July 31, 2004

Argentinian cuisine and the All-Protein diet

If there is one thing synonymous with Argentina, it is beef.

Argentinians love their beef, in all its glory. And with good reason, I might add.

A few nights ago, I had my first Argentinian steak. What a steak it was. Nobody who has spent their lives in Canada has ever eaten such a steak as that one. Sorry Alberta, you don't hold a candle to Argentina.

It was the most juicy, flavourful, delicious steak that I have ever had the good fortune to taste. It was not the way it was seasoned. I don't think there was anything added other than a bit of salt. It was not the way it was cooked. "Cooked" is a fairly poor description of how I like to eat my steak. The beef itself was simply superior to any other beef I've ever experienced. The cows themselves must be some breed of über-cow. Either that or maybe they're just not pumped full of steroids and growth hormones here. Or maybe they just have bigger and better steroids.

Whatever the reason, it was one tasty steak. And it was huge - a solid inch thick, or maybe more, and it took up most of the plate. And it was cheap too. The steak, a side of mashed potatoes, and a Heiniken to wash it down set me back about 6 dollars. Pretty spectacular.

A steakhouse in Argentina is known as a "Parrilla", and usually when you walk in there's a massive wood-fired grill off to one side, completely covered with an assortment of animal parts. It's awesome. They serve this dish called a "Parrillada", usually for at least 2 people. After you order it, they bring you an iron mini-grill with a bed of embers below, and atop the grill is a heaping portion of various incarnations of protein. There is everything - a couple steaks, but also sausages, ribs, liver, blood sausage, and other tasty parts that I couldn't recognise. We ordered a 3-person parrillada for lunch and split it between 4, and there was no way we could finish everything. It was insane.

Then we waited a few hours and went out for steaks.

Posted by major at 05:31 PM | Comments (2)

July 25, 2004

Through Bolivia and on to Chile

I started my trip through Bolivia with a visit to Copacabana, not the Brazilian beach and not the Copacabana of Barry Manilow fame, but a really nice place nonetheless. It's a small resort-type town on the southern shores of Lake Titicaca, and the area is really beautiful. I spent one night camping on the nearby Isla del Sol, according to Inca legend the birthplace of the Sun, and the view of the sun coming up over the mountains and the lake makes it pretty clear why the Inca held the place to be sacred.

From Copacabana, I headed southeast to La Paz, where I spent the next few days. Of all the big cities I've visited, La Paz was definitely the nicest. The setting is pretty spectacular - the city is located in a steep valley, and when you arrive from the surrounding plains the whole city is laid out below you. The city centre and the nicest areas are located right at the bottom, and from there you can see the city rise up around you.

My third day in La Paz was definitely one of the strangest I've spent in South America. On Sunday, July 18th, a national referendum was held concerning oil exports. There was a fair amount of protest leading up to the referendum, and the government was worried enough that a national state of emergency was declared three days before the vote. On the actual referendum day, all vehicles were banned from the streets of La Paz, and almost all businesses were closed. Even all the market stalls disappeared from the streets. It was pretty amazing to see - a city of somewhere around 2 million people suddenly turned into a ghost town. In the end, there was nothing to worry about. I didn't even see any protests.

The next stop was Potosi, a 10-hour night bus away. So I thought. After setting out at 9PM, I woke up around 2AM when the bus suddenly started to stop. I looked outside to see what was going on, and the bus was surrounded by huge bonfires. Apparently the local people had some issue regarding the town's borders and had set up a roadblock in protest. No traffic in either direction was getting through.

I woke up around 8 in the morning and we still hadn't moved an inch. I spent the whole day on the side of the highway, hanging out in the sun and reading a book. We were just a little ways outside of a town, so there were people walking up and down the huge line of buses, selling snacks and drinks to the crowds of people who had no idea how to pass the time. Finally around 5 in the afternoon, the army sent in a couple jeeploads of troops to clear up the situation, and I arrived in Potosi around 8, almost 24 hours after leaving La Paz.

Potosi is located beside Cerro Rico, "rich hill", a small mountain where a huge deposit of silver was discovered over 400 years ago, and the hill has been mined ever since. At one point the city was actually the biggest in the Western Hemisphere.

I visited the mines in Cerro Rico, and what I saw was unbelievable. The mine is a collective mine - it's not owned or run by any company. All of the miners work for themselves and sell the ore they excavate. With no organization, the result is that miners pretty much dig wherever they want, leading to an absolute jumble of caverns and passageways within the mountain. The state is such that an American consultant predicted 11 years ago that the whole mountain would implode within 7 years. Four years past the deadline, miners still are working just as they have for the last 400 years.

Over that time, conditions in the mine have changed remarkably little. It was eye-opening to watch the miners at work. There is no modern technology, no equipment, no machines. Everything is done by hand, in cramped and hot passageways. I spent some time watching a miner working in a really tight spot, trying to drive a chisel 50 cms into solid rock, where he would then pack in dynamite. After detonation, he would tranfer the removed rock up a narrow and winding passageway climbing to the level above. From there, he would load the rock into a mine cart on a track and then ride it Temple-of-Doom-style to the mine exit. It could have been the 1800's inside the mine and nothing would have looked any different. It must have been the worst job I have ever seen. Most of the miners develop silicosis in their 30's, and the life expectancy of the miners is something like 50 years. The miner that I was speaking to had been working in the mines since he was 14.

After Potosi, I headed to Uyuni, in the southwest of Bolivia. Nearby is the famous Salar de Uyuni, the world's largest salt flat. I did a 3-day tour of the flat and the surrounding mountains, visiting islands in the flats, geysers at 5000m elevation, brightly-coloured alkaline lagoons and aquamarine pools filled with bright pink flamingos. The whole trip stands out as definitely one of the highlights of the trip so far. The sight of a featureless white plain extending all the way to the horizon, with an utterly still pool of water in the foreground perfectly reflecting the stars above really was mind-boggling. Again, it is one of those places that really defy explanation without using pictures. You'll just have to wait until I get some up ;)

The trip took me to the border with Chile, from where I headed to San Pedro de Atacama, in the north of Chile in the Atacama Desert. That's where I am now, and I leave tomorrow. This place was quite a shock - after a couple months of being able to live on a few dollars a day, having to pay near-Canadian prices for meals and lodging really takes you by surprise. But tomorrow morning I leave and head southeast for Salta, Argentina, and from there I head south.

Posted by major at 10:28 AM | Comments (0)

July 14, 2004

Running for the border

The deadline was set. It was July 13. We - Alex, the German I'm travelling with; Nick, an American; and a couple, Ian and Louise (funny eh Steve?), an Aussie and a Brit - were in Puno, a Peruvian city on Lake Titicaca. There was a nationwide strike planned for July 14, which meant no buses, no taxis, no services, and no border crossing for at least a couple days, so it was either leave yesterday or wait until at least tomorrow. Waiting wasn't an option.

We talked to a few buses, but none were going to the border - there was already fear that they wouldn't be able to make it that far. After a little haggling, the 5 of us hired a collectivo - a van taxi - to take us the 3-hour trip or so to the border. It was 2PM, and the best information we had was that the border maybe closed at 6, but maybe at 8.

Half an hour out of town, we knew it would be difficult. Already the beginnings of roadblocks had sprung up across some of the major roads, and soon we began to keep to gravel backroads. Most of the time, I'm pretty sure even our driver had no idea where we were going. Everyone we passed, we asked for the situation up ahead, and it didn't sound too good.

An hour later, we came to a river. Crossing on the bridge wasn't an option, as it had been completely blockaded, so we came upon the river a couple kilometers downstream. From our vantage point on our gravel road, a hill sloped down to the right for about a hundred metres, a few tire tracks following the hill down and leading directly into the waters. Either we were driving right through this river, or we were turning around - there was no other option.

The situation didn't bode well. The river was about 70 metres wide at this point, and just a few metres from the opposite shore and pointed in our direction were two other vans that had obviously attempted the crossing and hadn't even managed to get near a quarter of the way across, the river coming up to the top of their wheelwells. Our driver got out, took off his shoes and waded across the river to check out the path. For the most part, the water was only up to his calfs, but occasionally it got just past his knees.

Meanwhile, the five of us were standing outside the van, thinking the situation had no hope. We were surrounded by schoolchildren who, judging by their complete fascination with us, had hardly ever seen tourists come through these parts. If you want off the beaten track, this was it - and if our vehicle got stuck, as the other two miserably had, off the beaten track meant nowhere to go.

There were a good fifty or seventy people watching the scene, and a hush came over all of them as our driver suddenly decided to go for it and sped towards the near shore. I had gotten out of the van to lighten the load, and I didn't think there was any way that the van was going to get across. This was no off-road vehicle - this was a 20-year-old 2-wheel-drive Toyota van, the model with the ridiculous mid-mounted engine where if you want to perform routine maintenance, you have to take the whole body off. The driver kept her going well across the first three-quarters of the river, drove right between the two abandoned vans, and miraculously made the far shore. We couldn't believe it. The guys who stayed in the van claimed that half the time it didn't even feel like the tires were touching the riverbed.

From the river, we improvised a road through a farmer's field before coming across the main paved road. We weren't home free yet. We came across a couple more roadblocks, with ever-more-vigilant protestors. The only reason we made it through any of them is because we are tourists - generally they let the tourists through, as we're not the target of the job action and the locals realize we inject a fair bit of cash into the local economy - but it nevertheless on occasion took a little financial lubrication, brokered by our driver, to get through.

Finally, at 6:30PM, we made Yunguyo, the Peruvian border town, praying that the border was open. People in the plaza were informing us that it wasn't, and we almost gave up there. However, we had a feeling that they were trying to con us, so we'd stay and rent rooms in their hotels, so we crossed the final few kilometres to the frontier.

A couple minutes later, we were there - with all of ten minutes to spare, as the border in reality closed at 7. Five hours of avoiding roadblocks, and we make it by mere minutes. We went through Peruvian immigration, then got our passports stamped in the Bolivian office, and they literally closed and locked the door as soon as we walked out. The only other tourists there were people who had tried to cross into Peru and had to turn back. I'm sure we were the only ones to make it across that afternoon.

Welcome to Bolivia.

Posted by major at 07:14 PM | Comments (1)

July 11, 2004

the Lost City of the Inca

July 11 today....Happy July 11th! One month from today I fly back to Canada. Three weeks from today Frank arrives in Argentina, and suddenly I feel as though I hardly have any time left.

For those of you out east, I'll be staying in Toronto the night of August 12th, so if you're in the area then let me know. And for those of you in Vancouver, I'll be home the afternoon of Friday the 13th. Jonny's back.

I spent a couple days in Arequipa checking out the sites, as tourists are wont to do. There are two of note: the Monastery of Santa Catalina, and the museum with the frozen body in it.

The Monastery has a pretty funny history. The place was home to a group of nuns that came from upper-crust society and who didn't exactly fit the general Mother Teresa image of the nun. Basically the place turned into a big party. Now I´m the first to admit that I have absolutely no idea what that means. I've never been to a nun party. I'm not really sure if we're talking Animal House or if someone just threw red socks in with the laundry, but it was enough that after a couple hundred years of debauchery, the Pope had to send someone over to stop them from misbehaving.

The place is around 400 years old but just opened to the public back in 1970. The architecture in the place is incredible - I would try to describe it but my architectural jargon consists of "roof" and "walls". It had both in places. They were painted pretty colours. I'll try and get some pics up (I have MANY).

And now what you've all been scanning quickly to get to: the frozen body! A while back - I forget when - an expedition up a local mountain came across the frozen tomb of an Incan girl, about 9 years old, who was sacrificed atop the volcano. She was dubbed "Juanita, the Ice Princess" and was transported to Arequipa, where she was deemed fit to spend eternity in a clear-walled freezer, her icy gaze endlessly peering out over a parade of soulless tourists. If a few cultures had envisioned that this was the eternal life mummification would bring, I'm sure we'd have uncovered a few less pyramids and a few more cremation urns.

Arequipa is close to the Colca Canyon, the world's second-deepest at around 3100m deep, and that's where I headed next. The world's deepest canyon, the Cotahuasi, is in the area too, but is 200km in a straight line and 16 hours by bus from Arequipa, so I opted for the Colca.

What do you do when you visit the World's (second) Deepest Canyon? You hike to the bottom and then you hike back out, of course. That was great.

The views were actually pretty impressive, not least of all the sight of condors swooping over our heads on our climb back out. Those immense birds are a sight to see - gracefully circling the canyon, riding thermals, never beating a wing.

After Arequipa, I hitched a night bus into Cusco, the Peruvian city close to the ruins of Machu Picchu. I hate Cusco. It's a nice city - colonial architecture, cobblestone streets, yada yada yada. The main problem is that it's full of tourists in unbelievable numbers. And with tourists come street vendors - you can barely take four steps without somebody new accosting you to buy socks or eat at their restaurant or go on their ridiculous tour.

The ruins around Cusco, however, are something to see. There's not just Machu Picchu - there are countless other sites in the vicinity. Even Cusco itself was a pretty major Inca centre, and a lot of the colonial buildings are built on Inca stone foundations, which have survived remarkably well.

What is interesting about the tourists is that there are a lot of American tourists. Backpacking around, you run into very few Americans. The hostels are full of people of every nationality - Canadian, Australian, all types of Europeans, but extremely few Americans. It seems their culture just doesn't breed backpackers - they are definitely more of the all-inclusive guided-tour see-the-third-world-through-a-fishbowl type. Cusco was packed full of them, and Machu Picchu was absolutely mobbed.

I had wanted to do a trek of some sort to get to Machu Picchu, but it proved pretty much impossible. The famous Inca Trail fills up weeks in advance, and the idea of hiking on a crowded trail wasn't that appealing anyways. There's another trek that I had wanted to do, the Salcantay, but weird weather had snowed in the pass, so no go there either.

What I ended up doing was catching the train to Aguas Calientes, a made-for-tourists town in the valley below Machu Picchu itself that can best be described as the Whistler Village of Peru. The morning after arriving, I got up at 4 in the morning to hike up to the ruins by daybreak.

Machu Picchu was incredible. I'm pretty sure I was the first person there, and the ruins were deserted. It was cloudy unfortunately, but the effect of the mists swirling between the buildings was probably even more effective than sun could have been. I spent hours wandering between the ancient houses, through the temples, past the altars and among the terraces. What a place. All the while, you're surrounded by steep forested Andean peaks rising up from the steep-walled valley below.

Almost as interesting as the ruins themselves were the tourists. I had a few hours in the morning where the place was fairly empty, but once the tour groups started arriving, the place turned into a giant ant farm. The conversations I overheard were worth the price of admission. There was the guy walking around the ruins talking about what type and how many cups of coffee he drinks at the office, the girls pondering whether harder rocks "have more mineral in them", and the guy on the phone explaining that Machu Picchu isn't in a cave. Too funny.

Posted by major at 04:26 PM | Comments (0)

July 02, 2004

Following the footsteps of Von Daniken

I stayed in Lima all of a night and a morning - just long enough to head down to the South American Explorer's Clubhouse and pick up a travel guide to Argentina. Yes, Argentina! Looks like I'll be spending about 2 weeks in the northwestern part of it to finish off my trip. Frank's flying in to Santiago and heading that way at the end of July.

The road around the Lima area is nothing short of bizarre. The region is desert, nothing but sand interrupted by the occasional rock, roadside shop or rusted skeleton of a car. The sand begins right at the ocean and immediately rises up at what must be the steepest angle sand can possibly rise up at before reaching the highway, which somehow manages to defy physics and stick to the precarious surface beneath it. It looks as though a bit of a wind would just blow all the sand out from under the road, leaving it free to plunge into the waves below. The sand slope, hundreds of metres long and sloped at what must be a perfectly straight angle of about 40 degrees, give or take, funnels whatever happens to be so unfortunate as to land on it right down to the beach - garbage, random debris, and even the odd and unfortunate car. Adding to the mystique, at this time of year a thick coastal fog envelops the area at all hours of every day. Sand hills and oncoming cars fade in and out of view, and often there's nothing but grey. Overall it's downright spooky.

Three hours of this southwards took me to Pisco, where I stopped to visit the Islas Ballestas. Hazy memories of grade 6 geography still manage to associate Peru with anchovies and guano, and here I find the guano. I don't think I've ever seen so many birds in my entire life put together, never mind in one place at one time. Squadrons of them arc across the sky in every direction, looking like a bad Jetsons rush hour. The noise - and the smell - are overwhelming.

The guano is still a lucrative business but is only harvested every 7 years. In the meantime, the birds are left alone while the guano deepens. To protect against theives, two guards live on the islands full-time. This prompts two questions: First of all, is there a worse job in the world than living on a deserted island and guarding a big smelly pile of shit? And second, what could possibly possess an aspiring thief to conclude that the best path to riches would be to buy a boat and fill it with shit before making a stealthy and odorifirous getaway, instead of, say, stealing diamonds or robbing banks? Or, for that matter, picking off innocent and unsuspecting camera-waving tourists, all gazing blankly at the sky while crammed into small and easily-commandeerable boats?

I turned inland from Pisco and gained just enough elevation to rise above above the coastal mists, emerging from the haze in the desert town of Ica. You could have told me it was the Sahara and I hardly would have known different. To the west, dunes hundreds of metres high dominate the horizon. I stayed in the oasis town of Huacachina, 4 kilometres to the west and right amongst the dunes. The town is nothing more than a small circle of hotels, restaurants and palm trees surrounding the apparently man-made lagoon. The area wasn't entirely unfamiliar - the image of the oasis also appears on the back Peru's 50-Soles bill, which I take a close look at on a daily basis to check for counterfeit banknotes. I hiked up to the top of the highest dune in sight, which was harder to do than you can possibly imagine, and was treated to a view of endless dunes stretching towards the setting sun. Quite the sight.

Huacachina, definitely smack in the middle of the backpacker trail, is famous for desert dune buggy rides and sandboarding, and I definitely gave both a shot. The dune buggy tour was a blast. The contraption holds around 15 people, and whenever we crested a dune, the driver just punched the throttle on the downslope. In Canada or the US, you'd have to sign a waiver, strap down your 5 seatbelts, wear your safety glasses and sign away your children's souls to ride one of those. In Peru you just have to hold onto the seat in front of you until your knuckles turn white.

The ride came with a free sandboarding lesson and a few runs down some big dunes, so soon we pulled to a stop on top of a nice untouched slope of sand. The lesson was over quickly - it consisted of a guy yelling "¡Vamos!". Lesson complete, I pointed 'er downhill.

Sandboarding is a lot like taking a beach and pouring it into your eye. Take snowboarding, make the snow abrasive, take away all semblance of control, and there you have it. There seems to be no such thing as being able to turn - you just point downhill, take a deep breath and go, and hopefully the dune ends before you take a spill.

Four more hours south and my found myself in Nasca, home of UFO landing strips, messages to higher forms of intelligence and communications with the gods - also known as the Nasca lines. I caught a ride in the back of a 6-seater Cessna, and we took an acrobatic and stomach-turning tour over the bleak expanse. So far, this has been one of the highlights of the trip - the lines are quite the sight. Laser-straight rays and animal figures cover hundreds of square kilometres. If there was one negative, it was that the sheer emptiness of the plains cause you to lose your sense of perspective, making it difficult to tell how big the shapes actually are. Some of the animal figures are as long as 300 metres, but you wouldn't know it from the air. If there was a second negative, it would be the poor girl beside me who became separated from her breakfast.

In the area, I also visited a restored Nasca cemetary (the Nasca are a pre-Inca people of the area) and an ancient Nasca aquaduct. The aquaduct was actually also quite a highlight - it was constructed 1700 years ago and still brings water across the bone-dry desert to the farmers and the city. There are a series of 29 of them, built as deep as 12 metres below the desert, all still functional due to their good design and their maintenance by generations of farmers.

Early this morning I arrived in Arequipa, Peru's second-biggest city. Today it rained, so today I write.

Posted by major at 01:23 PM | Comments (1)