been written a thousand times - and Buenos Aires has inspired a lot of writing.

Buenos Aires really is Europe in South America. Dripping with theater, music, art, architecture, fashion and cuisine, this city of about 17 million almost seems to have been transplanted from the other side of the world, but muted Latin American characteristics betray the city's location. Populated almost entirely by Europeans about 500 years ago, the city maintains their culture in just about everything.

Much has also been written about the dysfunctional collective mentality of this city. Pundits seem to love typecasting locals as European wannabees, reminiscing the past glory of their city and secretly lamenting the unattainable of European equality. I've encountered none of this. The people here have as much style, charm and warmth as you could hope to find anywhere else.

I suppose however, that it's possible Argentina's recent political and economic problems have taken some of the collective huff out of Buenos Aires' sails. This used to be one of the world's most expensive cities, more expensive than Paris even, and the peso was pegged to the US dollar one-to-one. When Argentina faltered on $200+ billion in loan payments to the IMF in 2001, the economy melted. The peso was unpegged and plummeted immediately. The economy has since regained strength, but the peso is still only a third of what it was, and Argentina's problems with it's politicians (it's presidents especially) are still legendary.

I'm leaving tomorrow for Patagonia. I've only been here in Buenos Aires 5 days, and if Patagonia wasn't somewhere I've always wanted to see, I don't think I'd leave. I think I only leave now knowing I'll be back in a week.

Posted by dhuska at 03:53 PM | Comments (0)

January 07, 2004

Cordoba, Argentina

I was warned that one of the first things I'd notice about Argentina is that the people don't look much like other South Americans. It's true. The majority of Argentina's population is of European descent - particularly from Spain and Italy. It's living up to it's other stereotypes as well: The people are great, the Spanish is fast and quirky (but very intelligible), the wine is fantastic, and the beef the best in the world.

I spent my first few days in Argentina in Mendoza - the heart of Argentina's wine country - and smack in the middle of a heat wave. It hit 40 degrees every day I was there, but any place where wine is less expensive then water is ok in my books. Those who know BC's Okanagan Valley would be hard pressed to tell the difference between the two landscapes. Mendoza is a quiet university town that for the most part could be any quiet, older city in North America except that it draws climbers from around the world who wish to summit nearby Aconcagua - the world's highest peak outside of Asia.

I'm now in Cordoba, Argentina's second-largest city. This (not so quiet) university city lays claim to one of the better medical faculties in the world, some amazing architecture, and a whopping inferiority complex to Buenos Aires. A short stay here and record-high temperatures will probably keep me from getting out around town much.

Posted by dhuska at 09:03 PM | Comments (1)

January 02, 2004

Santiago, Chile

Haven't been posting much in the way of writing or images the last few weeks. Sorry to anyone hoping to get a better look at Chile. Guess the lethargy of the holidays got to me. I'll pick up the pace in Argentina.

Chile has been very, very relaxing. Travel here is effortless (though expensive). Heck, you can even drink the water and flush toilet paper! And while it may be possible to tire of living on wine and seafood, two weeks hasn't been long enough to find out.

The world's most arid desert isn't the Sahara, it's the Atacama in Chile, and for days I watched it roll by out the window from Arica to La Serena. In between I stayed in Antofagasta for a few days. As Chile's second-largest, and rather unremarkable city, many seem to put it down (though not Chileans - they're proud of every nook and cranny of their country). I liked it for no other reason than I saw no other foreigners the whole time I was there.

I spent a quiet few days over Christmas in La Serena, where pretty much everything was either a zoo in preparation for the holidays, or closed. I spent most my time here vegging out in the sun, but I did manage to get out to the observatories in the desert for a look at the stars under the world's most ideal viewing conditions. The world has built it's largest telescopes here, and no wonder; the sky here is amazing! From here it looks as though the world is wrapped in a blanket of stars. You can easily see Mars, Venus and Saturn with the naked eye.

After La Serena, I spent the last week of the year in Valparaíso, where about a quarter-million Chileans and foreigners go for the New Year festivities. By the 29th there wasn't a room left in the city! The city itself is peculiar: built on and around the cliffs that rise straight up out of the ocean, there are more than a dozen elevators downtown used just for moving people a few blocks. Directions here are useless as the city is laid out completely haphazard. Cobblestone roads loop, swirl and double back past colonial houses, then turn into a footpath or a staircase up a cliff. Besides the landscapes and the beaches of sister city Viña Del Mar, many come for the New Year's fireworks, which the city boasts are the world's third most spectacular display. I don't know if that's true or not, but they were awesome.

If the rest of Chile has been stripped of its Latin American feel, Santiago is downright devoid of it. This is Anytown, North America, except they speak Spanish - sort of. They speak a mile a minute, lop off the last syllable of most words, and sprinkle their speech liberally with interjections. Far from a slight against the country, their terrible speech seems to be a point of national pride for Chileans. Along with the usual questions about what I think of their country, I'm also often asked what I think of their speech. One legal clerk I spoke with told me that unlike Canada where court transcripts must be written in court, in Chile they are recorded and later transcribed because no stenographer could possibly keep an accurate live record.

Sometime in the next few days I'm going to head back into the Andes for the last time and cross over into Argentina.

Posted by dhuska at 09:11 AM | Comments (1)