Our last huzzah

Night on the streets of Buenos Aires

Since my father and his wife Joyce were visiting us in Buenos Aires for Christmas, we checked in to the luxurious downtown Plaza Hotel to await their arrival. For the last week of our sixteen months in South America, we would be living at a very different standard than we had become accustomed to. Uniformed attendants opened the polished brass doors as we entered the marble lobby and a bellman took our bags to our room. Our suite of rooms was just slightly smaller than our apartment in San Francisco, and I leapt on to the fantastic bed (complete with down mattress cover and eight fluffy pillows) as Chris turned on both of our flat screen TVs. To get in to the Christmas spirit, we went to a nearby dollar store and bought the best plastic Christmas tree, lights, and sparkly bangles $15 can buy.

Busy shoppers on Calle Florida

Despite the snow storm that shut down most of northeastern US travel for 24 hours and resulted in the cancellation of their flight, Dad and Joyce managed to catch a flight only a day later than they had originally planned. After they arrived in Buenos Aires, we immediately hit the packed streets around our hotel for a little shopping. Buenos Aires is known for its cutting edge fashion as well as inexpensive leather products, so we wandered the streets for a couple of hours, avoiding the stores with agressive hawkers inviting their ‘friends’ in for a ‘special bargain.’ In addition to the fantastic shopping during the day, we ended most evenings enjoying fine wine and food. My father quickly settled in to a routine of ordering a refreshing white Torrontés to accompany appetizers and a rich Malbec to compliment huge steaks.

Around the sparkling dollar-store tree Christmas night

While taking a tour of the city to get a feel for its many different neighborhoods, we stopped at the Cementario de la Recoleta. This elaborate cemetery guards the remains of Buenos Aires’ elite families who pay dearly for some of the most expensive real estate in Argentina. Walking the narrow alleys of the cemetery we recognized names that are commonly used for streets in any town in Argentina, such as Sarmiento, Mitre, and Alvear, but we were headed for the cemetery’s most visited resident: Evita Peron. Luckily when we visited the cemetery, it was almost empty. We visited her grave without waiting in a line that can stretch around the corner. Some mausoleums were constructed from immaculate marble with elaborate statues guarding the entrance of tombs complete with stained glass windows. Others were crumbling into rubble, the tomb’s entrance a mess of broken glass and wooden shards.

Elaborate statues in the Recoleta Cemetary

We also took a one-hour boat ride across the mouth of the Rio de la Plata to visit the exquisitely preserved town of Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay. The oldest town in Uruguay, it was originally settled by Portugal in 1680, and changed hands many times between Portugal, Spain, and Brazil before the entire independent country of Uruguay was established in 1828. We wandered its rough cobble stone streets, peeked in some preserved homes, and enjoyed a quiet lunch on the main town square before heading back to Buenos Aires later that afternoon.

Lighthouse built in the remains of a crumbling cathedral in Colonia de Sacramento

We spent our last day in Buenos Aires with my parents wandering the picturesque streets of the San Telmo neighborhood. Every Sunday this area hosts a huge antiques fair, complete with tango dancing demonstrations and empanada vendors on every corner. We lingered over some beautiful old seltzer bottles, as well as soon cool gaucho equipment, but decided our bags were already too full to fit just one more thing. After they left that night, we spent another 48 hours in Argentina before heading to the airport ourselves. And now, this is it: our last blog post from Latin America. At 5:30 am December 30th we took off from Buenos Aires International Airport on a flight (via Panama City, Panama and Houston, Texas) to Miami, Florida. I never thought I would say this, but I’m ready to stop traveling for a while. We are looking forward to some quality family time in the United States as we figure out what we want to do with our lives. Taking this trip has been one of the best things we have done with our lives, and I know it has permanently changed us. Still to come for those who are interested: a greatest hits list, and an estimated budget for those considering a similar trip. Thanks for reading our blog and sharing the last 18 amazing months with us.

Old seltzer bottles for sale in San Telmo

Somehow it all worked out in the end

After six tranquillo days on Panagea ranch, we drove a beautiful route through the heart of gaucho Uruguay to the coast. We stopped halfway to the coast at a canyon called Quebrada de las Cuervas and shared the campground that night with about 200 high school students from Montevidéo. Luckily the campground was large so we managed to avoid most of the chaos. Waking up the next morning we took an interesting hike in to the nearby canyon. The hiking trail consisted mainly of ropes to help hikers scramble down almost vertical jumbles of rocks to reach the rushing river below. After pulling ourselves back up the canyon wall, we continued on to the coast.

Quebrada de las Cuervas, Uruguay

The weather got cold and cloudy as we reached the beach in the small town of La Paloma, so we pulled out our winter clothes as we set up our campsite by the shore. We were a little worried about the pine trees groaning in the wind around our car. After caballo‘s narrow escape from the tornado, we felt it might be pushing our luck to park below so many creaking branches. One branch crashed harmlessly to the ground about ten feet from our car, so that blessing from Copacabana, Bolivia, still must be functioning.

Windworn Virgin greets people on the beach in La Paloma

After a week without internet, we pulled out our laptops in our Wifi-enabled campground and tried to catch up. My heart sank as I read an email from the company we thought we had a reservation with for shipping our car back to the states. Turns out the boat wasn’t going to the US after all. Several weeks ago when we made the reservation, the shipping agent neglected to mention that when they told us a boat was scheduled to go to Florida, there wasn’t actually any confirmed cargo for that boat (and our car isn’t enough to send an ocean tanker anywhere). No shipments had come through, so they were canceling the trip. Panicked I called the shipper and they really couldn’t help us. They recommended we contact K-Line, another shipper, to see if they had any ships sailing. Luckily I quickly was able to confirm a K-Line ship sailing from Buenos Aires to Florida a week later than we had originally planned. Given this change of plans, we had an extra week to burn before we needed to return to Buenos Aires. After spending four days checking out the coastal cities of Punta del Este, Piriápolis, and Montevidéo, we returned to the estancia Panagea for another week of ridin’, wrangling’, and wraslin’.

Piglets on the Panagea Ranch

With great trepidation we then returned to Buenos Aires and headed to the port. After dealing with paperwork, corruption, and inefficiency when we shipped our car from Panamá to Colombia, we were ready for a fight. Amazingly, we arrived at the port, met with the aduana (customs) to show some documents, crossed the hall from the aduana to the shippers, and the keys were out of our hands within thirty minutes. The hardest part of the process was actually finding the port. Fingers crossed that the car will show up on January 17 in Jacksonville Florida. For detailed information about shipping the car, please see our Drive the Americas website. Next and last on the agenda for our trip, holidays in Buenos Aires with some family.

Epilogue

While sitting in downtown Tacuarembó (30 minutes from the estancia) using the free Wifi around the town square, our car and its California license plates attracted the attention of a local news team. They brought over a reporter, camera, and microphone, and proceeded to interview us for five minutes in Spanish. For all of our Spanish speaking friends, please try not to laugh too hard at our terrible Spanish. Our Spanish deteriorated under the pressure of becoming a local celebrity. See the YouTube video or watch it below. The subtitles I added indicate what we meant to say, minus all of the grammatical errors and other embarrassments.

Homeward bound – on December 30th 2009

Launch party with cul-de-sacs, Nicaragua, January 2009

We marked a milestone in our travels this week: we know when the trip will be ‘done’. We will arrive back in the United States on a not-so-direct flight from Buenos Aires to Panama City to Houston to Miami around midnight on December 30th.

Beers at the Waikiki in Panama City, April 2009

After spending a food-, wine-, and Sopranos-filled week with Kelsey and Tom at the lovely beach resort town of Pinamar, we headed north to our ultimate destination, Buenos Aires. We spent a week in Buenos Aires doing a little sightseeing, but mainly running around the greater Buenos Aires area trying to figure out how to ship our car back to the states. Through our Drive the Americas website I had two good leads on potential shipping companies, and one of them, Multimar, offered a good price and good timing. Their next boat was leaving for the states on December 13th, and the car would delivered to Tampa Florida for under $1,300. Relieved that we found an economical option, we booked a spot on the good ship ‘Pluto Leader’ and then tried to figure out the necessary paperwork. Since Multimar typically helps exporters ship hundreds to thousands of cars, they didn’t really know what paperwork would be necessary for one used car being shipped by its owners. After visiting the aduana (customs) in two locations in Buenos Aires and 70 miles away at the port where our ship would sail, we finally found out that (supposedly) we don’t need any special paperwork. A very different process than the maze of bureaucracy we had to navigate in Panama to get our car to Colombia. We’ll see if it’s all so easy when we arrive at the port and try to put our car on the ship on December 6th. And of course I will post full shipping details on Drive the Americas once the process is complete.

Sailing from Panama to Colombia, April 2009

We also marked a much sadder milestone during our time in Buenos Aires: we said goodbye to Tom and Kelsey. While we have been saying hello and goodbye to them throughout this trip as we meet up and then travel separately for different periods of time, it has always been a comfort to know that we will see them somewhere in our near future. With both of our trips ending in Buenos Aires in the next month, it finally came time to say goodbye for an indeterminate period of time. While we are discussing a reunion in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for Carnival in 2010, it will still be much too long of a time before we can share some red wine over a sparking parilla. They have been one of our favorite parts of this trip, and while we are still traveling in Uruguay for a couple of weeks before returning to Buenos Aires for our last weeks in South America, the trip definitely feels like it is winding down.

Caribbean beaches of Colombia, May 2009

Stay tuned: while we won’t be seeing Tom and Kelsey in person for a bit, the four of us have a new website in the works…we will announce it here when it formally launches.

The end of the raod in Ushuaia Argentina, October 2009

All cold things great and small

Glacier Perito Moreno in Glaciers National Park, El Calafate Argentina

A general theme of our trip through Argentinian Patagonia has been the cold: wearing every available layer of clothing to stay warm, huddling in our ECamper at night to hide from the winds, complaining about the cold, lusting after the heat wave that is currently baking Buenos Aires. Because of this cold though, we were able to see two really unique things. After leaving Ushuaia we spent two long days driving northwest to reach Glaciers National Park outside of El Calafate. Home to the world’s third largest ice cap (Antarctica and Greenland are numbers one and two), this national park also boasts one of the world’s most accessible glaciers, Perito Moreno. It’s easy to get right next to this glacier without donning crampons or hiking any distance. We just drove our car up to the parking lot, walked about 100 yards on a well maintained board walk, and the glacier was staring right at us. I have never seen a glacier before and it blew me away. Towering more than 200 ft over Lake Argentina, deep aquamarine and cobalt blues radiated from inside the glacier’s icy towers. Huge chunks of the glacier periodically calved off and crashed into the lake. The initial whip-crack of the ice breaking followed by huge chunks of ice cannonballing into the lake sounded like thunder rumbling from the surrounding mountains.

We watched the glacier calve for several hours before the approaching snowstorm and whipping winds drove us back into the warm comfort of Caballo. I think we did a little damage to our poor car’s undercarriage on the next day’s drive. Five hours of gravel roads separated us from paved highways. Because the scenery was so monotonous and the road completely empty we might have driven a little quickly. We tried to ignore the frequent sound of large stones ricocheting off whatever is under our car, some hitting the undercarriage so hard we could feel the impact through our feet on the car’s floor. Miraculously we made the drive without any flat tires (and apparently without puncturing the gas tank or whatever other important things reside under the car) and gratefully pulled on to smooth Ruta 3. After two days hard driving along the coast we arrived at our next destination, Punta Tombo.

Magellenic Penguin stretching his wings at Punta Tombo Provincial Preserve

Punta Tombo is home to the world’s second largest colony of Magellenic Penguins. Between September and April thousands of penguins arrive to lay eggs and hatch their young. The penguins dig nests in the gravelly dirt and protect their eggs as a couple, occasionally taking turns to waddle down to the water to fish. These little guys may be some of the cutest animals I have ever seen. They seem quite unperturbed by people walking next to their nests, and some will walk right by you like they don’t even see you (kind of like being in high school). While penguins are awkward on land, flopping down on their white bellies to bask in the sun or slowly making their way up from the beach, once they hit the water they turn in to sweet swimming torpedos. We wandered among their nests for several hours before hitting the road again. As we get closer to our final destination of Buenos Aires, the long hours in the car seem to get more tiresome. We plan to relax in the beach resorts just south of Buenos Aires for a week or so before hitting the big city.

The End

Here ends Route 3: Buenos Aires 3,079 km, Alaska 17,848 km

Well, the end of the road, not exactly the end of the trip. At 1:27 pm on October 23, 2009, we reached the very end of the road in the most southern city in the world. We were joined by our friends Tom and Kelsey, who we met on the road in Mexico over a year ago, for a celebratory picnic. We toasted this milestone in our trips with a bottle of red wine from a Patagonian vineyard and shivered as the winds picked up. Tierra del Fuego National Park in the springtime isn’t exactly the warmest place for a picnic, but we were buoyed by our accomplishment. We finally called it quits when it started to drizzle and headed back to the heat and comfort of our bed and breakfast.


Looking for El Glaciar Martial

Deciding to brave the falling snow the next day, we hiked into the mountains around Ushuaia to visit the Martial Glacier. While the surrounding mountains were beautiful and the sun managed to peek through the swirling clouds, we’re not sure we saw the glacier (or maybe we were walking on it). It’s not a large glacier and has receeded significantly in the last century so apparently it’s easy to miss. We amused ourselves by sledding down the steep glacial mountainsides and enjoyed the stunning views over the Bay of Ushuaia.

Faro Les Eclaireures

We also took a 4 hour boat tour of the islands of the Beagle Canal that separates Argentinian Tierra del Fuego from Chilean islands to the south. Shortly after our boat left the port I started to have flashbacks to our fateful voyage from Panama to Colombia. The waves were crazily rocking the boat as they splashed over the hull, but luckily we made enough stops near islands (and areas of relatively calm water) that my stomach had a couple of chances to calm down. We first circled around the Faro (Lighthouse) Les Eclaireurs. Built in 1919, this lighthouse is considered a symbol of the city of Ushuaia. Nearby we floated next to Isla de los Lobos (Wolf Island), a small island covered with South American Sea Lions. I think it’s interesting that the animals we call sea lions are called sea wolves in Spanish. Isla de los Pájaros (Bird Island) was covered with nesting cormorants who were busy flying to and from the island carrying moss and sticks to construct their nests.

Cormorants nesting on cleverly named Bird Island

Lastly we took a quick walk on Bridge Island. We first stopped by the remnants of a shell midden, the home structure of the original people of Tierra del Fuego. The Yamana may be the most hard-core people who have ever inhabited the earth. Here I was, clad in Gortex and fleece, and I was shaking from the cold and wind. The Yamana did not wear clothes – ever. They kept warm by huddling in a crouching position around fires and by smearing themselves with sea lion grease. Apparently they evolved to have a higher metabolism than other humans so they didn’t need clothes to keep them warm even in sub-freezing temperatures. The women actually swam in the frigid oceans surrounding Tierra del Fuego to hunt for shellfish. They could survive sleeping outside without shelter because of their biologically unique adaptation. Of course their contact with European explorers was disastrous and the last full blood Yamana person, Cristina Calderon, is 95. She is also the last person who speaks the Yamana language. We took a quick hike around the island before bundling back on the ship to take shelter from the biting winds.

Sea lions warming up after a cold dip in the water

Now that we’ve reached the end of the road, we are headed back to Buenos Aires where we will finish our trip. For the first time in fourteen months, we are actually headed towards home, and it kind of feels nice.