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Iguaçu, Iguazú, let’s call the whole thing awesome

Posted by Jason del Sur in South America 2012
March 29th, 2012

Wednesday 21 March

Niagra, you suck. Well, at least when compared to the Iguazú. Spelled Iguaçu in Portuguese and Iguazú in Spanish, the falls happen on the Iguazu river forming a border between Brazil and Argentina. Both sides have have their view of the falls (poor Paraguay is so close, but doesn’t get the falls).

I found the two sides to be very complementary. The Brazilian side offers great panoramic view of the falls while the Argentinian side you get up close and personal (and wet).

I arrived into Foz do Iguaçu (the town on the Brazilian side) on Wednesday early afternoon. I ran into a friend from Rio on the bus who was staying at the same hostel. The directions the hostel gave were not particularly great (or accurate), so it was definitely helpful having someone who knew where they were going. After checking in, the weather was overcast and the clouds portended rain. But my time was limited, so I decided to risk it. It never rained that day (or if it did, it was impossible to distinguish from the mists created by the pounding falls).

The Brazilian park is set up nicely: you take a bus from the park entrance and are dropped off a few meters from the first viewpoint. From that first lookout, the falls are immediately impressive. Tens of small waterfalls cascading from the river above.

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Then you walk along the path and are greeted by even more falls, even more impressive than the first group.

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Finally, you come along to the final location with its view of the immense Garganta de Diablo (Devil’s Throat). You pretty much can’t make it out in the photos because of all the mist, but that’s it around the corner:

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After an hour and a half or so (that’s all you really need for the Brazilian side), I sat down for a beer. Coatis, a relative of racoons, were everywhere. And they want your food. If you have food in a bag, they will bite through your bag. Coati don’t give a shit. One tried to steal my beer and led to me spilling all over myself.

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The next day I moved over to the Argentinian side, but as this post has grown too long, and I’m in need of a nap, I’ll save the rest for later.

Jesús is Watching

Posted by Jason del Sur in South America 2012
March 25th, 2012

Saturday 17 March – Wednesday 21 March

Rio de Janeiro, the city that got the 2016 Olympics over Chicago. After spending several days there, I can confirm that Chicago would have been the much better choice. While the beaches are nice, and there is a good energy to the nightlife, the city is filthy and ridden with crime (we met a Chilean guy who was robbed at knifepoint at 3pm getting off the subway). They don’t even have enough hotels: they’re bringing in cruise ships to fill the void.

Now on to the good stuff.

Leaving at 9:30am from El Calafate and not arriving in Rio until 8pm was not the way I wanted to spend my St. Patrick’s Day. I arrived at my hostel in Lapa, which on first glance is a pretty seedy neighborhood (it’s actually still a dodgy neighborhood even on the 20th glance). It is the place to be on Friday and Saturday nights though. Every weekend there’s a giant street party out by the aqueducts. Plenty of streetmeat, cheap beers, and music.

Lapa Street Party  Lapa Street Party

I found an Irish bar, but it was over capacity and the local beer was too cheap and easy to come by, so I forwent the Guinness. Victoria and I went to the Irish bar a couple days later only to discover too late that a pint runs for R$25, or approximately $12, making it the most expensive Guinness I’ve ever consumed. At least it was poured correctly, even if it tasted a little funny.

Around 2am I headed to bed, but I could still hear the party on into the early morning.

Victoria had arrived late, so we met up in the morning. We decided to spend the day wandering. Walking through Lapa on a Sunday morning was a very different experience than the night before. The area was dead, most of the business shuttered for the day. It definitely did not feel like the safest area, even though the previous night I felt very secure with plenty of people and police around. Once we reached the water, it was a different world. There is a great running path (it reminds me a lot of our lakefront path in Chicago) and there were plenty of people out enjoying the beautiful weather.

I believe we walked close to 10km that day. We just kept going and finally arrived at Copacabana (I had three songs stuck in my head the entire time I was in Rio: Copacabana, Girl from Impenema, and LMFAO’s Sexy and I Know It). I had expected to be blown away by beautiful Brazilian women in tiny bikinis. While they did exist in small numbers, we were greeted primarily by fat hairy men in speedos. Even people who arrived in board shorts would have speedos on underneath. Rio should have disqualified from the Olympic bid on men’s beach attire alone.

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The next day we journeyed to Corcovado, the site of the iconic Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) overlooking the city. You can see it from many areas of the city, at least when He’s not hidden behind the clouds. I would guess the Brazilians are much more likely to sin on rainy days. We took a tram ride to the top, and wandered around the monument. From atop Corcovado, Rio is indeed a beautiful city curving around the beach and giant hills jutting up. From here you don’t see the grime and crime and permeates the city from within.

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Sometimes it feels like Jesus is watching over me. But mostly when in Rio on clear days.

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Our third day was beach day. I was sunburnt from the first day, so we opted to wander through Centro for the morning. It’s a strange area. Parts of it seem like a normal downtown, but then you turn off one street and you feel like you’re in a Chinatown. Shops full of junk everywhere, flags draping across the street. Just no Chinese characters. Also, lots of churches.

After enough of that, we took the bus to Impenima, and just relaxed for the day on the beach. The water was surprising cold, but pleasant. There were some very large waves, but they broke only a few meters from shore making them useless for surfing but excellent for swimming.

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Unfortunately, I can’t say Rio is one of my favorite cities I’ve ever visited. If you stick to the beaches and Lapa on the weekend, you’ll definitely enjoy yourself. But once you broach the underbelly, it’s a place you feel like you’re constantly having to be on your guard.

Since being in Rio, I’ve had three songs stuck in my my head: Copacabana, Girl from
Impanema, and LMFAO sexy and I know it.#toomanyspeedos
— Twitter. March 19, 2012

I was just checking the temp back in Chicago and saw 11. I was all, SUCKERS! then I remembered I was set to Celsius.
— Twitter. March 6, 2012

 

A Storm of Swear Words

Posted by Jason del Sur in South America 2012
March 21st, 2012

Thursday 15 March

El Chaltén– aka Hippyville, Argentina (we seriously saw a hippy playing bagpipes for money on the street), aka Howdothestoresnothavecrispstown– is the starting point for many a supposedly wonderful hike. We had just climbed straight up a wall made of ice, a little hiking should be no problem. We woke up on Thursday morning with a grand plan of a twelve hour trek including both Laguna de los Tres and Laguna Torre. We packed our lunch and started out on the trail. It was a cooler morning, slightly overcast. As we began, a slight drizzle began coming and going. Victoria and I were determined, so we pushed on. The sun constantly teased us, peaking out from behind the clouds for 10 minutes. I still don’t quite understand this, but there were moments were it was both sunny and raining at the same time.

We were greeted by several quite pleasant rainbows. It was the just before St. Patrick’s day, but I’m not sure the leprechauns hang out in Argentina, so our pot of gold was not to be found.

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After about 4 hours of hiking we reached the shelter before the ascent to Laguna de los Tres. The rain had grown heavier, but we had made it that far so we had no choice but to power through. It was about two hours up a nearly forty-five degree incline. Wetter and wetter we became. I didn’t wear waterproof pants and the rain had soaked through my pants into my long underwear. My legs were surprisingly not that cold: it was like wearing a wetsuit.

We cursed our friends back home in Chicago with their 70 degree sunshine. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. I had come to South America to escape the Chicago winter, and instead we were hiking in a a trifecta of rain, wind, and snow while Chicago lounged on the beach in March.

At the top we were greeted by a tremendous view of Laguna de los Tres, a small lake in the middle of the mountains, a small glacier slowly approaching the edge of the lake.

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Unfortunately, an icy wintery mix was falling, the wind was blowing, and the fog hung over many of the mountains so we didn’t hang out up top for long. The trek down was steep and arduous. By the time we reached the bottom my knees felt like jelly, the moisture in my long underwear had seeped down into my socks. The squishiness in my boots made the way down feel even longer.

We ate a quick bite and continued on our way. A part of me still wanted to try to make it to Laguna Torre, but my wet feet quickly dissuaded me that another 6 hours of hiking would be far too uncomfortable. We did take the long way home, and the sun finally escaped from behind the clouds, and the temperature gre quite pleasant, but it was not enough.

Somehow El Chaltén had gotten farther away. As we crossed hill after hill Victoria and I were convinced that the town had up and disappeared in our absence. After a total of about eight hours of hiking we finally made our way home. We stopped for dinner at the wonderful Fonda Ahonikenk restaraunt (I highly recommend it to anyone staying in El Chaltén). There we discovered the best way to serve wine: out of a penguin-shaped decanter. The wine flows straight from the penguin’s mouth. I truly hope Victoria can find them in Buenos Aires when she returns there, because the joy they brought her dissolved much of our stress from the previous hours.

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A Clash of Crampons

Posted by Jason del Sur in South America 2012
March 19th, 2012

Tuesday 13 March – Thursday15 March

Why did no one ever tell me I was awesome at ice climbing? I feel like I missed my calling in life.

The day after our excursion to Perito Moreno, we rented a car to drive up to El Chaltén. Victoria and I were joined by our new friend Kelly, a geography teacher from Montana on sabbatical for 3 months. He was originally going to extend his stay in El Calafate, but the hostel was full, so he hitched a ride with us.

I’ve been over six months without a car, so driving was quite the treat for me. With a wide open road and a full tank of gas we headed on our way. The last hour with Corre Fitz Roy directly ahead of us was some of the most spectacular driving I’ve done.

Driving from El Calafate to El Chaltén

After checking into our new hostel, Victoria and I went on a small hike on one of the myriad trails around El Chalén. We made our way to Laguna Capri, a nice little lake about two hours from town.

Laguna Capri

We had another early morning when we hopped on the bus for our next excursion: ice climbing on Viedma Glacier. The glacier itself does not seem as impressive as Perito Moreno because it’s lake-face is not as wide, it is actually the largest glacier in Argentina. It also exhibits a completely different feel in the terrain with deeper and steeper valleys that you can actually walk through.

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With our crampons on, we trekked to a nice wall where we would do our climbing. We waited about 20 minutes as the guides secured the ropes at the top of the wall. After some brief instruction on proper technique we were ready to begin. Our guide had made it look so easy, one pick, two pick, foot up, foot up, foot out, foot out in a nice smooth rhythm. The people climbing before me were anything but. The biggest mistake many people made is to try to use the inside of your foot to scurry up. Crampons don’t work that way. The only way to get a good grip is to kick in with your toes and put your heels down so the other points dig in. Also, you have to trust your equipment.

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I think it might have been the watching and learning from others’ mistakes, but it just felt natural to me. There were a few times where I had trouble getting a good footgrip or pulling out the axe hit me in the helmet (is that Freudian? I don’t know). Also, my rock climbing experience has taught me to use your legs as much as possible. My triceps got a workout from swinging the axes, but I really only had to use my biceps to hold myself when going past an overhang.

Overall, it’s definitely something I’d like to do again; if only there were somewhere in Chicago with a giant ice wall. We had a short lunch and did a couple more climbs.

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Then we went for another glacier hike. As I said, it was very different than the other glacier. It was almost like a mini mountain range made of ice. Near the edge where the glacier meets the rock, we found a sweet cave to explore. The blue glow from the ice above
is something unreal. After our mini-spelunking we hiked a little further over the rocks to get a spectacular view of the face of the glacier.

There we relaxed in the sun and were treated to an adult beverage. Baileys on the rocks, where as now seems normal, the rocks were chipped from the glacier.

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A Song of Ice and Ice

Posted by Jason del Sur in South America 2012
March 18th, 2012

Sunday 11 March – Monday 12 March

For a week in Buenos Aires I had woken up each morning covered in sweat from the 27 degree heat and no air conditioning (I pretty much operate in metric now). Now it was time to move south into Patagonia. After my brutally early (or late if you count from the previous night) flight from Buenos Aires I arrived at the El Calafate airport. It was a brisk 8 degrees (oddly, still cooler than Chicago was that day) and I was forced to extract my jacket from my pack.

For there being so little civilization around, the airport is surprising far from the main town. The landscape in Patagonia is surprisingly barren and brown. The rocky snow-covered peaks in the distance break up the horizon. As you approach the town the shining blue Lago Argentina adds some much needed color to the ground.

My taxi dropped me off at Hospedaje Lautaro just in time for breakfast. Over some cereal and toast with dulce de leche I met up with my Chicago friend Victoria, who I’ll be hanging out with for about a week and a half in Patagonia and on into Brazil. It began raining shortly thereafter. I was exhausted from not sleeping the previous night, and Victoria had also had a long day of travel from Ushuaia, so we agreed to just have a nice lazy Sunday and get all of our activities planned for the next week.

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Our first excursion was to Perito Moreno glacier about an hour outside of town. The glacier flows down from the giant ice field from which over 30 glaciers are born. This one courses its way down right into Lago Argentino, where it meets the lake in a giant cliff 4 kilometers wide and 240 meters above the surface of the lake (there’s another 174 meters below the surface). It’s one of the most impressive sights I’ve ever beheld. The sounds are also amazing. While we only saw one or two pieces fall into the water, we would constantly hear loud crashes as chunks collapsed.

At its center, Perito Moreno moves 2 meters per day. Every few years it reaches the opposite side of the lake and touches the rock of the shore. When this happens, it creates a natural dam, and the west side of the lake slowly grows deeper. The pressure eats away at the glacier and creates an arch in the glacier. The arch gets larger until it can no longer support its own weight and it collapses. This had happened one week before we got there. It happened at about 4am, so very few people were around to see it.

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We then took a boat ride to the side of the glacier where we donned crampons and began a four hour walk on the ice. It’s fascinating how many different terrains exist. Some areas are smooth and rolling hills, while others are jagged and full of crevasses. Streams of icemelt flow through the icehills. We found larger stream rushing through the ice at a speed similar to a waterslide. At the end, the river fell into a hole at least 30 meters deep and of the deepest blue. The water is pure and perfectly potable, so many of us enjoyed refilling our water bottles from the streams.

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At the end of our hike, we returned to our boat where we were greeted to Jameson on the rocks. Those rocks, of course, were chopped up glacier chunks.

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